John Stein of Kirei: “Start climate change education at a young age”

Start climate change education at a young age: There are so many resources out there — books, apps, interactive games, podcasts, movies, tv shows, the list goes on. There really is no excuse for a child to ‘miss out’ on learning about climate change, sustainability, and the importance of looking after our planet. This is an important […]

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Start climate change education at a young age: There are so many resources out there — books, apps, interactive games, podcasts, movies, tv shows, the list goes on. There really is no excuse for a child to ‘miss out’ on learning about climate change, sustainability, and the importance of looking after our planet. This is an important part of ‘myth busting’ the stereotypes about the environment — that it’s expensive, difficult, or not ‘cool’ to be sustainable.


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

John Stein is the owner and president of Kirei, a provider of innovative materials that are visually interesting, functional and environmentally friendly. Driven by its mission “Do Well By Doing Good”, Kirei has consistently provided materials that are as low-impact to the environment as possible since its founding in 2002.

Since 2002, Kirei has brought beautiful, sustainable and functional design elements to interior designers, architects and end-users across North America. Kirei continues its mission to “Inspire a Beautiful World” through a design ethos based on elegant and sustainable design. To date, that intrepid focus has resulted in diverting over 250 million plastic bottles from landfills, giving each bottle renewed purpose as a new design material. This mission has also provided designers with unique products and acoustic solutions to help design great spaces to live, work and play. As such, Kirei distributes EchoPanel and AKUART, decorative and functional designer acoustic products that give designers the visual and acoustic tools to create productive, healthy interiors.


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 originally come from a marketing background, but I’ve also always had a great interest in sustainability and eco-friendly design products. When a friend showed me the original Kirei Board, developed in Japan, I was intrigued by the material and the idea of reusing a waste material for beauty and function. Then, I began hearing from designers that they needed acoustic solutions to the new problems created by the open office and open design style that had become so popular. I found EchoPanel, developed by Woven Image and which had been on the market in Asia and Australia, but not here in the US. At the time, acoustic design materials generally did not have much aesthetic property, so the ability to have color and design flexibility was a real plus — along with the recycled content and zero VOC nature of the material itself.

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

When I founded Kirei — a provider of innovative eco-friendly design materials for commercial interiors — I was driven to create a company underscored by the mission of “Do Well By Doing Good,” both in regards to my business and planet Earth. As a product manufacturing entrepreneur working within the built environment sector, we work closely with architects and designers to create supportive, human-driven environments that will enhance the planet, and the buildings that we reside in — not leave it in a more desperate or vulnerable state.

Since 2002, Kirei has brought beautiful, sustainable and functional design elements to interior designers, architects and end-users across North America. Kirei continues its mission to “Inspire a Beautiful World” through a design ethos based on elegant and sustainable design. ‘Kirei’ is the Japanese character signifying beauty. We chose this name because its multiple meanings — “beauty,” “purity,” and “truth” — reflect our dedication to, and respect for, our ecosystem. Since Kirei’s inception, we’ve made it a core promise to create products that are responsibly sourced, whether it be our Coco Tiles made from reclaimed coconut shells, our sustainably-harvested Kirei Board panels made from waste sorghum, or our EchoPanel acoustic design elements, which have helped rescue over 250 million plastic bottles from landfills (and are recyclable at the end of life). Additionally, using EchoPanel can help commercial design projects qualify for LEED and other green building certifications for low VOC, healthy spaces. A Declared, Red-List Free material, EchoPanel also qualifies for the Living Building Challenge.

The design community’s understanding of the role that acoustically-balanced spaces play in creating healthy environments continues to grow (including how acoustic design elements can, and should, be beautiful). We’re passionate about continuing to build this community that prioritizes the recycled content, zero VOC, and Red List free composition of our Kirei products, which will ultimately leave the world in a better, more ‘green’ place than when we found it.

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?

  1. Prioritizing reclaimed materials: Reclaimed material isn’t a new thing; it’s been used for decades as people continuously discover the value of materials that have had a previous life. While Kirei’s reclaimed coconut shell tiles weren’t originally used as tiles, they did have a previous life protecting the fruit of the coconut tree. Reclaimed materials are an eco-friendly alternative to new resources. Using something that already exists, rather than producing something new, helps cut down on waste and energy usage.
  2. Making ‘green’ mainstream: At Kirei, we believe that green can be beautiful, and beautiful, functional spaces can be green. We believe that acoustics can also be simple — with a little education, people will realize acoustics are a huge benefit — not to be feared, or thought of as a pain point. Our EchoPanel products exemplify this mission — a decorative, acoustically-absorbent panel with a felt-like finish that is made from 100% PET plastic containing at least 60% post-consumer content. It is a low-VOC material, meeting requirements for LEED and other green building certifications. Before EchoPanel came along, Kirei’s Coco Tiles, made from reclaimed coconut shells, helped pave the way for a new era of sustainable acoustic design.
  3. Minimizing waste during manufacturing: At Kirei, our goal is to utilize as much of our own manufacturing waste as possible by utilizing scraps for sampling or other product design.
  4. Changing the narrative: There’s a common misconception that green is expensive, and that having an acoustically-balanced space is expensive; we believe that people should ask, what’s the cost of not being green, of not getting the sound right in a space? Far too often, acoustics are put off until the end of the design process, or cut due to value engineering (VE). Hopefully, in the future, this will be less common.
  5. Getting back via profits: Kirei is a member of 1% for the Planet, an international organization whose members contribute at least one percent of their annual sales to environmental causes. Returning to our lands and people through charitable giving aligns with our mission of “doing well by doing good”. We’ve asked our employees to select a cause near to their hearts, with a portion of our revenue donated to those causes.

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?

It may sound obvious, but too many businesses overlook the desire of customers to live more sustainable lives, and that they’re happy to pay a premium for doing so. For example, in the last decade or so, many hotels have discovered that their clientele would pay more for more sustainable practices. Profit and progress!

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. Start climate change education at a young age: There are so many resources out there — books, apps, interactive games, podcasts, movies, tv shows, the list goes on. There really is no excuse for a child to ‘miss out’ on learning about climate change, sustainability, and the importance of looking after our planet. This is an important part of ‘myth busting’ the stereotypes about the environment — that it’s expensive, difficult, or not ‘cool’ to be sustainable.
  2. Volunteering: Having a child take part in environmental volunteering — alongside peers or parents — is a great way to ‘learn in action’. This also helps teach that climate change — and creating a green, sustainable approach to help minimize its effects — is a very real issue that takes a community-centric, collaborative effort.
  3. Sustainability starts in the home: Teach children about the importance of recycling, saving water, and minimizing waste in the home. If everyone prioritized this on the ‘home front,’ the world would currently be a different (more sustainable) place!
  4. Tend to a garden: Tending to a garden is a great way to really get in touch with nature and the environment. Having a garden (either in the backyard, on an apartment balcony, or in the form of a community garden) allows children to ‘live and learn’ how to grow something from scratch. This kind of first-hand experience can only increase a child’s respect for the environment.
  5. Talk about your experience: A recent study suggests that Generation Alpha (the fast-growing demographic of children born after 2010) care more deeply about climate change than any other generation. When surveyed, 95 percent of this sample said they feel strongly about protecting the planet. Climate change is something that they’ve inherited, as a result of previous generations’ actions. When you compare this to the generations before them, this is significant. Parents should reiterate this compelling trend, sharing the extent to which the world has changed, compared to when they were a child — helping to inspire further action.

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

  1. Separation allows success: I used to be the “friendly owner”, not just a colleague but trying to be a friend. I have realized that to allow the company to grow, I have had to elevate out of that role, because you can’t always be a pal to your employees. There has to be at least a little separation — this is what allows a natural company culture to grow without me. It’s then up to me to feed the culture with guiding principles and examples and let each cohort (age, skillset, division or otherwise) take it and make it their own within these guidelines.
  2. Learn how to delegate: As they say, an entrepreneur is someone who works 80 hours a week so they don’t have to work 40 hours. That certainly applied to me. I wanted a flexible schedule, I just didn’t know that meant midnight! I have learned to successfully delegate, and to lead — even in tough times. In a regular job you usually have someone to look to for direction. In my case, the buck stops with me and the team is looking to me for clear direction, which is my obligation to provide. It takes a lot of brave faces in tough times and making time for strategic planning when it can feel easier to just put your head down and work. The main thing I learned is that once you are all-in, you can do it.
  3. Company culture takes work: Our company culture is something we have really only just begun to pay attention to once we grew to over 15 employees. That was the point where it became something to consciously work at rather than something that just happens.
  4. Employee burnout is real: Encouraging employees to have a work-life balance — and creating a supportive environment that facilitates this — is important. Leading by example, I keep my surfboard in my office and if I have been smart about my schedule, and the waves are good, I can go get a few!
  5. Creating a successful business takes determination, but also time: Let’s bust the myth that entrepreneurship happens fast. Sure there are lucky unicorns, but when you drill down, most of those folks have multiple failures under their belt and it’s really hard, incremental growth, testing, failure and learning that creates strong businesses that are built to last. Kirei is an 18 year overnight sensation!

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 was lucky enough to be surrounded by others who inspired me to be ‘just like them.’ My grandfather owned a family business that was started in the 1910s and my uncle Harry was a world traveler when airplanes still had propellers. My grandfather inspired me to own a business and my uncle inspired me to see the world. I also always looked to other people, who were a few years older than me, to see what their lives looked like and then would decide who I did or didn’t want to emulate.

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. 🙂

Dolly Parton has already done it with her “Imagination Library.” Reading has provided a portal to so many worlds — providing so much knowledge and inspiration for me — and to have a chance to inspire others like she has done, by giving the gift of reading, would be amazing.

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

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is “Slow is fast.” By slowing down — by not trying to eat the whole apple at once — you can actually speed up your pace. Just as you can’t swallow a whole apple in one bite, by breaking things down piecemeal and prioritizing and planning, you can move mountains.

The second most valuable piece of advice I’ve received is, “A minute of planning saves an hour of work,” which — although it took me a long time to truly implement — is paying dividends every day for me and my team.

Last of all, “Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems.” Business is an endless roller coaster, and if you allow your emotions to be dragged up and down by every piece of news that crosses your path, you will quickly exhaust yourself. Also, if you pause for a second and let the news sink in and settle down, you often find that the immediate impression is truly neither as amazing nor horrible as you first thought, and you can deal with whatever brutal facts are presenting themselves.

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