Have you ever thought about what happens to your stationery when you’re finished with it? We’re guessing you probably didn’t know that about 14 billion pencils are used globally every year? Or that one tree can yield around 170,000 pencils, which adds up to a staggering 80,000 trees just to meet this annual demand?
We talked to left-handesign, Singapore’s 1st plantable stationery company, about how they sparked a new movement giving a second life to things we might otherwise throw away.
After spending 15 years in advertising and hospitality, Radhika Mayani, not only wanted to design something beautiful but to solve a problem at the same time. Out sprouted the idea to create plantable stationery, as the gift that keeps giving. From plantable notebooks, pencils, gift tags, cards and pens – your stationery can serve its purpose and then transform into a herb plant. Get your hands dirty, but for something good. We chatted to Radhika to find out more.
How left-handesign began?
I love stationary and have always bought a lot as souvenirs when I travel, so my idea started there. Working for over a decade in the hospitality industry, I saw so much waste and one thing that really stuck out for me was that for every conference or meeting, they have newly sharpened pencils for delegates. Once a pencil has been used, even once, they throw it out! That was when I came up with the idea to create stationery that you don’t ever throw away and instead give it a second life. When you are finished with left-handesign pencils or notebooks, you plant them and those seeds will give you herbs, flowers and vegetables. Right now, sell 13 different seeds so far including tomatoes, cilantro and spinach. Everything you need to start your own balcony vegetable patch. The seeds will last for one year in the paper so when you have finished the last page in your notebook, it’s time to give it a second life by planting it. It’s exciting, when you see the seed germinate, you are waiting for it to sprout and enjoying looking after it and discovering the right conditions to help it to thrive.
I feel that stationery is something that people tend to take very lightly and realised our products could be a great way to introduce people to sustainability and the concept of ‘zero-waste’. The first thing you notice about our products is that my love for plants and nature is very evident in the artwork. Then you realise that you are buying much more than a card or gift tag, you are buying an experience. Our products are designed to be attractive to anyone who shares our love of beautiful and unique stationery, and for those who have yet to start their sustainability journey, this is a really great entry point. We built our brand around this idea – to make sustainability accessible and exciting.
There is also a big well-being factor. Planting seeds can help people connect to nature – this is indoor gardening for everyone including beginners. With so many of us living in cities, and especially with people inside so much during the pandemic, I get a lot of great feedback from our customers who are enjoying their newfound love of plants. They often ask us for plant care advice, too.
And kids love them too! They learn about the plant life cycle at school and our plantable products are a way for them to see it in real-time. Our colour pencils are the perfect way to start teaching mini eco-warriors about conscious living.
We’ve been talking about Green Jobs and the green economy a lot recently at GITNB. What did you learn from setting up a green business?
When I started in 2017, there was not much talk about sustainability or green businesses. It felt like we were really navigating new territory and there wasn’t a lot of information out there to get us started. There was no real interest from consumers or investors. At the time, the idea of plantable products was new so it was mostly about creating awareness. The first year was predominately about education and creating demand for products with a green twist. Before we could sell zero waste gifts, we needed to help people understand the problem with waste and inspire them to be part of the solution.
In addition to creating a zero waste product, I wanted to look at the whole business and ensure that we were doing everything as ethically and sustainable as possible, from labour and materials to suppliers. Everything required in-depth research. One of our main challenges was making sure we worked with the right partners – all our products are made in India. It can be difficult when there is a language barrier because that adds a layer to those conversations, especially when you are working with a product that is very new. It took a lot of time to really exactly what we wanted. There were a lot of lessons to learn in the design process as well – a special kind of ink is used that does not damage the seeds in any way. When thinking about artwork and colour palettes, this was something to consider. With our pens and pencils, we wanted to make as much of the product plantable or biodegradable as possible while also ensuring that it functions as well as any other pen or pencil. With the pen, all you have to do is remove the ink refill when you are done, and plant the pen in soil – the pen is completely biodegradable and with daily watering and enough sunlight, it should sprout in 15 days.
Avoiding waste is something that we take very seriously and are always thinking about during every process. An example of where we have cut out something we felt was unnecessary is envelopes. We sell greeting cards but not envelopes. I didn’t want extra packaging, especially when it’s something that will just be used once. The cards themselves are not seasonal, so you can include your own personal greetings. If you need an envelope, you can make your own from old craft paper or a newspaper.
You launched a really exciting product this year, can you tell us about that?
Yes, we launched a plantable Ang Pao for Lunar New Year and it was a real hit. Like all holidays, Chinese New Year often comes with a lot of waste and we wanted to offer a solution to that. Red envelopes are such a treasured tradition but they are rarely reused or recycled. Our Ang Pao is plantable so you are gifting someone twice.
Typically, we don’t seasonal products and instead focus more on timeless designs, but since red envelopes so widely used this was a great opportunity to spread our message far and wide and spark an interest in sustainability. The time of year is also perfect as it’s right before Spring. Our Ang Pao is inspired by tradition but with a bit of a twist so it can be used for other occasions as well.
What does 2021 look like for left-handesign?
2019 had been the peak for left-handesign, things were really beginning to take off, and we were expecting 2020 to be amazing but it was a tough year for everyone, us included. Our business, like so many, definitely took a bit of a hit. Things are picking up now as life is beginning to return to normal but we are still in a recovery phase. We are taking things slowly and being patient as things recover.
In the midst of all the chaos and suffering the pandemic brought, we truly learned how important the simple things in life are. It was a bit of a reboot in some ways and I hope that slower pace carries on. At left-handesign, we don’t want to have too many product lines or huge production so right now we are working on a new range. We plan to test the market with a small batch and see how it does. I am proceeding with a bit of caution but have my fingers for a good 2021.
Shop here for your very own stylish and plantable greeting cards, notebooks and pencils. Corporate packages are also available. Left-handesign is based in Singapore and also shipping to Malaysia and the Philippines with South Korea coming soon. Keep an eye out for shipping to Europe later in the year.
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