In 2005, John Kozlowski started Innowood with a clear goal: to protect the environment by providing designers and specifiers with a range of sustainable alternatives to conventional materials. Thirteen years later, the company remains true to this vision and is one of the foremost Australian manufacturers and suppliers of composite wood products. As Innowood prepares to sponsor the 2018 Sustainability Awards, we caught up with John to discuss the company’s evolution and changing Australian attitudes toward sustainability.
Q: It’s been thirteen years since you started Innowood. Over the course of those thirteen years, how have you seen attitudes – both of consumers and industry professionals – towards sustainability evolve?
A: I’m finding that now it’s much more spoken [about]; people are becoming much more attuned to it. When I first started, we used to go and call on architects, and they didn’t want to know us, saying, “No, no, I’m a timber man, I’m not a plastic man.” We found it difficult, probably in the first 12-18 months, but then once they saw our product at Darling Harbour wildlife zoo, which shocked everybody when they saw that it wasn’t real timber – and they saw that it was our material, and it was so light, it sort of opened the doors. We got an influx of enquiries from that point on, and we really focused on the top end of town: we only looked at the top developers, top builders, the top architects. And now, after those ten years, we’re finding that we’re covering the whole market. We’ve now gone down to the level of secondary developers and builders and also the homeowner. We’re getting a lot of enquiries from homeowners walking in off the street who want to build their own home and want to know about our products. So it’s now getting down to that level where it’s becoming an identified product that’s out there. What we compete with is a lot of inferior products that are still produced out there with no Australian certification and no practical usage within Australia. Whereas you look at what we’ve done – especially with our certification focus – and we’ve tested it for anything and everything. So anybody can throw any question at us and we can show you that we’ve tested it to the Australian standards and global standards.
Q: Could you please explain to me what the specific sustainability and performance benefits are of using your composite product over natural timber?
A: Well, [the advantage] over natural timber [is] that we don’t chop down a tree. We only use timber waste and wood waste that comes off a building site. So, number one: we recycle off building sites or other secondary products. Furniture makers, for example, generate so much wastage with sawdust – we collect all that, treat it, and utilise it.
And that extends to our own product: whenever we’re running something out of the machine and it’s not right, we just chop it up, put it back in [to the machine], and start again. If you have a look at our factory, you won’t see a single scrap of waste sitting anywhere. We also have a program where at the end of the product’s life we buy it back and return it to the factory. So our sustainability approach is full circle.
Q: That’s great. We’re starting to see that with some other suppliers, in terms of offering whole-of-life programs.
A: Yes. But we’re only a new industry, so while there’s not enough product out there at the present time [to upcycle to meet demand] eventually we’ll get to a volume where people will be able to return product to us and we’ll simply throw it back into the melting pot.
Q: In terms of that, we’ve touched on your manufacturing process – how do you guys manage your manufacturing process? Is that all on-shore?
A: No. I had a manufacturing plant in Indonesia that we outgrew, but now we actually manufacture in China because of the cost benefits, and we’ve got two of our people permanently stationed there to manage the production, watch the processing and the quality... We’re fairly confident in what we’re doing over there and the people we’re dealing with.
Q: Are you finding that people are now more receptive to using composites instead of natural timber?
A: Yes, definitely. As an example, in America they love their timber deckings and handrails. But over the last ten years, composites have taken over more than 60% of that market. And it’s monstrous - there’s billions and billions of dollars - so in the States they are very perceptive to composite, because there’s a number of companies over there manufacturing as well. And just recently, they had, from Canada, the pricing of their rural timber go up 30% over the last 12-18 months. That puts us in a competitive situation.
Q: Does Innowood distribute internationally?
A: Yes, we’ve got distributors throughout Australia and New Zealand as well as distributors and partners in Hong Kong, USA (East and West Coast) and the Netherlands. We’re now moving into the UK and other European markets. At the moment, we’re trying to make our name universal.
Q: You mentioned earlier the environmental certifications that Innowood has achieved.
A: Well, for the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), what they do is come to the factory and have a look at the process. When we manufacture our products we actually use very low energy – In fact, eventually we’ll be using hydro-electricity for our energy consumption. But all the water that we use, we recycle that through the plant. So whatever goes through the factory, we put it through another process internally that recycles it and puts it back into the factory again.
Q: It’s very nice to see that you have a very holistic approach to sustainability – it’s not just about putting out a sustainable product but ensuring everything around that is sustainable.
A: Yes, very much so! We’re committed to it.
Q: A large part of sustainability is durability and how long the product lasts. In terms of that, are you able to explain a bit more what advantage composites offer in that regard?
A: Well, real timber has its issues. Number one: you cut down a tree. A tree produces oxygen, so we don’t want to continue that! I read a lot of articles, and in the Brazilian Basin in the Amazon, 1000 hectares of trees a day are cut down! That’s not sustainable.
But also, if you put timber externally it’s a high-maintenance exercise, because with the temperature, the moisture and so forth, it tends to split very quickly. You see old timber goes grey and splits which can be a safety and fire hazard. Our product is classified as a self-extinguishing product. So if there is a flame source our material ignites, but if you take the flame source away, it extinguishes itself – it doesn’t keep on burning. Also, it absorbs very little moisture to affect the performance of the product, over time.
Q: You mentioned earlier that Innowood products have low VOC content, which is great for creating healthy indoor spaces. Could you please briefly walk me through that, and the health benefits of using Innowood products?
A: When you buy a new motor car, you know the new car smell? That’s a volatile organic compound, a VOC – that’s the product emitting fumes even though it’s brand new. And that’s mostly from different sorts of plastics that they put into motorcars. Well, with our material, our rating falls below the World Health Organisation’s specifications meaning we give off very little emissions or smells from the start and throughout the product’s life.
Q: My understanding is that Innowood also has an advantage over plywood, because some of the adhesives in plywood have formaldehyde…
A: Correct. Well, that’s the problem with a lot of the binding agents they use in MDF sheets: they use formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is even in real timber out of the tree, because it’s a compound that’s just everywhere in nature. But it’s actually used as a binding agent, now and we don’t use any of that stuff.
Q: That’s definitely a draw card. We’ve talked about the evolution of attitudes towards sustainability – how do you hope to see the industry progress in the next few years in regards to sustainability?
A: I hope that people become more committed to it. What is going to happen is hopefully that timber is going to become much rarer as a commodity product. It’s only going to go up in price: it’s not going to come down, and then eventually people have got no choice. That’s why there is such a big push for our sort of product. A lot of people are dabbling in it, but because they’re not as advanced as we are they’re producing inferior products. We want to go to a carbon zero rating, and governments are looking at that sort of thing as well. If I can get zero carbon, even though people think it’s a lot of rubbish, eventually, governments are going to push it that way.
Innowood are proud sponsors of this year’s Sustainability Awards, coming to Sydney’s The Star this 11 October. Read more about Innowood and view their full catalogue at http://innowood.com/.