Every year, roughly 60,000 trees are cut worldwide to produce about 15 billion wooden pencils. So what if instead of throwing out old pencil stubs in the garbage, you could actually grow a tree back?
Introducing: Sprout. It’s a line of eco-friendly pencils that have water-activated seed capsules instead of an eraser.
Once you’re done using it, you can just stick it in a flower pot, water, and watch it grow. And while the seeds do not include cedar trees (the type used to make pencils), they do come in different herbs and veggies, such as basil, tomatoes, and rosemary.
We recently spoke to Michael Stausholm, CEO and founder of Sprout, and found out more about their green initiatives.
How did the idea for Sprout come along?
“The idea came from a group of MIT students who got the task ‘develop the sustainable office article of the future’. They picked the pencil because it is a traditional office tool and because they liked the ‘back to nature’ air about it.
“They provided the pencil with a cellulose capsule in the end instead of an eraser and put soil and seeds in it. When you plant it in soil and water it, the capsule will dissolve within 24 hours and the seeds will start to sprout.
“The whole idea with the Sprout pencil is that you write it down and then plant it instead of throwing it out. This way it shows what sustainability can look like.”
You partnered up with MIT students to develop the eco-pencils back in 2012. What were the challenges in creating the product?
“I saw the pencil on Kickstarter and really liked the idea. I then got in touch with the students and we agreed that I got the right to produce, sell and distribute in Europe. Then I founded Sprout. In 2014 I bought all the patents and rights from the students and today I am the main shareholder of Sprout. We sell to over 60 countries and have offices in both Denmark and the US.
“The challenge in creating the product was mainly in the production. The pencils are hand assembled – we still have not invented a robot that can do the job as good as human hands. But, of course, it makes the production more costly. Also finding the right kind of FSC-certified (sustainably harvested) wood has been a challenge, but it is very important that we are sustainable both in our products and in the way we produce them.”
You launched a Kickstarter campaign too and it was largely successful. Did you expect it to be that popular? How did it feel after you raised well beyond your funding goal?
“It was actually the MIT students who did the Kickstarter campaign. And yes it was very successful and totally exceeded our expectations. In just 30 days more than 2000 people had invested 40,000 dollars in the project, which felt great and was a sign that the interest and the demand for such as product existed.”
How do you see Sprout’s pencils changing consumer mindsets when it comes to eco-friendly practices?
“We hope that the Sprout pencils will encourage consumers to be more conscious about how and what they buy. And that they are a reminder of that we all can try to minimise waste. We know that a plantable pencil cannot save the planet but we hope to inspire people towards a more sustainable mindset.”
And finally, what’s your best advice to other entrepreneurs who want to get into startups focused on saving the environment?
“First of all, the sustainable business has to not only be sustainable but also a business. Unfortunately, I see many green startups with beautiful ideas and visions but they are struggling to make money out of them. Which means that they shut down before they become successful.
“My advice is to hire a skilled business person or partner with someone who knows how to grow a business if you don´t have these skills yourself. In general I always advise to make a great effort in setting the right team. It is very important to be surrounded by people with the right mindset because being a startup, there can be lots of tasks that require flexibility.
“Another [piece of] advice is: start taking tiny steps. You cannot meet your sustainability goals 100 per cent from the beginning. Be open about where you want to end up and what you are still missing to get there.”