Shujand Bertrand of Àplat: “Don’t always reach for the easy solution”

Before buying something, always ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Try to consume less and be aware of the true cost of what you are buying. If you buy a bottle of water to quench your thirst, you are responsible for that bottle for the next 1,000 years — the time it takes to biodegrade. Can […]

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Before buying something, always ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Try to consume less and be aware of the true cost of what you are buying. If you buy a bottle of water to quench your thirst, you are responsible for that bottle for the next 1,000 years — the time it takes to biodegrade. Can your thirst wait until you get home?

As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shujand Bertrand.

Industrial designer and mom-entrepreneur, Shujan Bertrand is the founder of Aplat Inc., a culinary design collection that celebrates the moment of sharing food, wine, and flowers for an everyday zero-waste lifestyle. Aplat is inspired by the French “art de vivre” and the intersection of her family life in San Francisco and France. She created the Aplat Design Collection in homage to her lifestyle, which involves daily rituals of sharing homemade food and wine with family and friends.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am an industrial designer in San Francisco. During my career, I’ve designed products for lifestyle brands and consumer electronic goods, such as bags, furniture, sports apparel and equipment, home appliances, cars, and advance future product development. When my first child was born in 2006, she was immunocompromised for the first six months of her life. As a new mother, my design focus suddenly shifted to health and wellness products. In order to improve her health, we had to remove all products with chemicals and dyes from the home and our diet.

When I was researching how to create a clean, non-toxic home environment, I fell in love with the book In Our Every Deliberation, written by the CEO of Seventh Generation, Jeffrey Hollender. It introduced me to the idea of corporate responsibility regarding sustainability and clean manufacturing. I began steering the designs and brands I worked with toward creating cleaner solutions. From that point on, I decided to stop designing plastic- and metal-based consumer electronic products and focus on natural-made and wellness products.

This led me to become the design director for soft goods at Incase, the bag company for Apple. I designed laptop bags and helped launch the first iPad collection by Incase. Intuitively, I was slowly leading myself further and further away from technology and closer to sustainability and zero waste design and manufacturing.

The roots of Aplat, which I founded in 2015, came from our family life in Europe, where my French husband, Blaise, and I had previously worked and lived. In Europe I experienced the l’art de vivre (the art of living), which fueled my desire to simplify how we consume and how we produce waste at home. Blaise’s family’s garden-to-table home taught me how to grow what we eat and make things from scratch, like bread and wine. Returning to the Bay Area, I longed for this same mindset, which eventually developed into my personal family goal as well as the goal of my business: zero-waste living.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Aplat is a culinary design company that makes products centered around sharing food, wine, and flowers. We follow a 360-degree, circular business model dedicated to producing zero pre- and post-consumer waste.

All our products — dish totes, wine totes, bouquet bags, bread bags — are made from 100% organic cotton and salvaged denim. Which means that at the end of their useful life, you can simply compost them. But this alone doesn’t mean a product is zero waste.

When people think of zero waste, they often focus on post-consumer waste, all the things we put in our recycling bin: milk cartons, wine bottles, food packaging, cardboard. Rarely do consumers consider pre-consumer waste: the waste generated before the products find their way into their homes. Why would they? It’s hidden from them. But the amount of pre-consumer waste generated each year is far greater than post-consumer waste. This is unsustainable.

In the manufacturing of clothing and soft goods, 30–40% of the fabric is wasted. That means that when the material for a shirt or a tote bag is cut, only 60–70% of the material is used. The rest is thrown out. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Aplat products are sustainably manufactured in three factories located in San Francisco. As they are being cut and sewn, every inch of the fabric is used.

Aplat is motivated not only to provide consumers well-designed and well-engineered products that provide healthy solutions and are kind to the planet, but also to serve as a model for other businesses to understand that they too can reduce the pre-consumer waste they generate and inspire real change.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Aplat’s products are designed using origami principles. We are driven by the question, How can we practice smart design by using the same product to make multiple products. How can we design cut-patterns on a bolt of fabric so that every inch of the fabric is used, leaving nothing for the landfill? It’s a puzzle of straight lines. The patterns for our products have to align on the fabric following straight lines, because as soon as you have a curve or an odd shape, the negative space becomes fabric waste. I’ve created an origami design practice that leads me to extremely minimal and simple geometric forms.

I also engineer the designs to be free of metal, plastic, and elastic. Instead of an elastic band to secure the bowl cover in place or an elastic ear loop on a face mask, we use a cotton draw cord. Elastic is one of the most toxic products we produce on the planet, and it does not withstand wash and dry cycles like cotton does. Synthetic clothing that is stretchy or sweat-resistant contains harmful chemicals; we really shouldn’t have these toxic substances touching our face, body, or food. Cotton is not only more responsible to use but also lasts ten times longer. Because we use only natural materials, when a face mask is no longer usable, instead of worrying about what to do with it, you can just compost it. Because it’s made of 100% organic cotton, it will biodegrade in less than three months.

The Aplat bowl and pan covers, because they are round, do not consume 100% of the fabric like the other designs do. The resulting geometric off-cuts are the genesis for our line of party flags. We take these small squares and triangle pieces and sew them into zero-waste party garland, which is quite popular among kids for party decor. These too are reusable and biodegradable.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

There is money to be saved in the waste businesses produce. I am speaking specifically about the cut-and-sew industry (clothing and soft goods), the industry I am familiar with. Consider a product made with material that is 10 dollars a yard. If you have 10,000 yards and 40% of that is waste, 40,000 dollars is being lost.

What options are there? The business could reengineer the pattern to produce less waste. They could design a new product that is manufactured using the waste. They could sell the waste to a company looking for similar material to manufacture their products. They can also donate it to an upcycling company, which repurposes that material into other products like insulation. Meanwhile, you’re saving your company money, you’re saving the planet from waste, and you’re saving the factory from having to manage and pay for the waste to be removed.

Extrapolating the math beyond this example, imagine how much fabric waste is being ignored daily in each cut-and-sew factory around the world — and how much profit is being lost as well.

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

1. See the labor and love that goes into what you consume. My 10 and 14-year-olds understand that everything — whether a food item from the grocery story, a piece of clothing, or a mundane object — was made by someone using some kind of material that comes from some place, and after you are through with it, it will go someplace else. This awareness should guide everything you choose to consume and discard.

2. Understand that reducing your waste is only half of the story. I have taught my children that you not only have to be cognizant of the waste you produce but also the waste generated by the product before it reaches your hands.

3. Don’t always reach for the easy solution. My family is in the process of converting our backyard into a xeriscape garden with plants that nurture and feed honeybees, butterflies, and birds. During the process we have learned about a free municipal mulch and soil program. Instead of doing the easy, obvious thing — buying dirt from a big-box store — we pick up this free mulch, which is essentially ground up trees and leaves from around the city. It’s clear what the better solution is here. There are always alternatives. Look for them.

4. Think about a product’s afterlife.

When we no longer have a use for a product and it’s still in good shape, we consider how to donate it or repurpose it. All our children’s products — clothing, books, toys — are passed on to friends and family or donated to shelters. It’s important to take care of the products we use so they can live on with others. Product shouldn’t be thrown away.

5. Before buying something, always ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Try to consume less and be aware of the true cost of what you are buying. If you buy a bottle of water to quench your thirst, you are responsible for that bottle for the next 1,000 years — the time it takes to biodegrade. Can your thirst wait until you get home?

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. To take a business and finance course when I was in school. I wasn’t prepared for how much I would be responsible for business and financial matters. Costing, budgeting, banking, cost-of-goods spreadsheets — these are all a part of running any business.

2. That being sustainable business is harder. It takes a lot more strategic planning to develop a zero-waste design-led company. More commitment, time, and problem-solving to find ecological solutions.

3. You need bandwidth for marketing and social media. In today’s world, these are the currency to growing a brand and reaching customers.

4. The importance of relationships. Aplat wouldn’t be possible without the trust and loyalty of the factory owners and workers. When everything was shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic, Aplat pivoted to making masks. The factory owners took the risk of privately opening their factories to produce Aplat masks with me simply because I’ve built a trusting and loyal relationship with them over the past five years.

5. With a zero-waste model, you must stay close of the process. Zero waste requires an extra step from the manufacturer. You can’t always expect people will understand your goals. This is where building trust with the factories is important and not taking them for granted. You need to nurture these relationships, collaborate, and appreciate them for their hard work.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I couldn’t have achieved everything I have without my husband and children. We share the same core principles that are not only the foundation of my business but also our family. My husband is constantly mirroring these principles in day-to-day life. It really helps to have a partner to help me raise the family and my business following such consistency. I most value my relationships with those who showed kindness and respect during the company’s start-up years and yet again during the pandemic, when I’ve come to reaffirm those I trust most.

But I can’t answer this question without recognizing Min, my best friend and roommate from university who has been invaluable in helping me build and sustain my business. She has the all-important job of managing everything digital. I couldn’t do it alone. She has taken this aspect of the business and made it thrive. Without her, I wouldn’t have a coherent online brand message and ecommerce platform.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire people to look at how cleanly and simply brands are sourcing material and how and where they are manufacturing their goods. The cleaner and the simpler, the better for our planet. I really want to inspire people to live, make food, and eat closer with nature. And I’d like to inspire giving gifts from nature: food, wine, flowers. From farm to fiber to factory to table.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Keep it simple.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

Please come find us on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest. We’d love to hear your stories of food and friends!

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