Craft Culture: Eco-friendly outdoor furniture at Loll Designs

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Duluth, Minnesota’s, Loll Designs // Photos by Amanda Cane, JaneCane Photography

There is no shortage of big companies touting their environmentally friendly practices as a way to endear themselves to the public these days. And that would be fine—if those businesses were backing up their words with actions. But few do, and even fewer have principles of sustainability firmly rooted in their origins.

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Duluth-based Loll Designs and its sister company, Epicurean Cutting Surfaces, are among the few. Loll conceives and manufactures outdoor furniture while Epicurean makes cutting boards and other culinary utensils. Both companies are spin-offs of TrueRide, a skate ramp construction company founded in 1997 by Greg Benson, his brother Dave, and Tony Ciardelli, and both were born out of an entrepreneurial desire to reduce waste.

Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

Loll Designs CEO Greg Benson // Photo by Amanda Cane, JaneCane Photography

Greg is Loll’s CEO. He’s an unassuming, laid-back Minnesota native who has long revered the outdoors. His interest in the ecology movement—scientific, social, and political efforts that address environmental issues—started early, and eventually influenced his business model for Loll Designs. “My strong environmental background drove me as a manufacturer to look at the impact that we have, and the material we’re using,” he says. “Where does the waste go? And what happens with that product when its life is over?”

Such questions drove Loll’s evolution from a skate ramp-scrap startup to an award-winning designer of eco-friendly outdoor furniture.  The company’s tagline is “outdoor furniture for the modern lollygagger”—their term for people who “appreciate the outdoors, work hard, play hard, and want to relax hard,” Greg says. He adds, “It’s also for people who appreciate design and quality—those are things we really focus on.”

That focus can be seen in the details of Loll furniture. Each piece is made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or #2 plastic), all of which is 100-percent post-consumer recycled. Eight recycled milk jugs make up each pound of furniture; one Loll Adirondack Chair contains about 400 milk jugs. In turn, Loll products are all 100-percent recyclable.

Loll Design headquarters are located in a nondescript warehouse in an industrial area of West Duluth, not far from the St. Louis River. The interior of the production facility is surprisingly inviting. Large windows let natural light in to the 30,000*-square-foot space. An oversized American flag hangs prominently from the ceiling, demonstrating the company’s “made in the USA” pride. White walls are accented with the vivid colors—blue , green, red, orange—of raw materials and completed products.

Photos by Amanda Cane, JaneCane Photography

The adjacent office space also boasts welcoming vibes, with its open office format, sleek workspaces, and myriad green plants. All of these attributes are intentional, says Greg. The facility, like the furniture it produces, is designed to be an appealing workplace. Between the production team and office staff, Loll employs 40 full-time workers. Greg says the quality of Loll products starts with its employees, and respect for employees is a key part of the company culture. He supports this ethos by paying his employees well above minimum wage, and offering benefits, paid time off, and a matching retirement fund. “It’s a good place to work,” Greg says. “There’s not a lot of turnover.”

Inside Loll’s production facility are three massive CNC machines, each programmed to cut parts out of four-by-eight-foot sheets of recycled plastic. Waste shavings are collected and sold to be reused. It’s part of the company’s zero-waste goal. Additional measures include recycling fanatically, composting food waste, and reducing product packaging as much as possible.

Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

Scrap is collected and reused at Loll Desings // Photo by Amanda Cane, JaneCane Photography

To reduce their energy use, Loll captures the heat generated by their manufacturing process to heat their entire production facility in the winter. To help offset its carbon footprint, Loll partners with like-minded organizations to put on events focused on improving Duluth’s green space (planting trees, cleaning up waterways and trails).

Another way Loll lives up to its mission statement—to “…enhance people, the planet, and our company in everything we do”—is by participating in 1% for the Planet, a global initiative where companies pledge to give at least one percent of their gross sales* to environmental organizations. In 2016, Loll expects to donate about $90,000 as a part of this pledge.

One of Loll’s recent charitable projects involved Bent Paddle Brewing Company. Loll designed Bent Paddle’s tap handles and flight trays back when the brewery was just starting, and the businesses’ working relationship has continued to grow ever since. Last summer, the companies collaborated on a beer called Lollygagger, a West Coast-style pale ale with a mission: namely, to donate five percent of the beer’s sales to the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS) to help build the Duluth Traverse, a mountain biking trail that runs the entire 26-mile length of Duluth.

The company also sources materials as locally as possible. The decals and stamped metal pieces that are part of the furniture’s joinery, for example, are made by companies in the Brainerd area.

“There are certainly less-expensive options [for materials]  now,” Greg says of his decision to use recycled material from the U.S. “We could buy virgin plastic—the same material, but non-recycled from China.” But making a “green” product out of virgin plastic, even if it’s ultimately recyclable, would be hypocritical, he says.

Next page: Where Loll has been and where they’re going

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