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Business with Purpose


Jun 24, 2020

Over the last couple years, I’ve been on a slow but steady journey of becoming somebody who is less wasteful. I may not get to the point of being able to fit all my trash from the month into a mason jar, but I have been making slow, intentional choices to reduce and use less waste. Along this journey, there have been certain items that have made me wonder, “Could there be a zero waste option for this?” Especially for bathroom products like Q tips and tissues. There have not been many options on the market…until today! My guest this week is Isabel Aagaard, founder of Last Object, a Danish design trio who have chosen to tackle some of the least sexy objects out there like cotton swabs and disposable tissues. They are addressing the problem of single-use items and looking past the highly visible culprits like plastic bottles and straws. Last Swab is the reusable alternative to cotton swabs, which replace the need for the 1.5 billion single-use Q tips produced daily, only to be thrown out after one use. Last Tissue saves 2 liters of water per tissue and has become wildly popular on Kickstarter. Prior to founding Last Object, Isabel designed the first reusable chemotherapy bag to reduce waste in the medical industry, and it is now being used all over Denmark. I was fascinated with this conversation with Isabel and know you’re going to love learning about these unique designs that’s changing the world!

4:22 - The Isabel 101

  • Isabel was born and raised in the beautiful city of Copenhagen, Denmark. She has an IT background and obtained a master’s degree in collaborative design. That background brought her to where she is today, along with her passion for the environment and startups.
  • All of Isabel’s focus combines sustainability with collaborative design efforts. She loves exploring how to create and make things that are usable in collaboration with the people who will be using them.
  • Isabel’s worlds meet at the intersection of anthropology and collaboration and is referred to as Co-design. It’s a field that’s grown in the last few years and has started to spread through other countries.
  • As an example, when working for hospitals, instead of looking at patients and creating a design solution for them, Isabel creates tools to help patients design their own solutions. It takes people, interactions, and their abilities into account, instead of being a designer who decides what they think is best for the design.

8:29 – Last Object

  • Last Object’s mission is to create an alternative to single-use items. They started with Last Swab and Last Tissue as the first two products.
  • There are three designers (one of whom is Isabel’s brother). When Isabel was working in design for hospitals, the idea for starting a sustainable design business started over lunch one day with her brother and a designer named Cole.
  • In doing various research on the contributing facts to pollution with single-use items, they found that Q tips were one of the 10 biggest contributors to waste on the planet. They also knew they wanted to tackle issues that have not been tackled already (like alternatives to plastic straws). They also wanted to look at single-use items that are frequently used, so that cutting down of those products would make a huge impact.
  • Last Object starts the design process by thinking of the simplest way to recreate a reusable product. It has to be something you would know how to use just by looking at the design.
  • There are many iterations that happen before a final product comes to fruition. The team continues prototyping, using different forms, scaling up, scaling down, and testing with 3D printing, and experimenting with paint palettes.
  • Last Object debuted in April 2019. The initial reactions in the marketplace started about 50/50 on social media. Some loved it, others thought it was gross, but the most important thing that happened was people were talking about it.

16:40 - Speaking of Questions, “How Does it Work?”

  • Last Swab is made of a durable core plastic, and the ends are made of TPE, which is a plastic that has a similar feeling to silicon. The tips are melded together to be sure they don’t come apart. Each swab also comes with its own carrying case that keeps it hygienic to carry with you or store in your bathroom.
  • One swab is a version for cleaning your ears with a textured surface to help clean. Another version if for makeup application with a soft, pointed end to use for detail or removing excess makeup. Both swabs can be washed easily with soap and water.
  • Last Tissue is sort of like a modern-day handkerchief. It’s six small handkerchiefs in a hypoallergenic box. Isabel describes it as if a handkerchief and a tissue box had a baby. That way you can keep your handkerchief in a hygienic place instead of stuffing it into your pocket.
  • Environmentally, the swab and tissues help cut down on waste.

21:17 – Collaborative Design for the Future

  • Last Object is looking at some more complicated design processes for future products that replace single-use products, but plan on staying on the bathroom objects side of design.
  • Toilet paper isn’t at the top of their next design plans, but it’s still on the list! It’s just more of the “holy grail” of design. Isabel says if they figure out the toilet paper design, they can go ahead and retire.

23:07 – Get Your Hands On Last Swab or Last Tissue!

  • Last Object has a system of testing and love to try out everything they make. When they launched their Last Swab, they did so on Kickstarter. They have a website where they sell their products but always release them on a crowd funding site first.
  • Last Tissue just finished a campaign on Indiegogo and will launch on the website soon. You can enter your email address to be informed when they’re in stock.
  • The next brand new product launch is planned for the end of this summer, so stay tuned!

25:00 – Reducing Waste in the Medical Industry

  • When Isabel was in design school, her department was contacted by the local hospital asking if there were any designers interested in helping find a solution to create reusable chemotherapy bags in order to be able to allow patients to receive chemotherapy at home.
  • It started as a school group project with four other co-designers, and when Isabel’s group completed their design, two of the members went out to figure out how to actually produce it. It took about a year, but they were able to get the bags produced and all the hospitals have since bought into the reusable chemotherapy bag!
  • You can find Last Object and follow their work on Instagram (@lastswab and @lastobject) where they’re always updating about new products.

27:11 – Getting to Know Our Guest

  • Find out what Isabel is learning about herself during Covid-19, who she’d most like to sit next to on a 16-hour flight and why, what she would do differently if she knew no one was judging her, what she’s reading right now, and the question I ask all my guests, “What does it mean to you to run a business with purpose?”

Memorable Quotes:

13:27 - “We wanted to tell you what the product is doing by just design. That’s why we want to refer to how it looks or how the single-use item looks.”

16:00 - “It actually created a conversation, and that’s exactly what you want when you’re designing something. You want people to question it.”

20:52- “We wanted to take the convenient, modern side of the tissue pack and then really incorporate making it into something that could actually be good for the environment.”

22:12 - “I can tell you that we’re going to stay in the bathroom area because that’s a really fun area to be in. We’re gonna make some more ‘ew’ products.”