This powder is the small change to which Libermann refers. “It already happens with your instant coffee,” he says. “Or instant hot chocolate. Or ramen.” Letting the end-consumer add water to a product is economical. It eliminates water bulk and weight in the logistics chain, and dramatically changes the types of materials that can be used for packaging. FUWL’s powder-to liquid soap, which the studio has been developing under Libermann’s management for the last three years, is an attempt to harness these positive knock-on effects. “By making it dry, all of a sudden we don’t have to use plastic,” explains Libermann. “And all of a sudden, this envelope can potentially hold 10 bottles’ worth of refills.” He holds up the prototype of an envelope, devised from a single A4 paper page. It can contain up to 10 sachets of powder and, when opened, also functions as a receipt.
The powder-to-liquid soap is in its final stages of development when Disegno visits FUWL’s studio. Strewn across a wide meeting table are prototype sachets, envelope designs, powder samples from the lab and a recycled plastic bottle with a foam pump. It is, perhaps, an unexpected array for an industrial design studio whose output tends to cleave closer to furniture than to everyday household items. At one end of the room, a wall of display shelves showcases some of FUWL’s previous products and prototypes: the Plug Lamp for Ateljé Lyktan, for instance, a table light whose base features a power socket; Odger, a wood-polypropylene chair for Ikea that can be assembled with a click-lock mechanism;1 and Unfold, a colourful silicone rubber take on the industrial pendant light for the Danish furniture company Muuto.
The soap project, however, is what FUWL co-founder Jonas Pettersson calls a “venture”, rather than client work. “Four days a week we work with clients on projects,” he explains. “And then once a week we have a day we call Venture Day, when we bring ideas to the table, test them and do things a bit differently.” The studio has already launched two such ventures as separate brands: the acoustic tile company Baux, and Tid, which makes timepieces. “But these things,” says Pettersson, gesturing towards the display wall, “you actually consume quite slowly compared to everyday objects like soap or toothpaste.” Soap was a new kind of beast for FUWL, but its design flaws struck the studio as obvious. “It comes from this common frustration that you and probably everyone has,” says Libermann. “Why do I have so much trash every week?”
From ancient times and to this day, soap – the salt of a rendered fatty substance such as tallow or vegetable oil – has been made in bars. In early-modern Europe, it was semi-industrially produced in centres such as Provence, Castile, and London, and typically cut up with cheese wire on demand by local grocers. In the 19th century, industrially manufactured and individually packaged soap bars became some of the world’s first mass consumer products. The corporate empires of Unilever and Procter & Gamble – two of the first multinationals – were built on the Sunlight and Ivory bars respectively, produced in the company villages of Port Sunlight and Ivorydale. But at the end of the 20th century, with the rise of throwaway plastics, liquid-gel soap in disposable containers began to surpass bar soaps in popularity. In 2001, Unilever made its last bar of soap at its Port Sunlight production line and market research company Mintel has reported a continual global drop in bar soap sales throughout the first decades of the current century.2 Bar soap has come to be considered fusty and unhygienic, with a 2016 CBS report attributing its slump in sales to the fact that “millennials believe bar soaps are covered in germs after they are used.”
“Disposal culture is creating a lot of waste related to liquid soap and people don’t want to use hard soap,” says Libermann. “So how do you make a liquid soap that is as sustainable as you could make it?” The first step was to look at the formula. FUWL’s powder-to-liquid soap, developed by a laboratory in Canada, is composed of five organic ingredients, as opposed to the industry standard of approximately 12-20. These ingredients will make up a number of soaps, unscented and scented, and are derived largely from coconut oil. At the time of Disegno’s visit, Libermann was double-checking the specifics with the lab. “I was reading about palm oil being this huge deforestation issue,” he explains. “So I emailed the lab yesterday and was like, ‘Hey, are any of these derived from palm oil?’” Even if palm oil is technically a natural product, FUWL would want to eliminate it from the formula.
According to the non-profit organisation Rainforest Rescue, palm oil is used in approximately half of all supermarket products – from frozen pizza and biscuits to cosmetics and, of course, soap – and is one of the main driving forces behind tropical deforestation. At each step of developing the soap, FUWL found that supposedly natural ingredients and materials, once examined closely, revealed similar surprises. Early on, the team considered metal for the refillable bottle that FUWL wants to provide as a one-off purchase along with the soap. But when they looked into research on aluminium and steel water bottles, it became apparent that making a bottle from such virgin materials is extremely resource-intensive. As The New York Times has reported, a 300g stainless steel bottle “requires seven times as much fossil fuel, releases 14 times more greenhouse gases, demands the extraction of hundreds of times more metal resources and causes hundreds of times more toxic risk to people and ecosystems than making a 32-gram plastic bottle.” Throughout, says Libermann, “a lot of what we assumed [about sustainability] was incorrect.”
The bottle prototype on the table is a slightly cloudy plastic design. “This bottle is made from 50 per cent recycled post-consumer plastic,” Libermann explains. “That’s what gives it this kind of green-grey colour. We’ve been looking into making it in 100 per cent recycled plastic.” Ultimately, however, the studio has settled on glass. “It’s more communicative of a reusable bottle,” says Libermann. “Though we recognise sustainable challenges with both material approaches.” Then there is the foam pump. Foaming handwash is good because less water is used per wash, explains Libermann. “But the pump itself was a really interesting problem to solve, because it has a steel spring inside.” This makes it more complicated to recycle. “So we started questioning the suppliers and asking, ‘Can you make the spring out of plastic?’ We really want to have this work in a normal waste stream. No special exemptions.” FUWL’s mission to find the most holistically sustainable bottle and pump is ongoing, and the pump with a plastic spring is something it hopes will be available at some point in the future. Should the consumer wish to use their own container, however, that will remain an option. “You can use any regular foam pump,” says Pettersson. “It’s not like we’re trying to lock the customers into this.”
In addition to navigating the labyrinthine intricacies of sustainable materials research, FUWL had to contend with another design challenge: the fact that the powder-to-liquid model departs considerably from the standard typology of soap. “I think the user experience is probably the most interesting [thing about the project] from a design perspective,” says Pettersson. “You don’t have to tell anyone how to use [this chair],” he continues, pointing to Odger. “But the soap is on another level, because it needs to encourage a completely new behaviour.” There are initiatives that go some way towards introducing new attitudes to everyday household items and waste – the Dutch chain Ekoplaza opened the world’s first plastic-free supermarket in Amsterdam last year, and in Oxford, high-end British supermarket Waitrose is currently trialling a packaging-free refill aisle that sees customers using their own containers. On the whole, however, such initiatives are few and far between. “We really want it to be convenient,” says Pettersson. “We would really be failing if we didn’t.”
Currently FUWL sees online, rather than the supermarket aisle, as the most obvious retail environment for its soap, precisely because it needs to be both convenient and legible as soap. “It won’t sell itself in ICA [Sweden’s biggest supermarket chain] or that kind of store,” says Pettersson. And while supermarket chains are not yet forthcoming in embracing refillable options on a mass scale, the high-end luxury soap market is not one that FUWL is trying to disrupt either. The sustainability goals the team has set itself mean that all components will be produced in North America or Europe, which entails the exclusion of non-tropical scents. FUWL’s soap is not likely to compete with the Aēsops and Jo Malones of this world, then. “But that’s not the fight we want to [win],” says Pettersson. “We think soap is just supposed to make you clean.”