After a 3-year stint as director of product development for innovation retailer Brookstone, David Laituri decided that it was time to strike out on his own. He remembers a pivotal get-together at a local Denny's with his future business partner, Tim Trzepacz, a former Brookstone colleague. "Why is it that sound systems today are all cheap plastic boom boxes?" he remembers discussing with Trzepacz. "It's like everyone is simply adding more plastic to an iPod." The dialogue quickly moved from idea to cost to schedule to resources—and Vers was born.
Both innovators agreed that good design was critical but that Vers sound systems had to sound awesome as well. And finally, they wanted to make significant progress in sustainable design. They envisioned a sharply crafted, great-sounding audio line that would also reduce the environmental impact that the production of these products has caused.
For inspiration, Laituri harked back to a 1955 Zenith radio that he bought at a garage sale when he was 12. "It still works, still looks great, and it's followed me everywhere. You can't say that about many electronic products today," he says. "It's the wood that makes you want to hang on to it and take care of it."
WOOD IS GOOD
Laituri and Trzepacz knew that injection-molded plastic was environmentally insensitive, but it was audiophile friends who clued them into a dirty secret of plastic: it sounds lousy. "With sound system design, every material has a resonant frequency," Laituri explains. "Plastic sounds 'tinny,' causing most manufacturers to artificially tweak the bass and treble try to hide the unwanted contribution that plastic makes. Wood, by comparison, has a resonant frequency similar to voices—it sounds warmer, more natural. Have you ever seen a plastic violin? There's a reason for that."
While wood is material of choice for high-end speaker manufacturers, it can be a real challenge. Laituri and Trzepacz began investigating, climbing further and further up the supply chain and even visiting a stringed instrument factory to see what they could learn about mass-producing a hand-crafted wood acoustic product. They quickly realized this wouldn't be a one-stop, turn-key project; they would need to assemble their own team of manufacturing specialists.
Calling on their long list of friends in Asia, they sought out ways to not only meet their product specs but address their impact-reduction goals as well. They found their perfect fit in a factory that produced old-school wood speaker cabinets. "With the introduction of iPod and all the plastic sound systems that followed it, their business was beginning to flatten out," says Laituri. "We worked with them to perfect the engineering of our cabinet—they had a lot of ideas to contribute." Wood cabinets, they quickly learned, are more time-intensive to produce. It takes about seven days to craft a Vers cabinet compared to less than a minute for an injection-molded plastic enclosure.
TREES BEFORE THE FOREST
Early on, the wood cabinet manufacturer introduced Laituri and Trzepacz to their wood material suppliers. The ideal acoustic construction for their cabinet would be a hardwood veneer over a medium density fiberboard core—similar to ultra-high-end speakers. Local eucalyptus and pine plantations (essentially tree farms) supplied the wood material in the fiberboard. The fast-growing trees were regularly harvested and replanted. After a bit of research, the manufacturers learned that their speaker-makers were using hardwood from the U.S.—from family-owned mills, several of which were more than 100 years old. These mills owned and managed their their own walnut and cherry forest stocks but pulled 80% of their wood from trees removed for development or felled by storms. With the addition of locally-sourced bamboo veneer, they were convinced that their wood was coming from sustainably-managed stock.
"Since we do a lot with wood, we've decided to keep our environmental efforts tied closely to trees, their lifetime carbon-sequestering capability (1.5 million lbs of CO2 per tree) as well as their amazing renewability," says Laituri. "We can transfer a lot of knowledge to our customers very quickly that way." With that in mind, customers can elect to plant a tree on the Vers checkout page to offset the lifetime carbon produced powering four Vers systems over their lifetime. For every tree a customer plants, Vers matches it 1:1. A surprising 18% of customers have chosen to plant a tree; one customer planted 20.
This year, they decided to attempt a 100:1 tree-replanting effort. Having audited wood use (including process scrap) from the very beginning, Vers also came up with a conservative average "yield" for a tree in terms of hardwood veneer and lumber. And they've partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service for a unique new program. By the end of this year, Laituri estimates they will have replanted close to 1,000 trees between all of their programs. "We're excited to be able to put back more then we use," he says. "A lot more."
RECYCLE, REPAIR, REPEAT
Another concern of Vers was end-of-life electronics recycling. Many consumer electronics companies have introduced take-back programs lately, but Vers wanted take it to the next level. "So we assumed in integrated take-back program was a given," says Laituri. They chose to not only take back a Vers system at the end of its life but to recycle customers' unwanted iPod sound system as well, rewarding them with a $30 discount coupon towards a new Vers system. All of the waste is then recycled under the Basel Action Network accords, assuring that these materials will not be exported to developing countries—an ugly problem with consumer electronics waste.
From their hands-on sustainable material selection to responsible e-waste recycling, the wide impact that Vers is having on the world of consumer electronics may be relatively small due to their start-up size, but to Laituri and Trzepacz it's simply part of their founding mission. "Our size doesn't carry much weight with a factory; we're not always able to make the changes we would like, as fast as they should happen. Large companies like Sony or Motorola can make larger changes faster, and if what we are doing prods or inspires them to do more, great—we welcome more partners." says Laituri. "Making a difference is far more challenging—and rewarding—then simply making a product."
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