Protecting the Great Outdoors:
The Future of Sustainable Plastic Furniture from Loll Designs
Duluth-based Loll Designs uses post-consumer plastic – that is, plastic that has been diverted or recovered from a landfill – to make high-quality, durable outdoor furniture. Loll’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond their use of recycled materials – they participate in an annual creek clean-up in their community, they are Cradle to Cradle certified, and they even recycle 85% of the waste they produce. We spoke with Greg Benson, Loll’s CEO and an avid outdoorsman, to find out more about how Loll has incorporated their passion for and commitment to environmental sustainability into their business model.
Loll is the brainchild of Greg, his brother Dave, and their friend Tony, who all grew up in Bloomington, MN – a suburb of Minneapolis – and started building skateboard ramps and parks in 1997 with their company, TrueRide. Their ten-year experience in building over 400 custom skateboard parks across the United States using recycled post-industrial plastic built the foundation for experimenting with furniture manufacturing.
Greg, experienced in creating designs from scratch, dreamed up the Loll Adirondack chair, inspired by his love of the outdoors and the joy found in sitting on the deck enjoying a cold beer after a day of hard work. He found that people responded well to it, explaining “I had no experience making furniture or with the outdoor furniture industry. We made these products that people liked, and I started to present them for sale to the market and we had good reception. They were unique because we weren’t copying anyone, we were just doing it the way we knew how to do it.” Greg credits their enthusiastic naivete and a bit of luck to their early success, saying “the outdoor furniture industry left the back door open and we walked in and were standing in the kitchen.”
The Modern Lollygagger
Named for a synonym of “relax,” Loll, like Greg, is decidedly laid back yet ambitious. The modern lollygagger, then, is someone Greg describes as “loosely tight” – that is, someone who “likes to be outside, someone who likes design, and someone who is willing to appreciate what goes into that [design], from the sustainability to the durability and aesthetic.” While “lollygagger” often conjures up the notion of someone who’s lazy, they’ve tweaked their definition to someone who “plays hard and relaxes hard.”
Challenges and Commitments
While the material they use – a 4’x8’ sheet of recycled plastic – is more challenging to work with than virgin plastic and certainly more expensive, it’s important to Loll that their practices are environmentally sustainable. And that means considering everything from the materials they use, to the way they treat their employees, to the community and environmental efforts they’re involved in.
“That stuff is just fun,” Greg told us. “It’s our community here so we’re trying to make it a better place to live.” Loll also donates 1% of the gross sales from all of the pieces in their Lollygagger collection to charitable groups. They even capture the heat from their manufacturing processes to warm their facilities. All of this has led to their certification with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, an organization that provides assessments to designers and manufacturers to ensure their products and company practices are sustainable based on five categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. A rigorous process, Loll Designs was certified an overall Silver rating for 84% of their products.
The recycled plastic they use to make their chairs and tables is purchased in 10,000-pound lots – which is one of the reasons why it becomes so challenging for new companies to use post-consumer plastic in their products. The plastic sheets from which their furniture is cut are made from recycled milk jugs – about 400 milk jugs go into making each chair, for example.
Since 2005, Loll has recycled more than 120 million milk jugs in making their furniture. Even the fastening system they’ve designed for assembling their furniture is made from the plastic left over after each piece is cut out, which allows them to maximize their use of material and flat pack their furniture for easier shipping. Greg explains that the cost and hurdles associated with the way they choose to make their products is, to him, the only option, as avoiding the generation of more waste is key to their operations.
The Bob Dylan quote, “If it’s not right, it’s wrong,” is what guides their approach. With this in mind, Loll created an end-of-life program, whereby they take back product from customers to recycle it in an industrial process, ensuring that the pieces they produce aren’t adding to the build-up of plastic waste we’re facing today. “In some ways I think it’s created a good name for us,” he explains. “It’s part of our story and it’s authentic.”
Loll is more than just their design or materials. Their philosophy and company culture are as important to them as the pieces they produce. Approaching their business and their furniture holistically, with not only environmental sustainability but also social responsibility in mind is what makes Loll so unique. Greg explains, “We have 70 employees, we have good benefits, we pay much higher than the minimum wage, and to me that’s part of the design in a way. There’s so much to it that just designing in a vacuum doesn’t work.”