Once it was keychains and paperweights. Now it’s phone cases and USB keys, all with corporate logos stamped on them, rendering them often unappealing and for many, useless. It is the marketing detritus that gnaws at us and accumulates, to be almost inevitably tossed in the garbage can with a horrible, guilt-inducing thud.
But Danish pencil company Sprout World has come up with a marketing item that companies can give away without inducing this wasteful end-result.
Instead of an eraser on the tip of each pencil, the top of Sprout’s pencils have a capsule of seeds. The capsule itself is made of plant-based cellulose. Once you have used up the pencil to the nub, you simply plant the remains upside down in a pot of soil, water it, give it light, talk to it if you so desire, and eventually you get a few sprigs of basil, thyme, forget-me-nots, cherry tomato plants or one of several other varieties contained in the capsule.
About 80 to 90 per cent of Sprout pencils are sold to companies, including large ones such as IKEA Group, Walt Disney Co. and Porsche AG that have used them for promotions, with the company name engraved on the pencils.
Five years ago, “in the beginning of the life of Sprout, it was all about the product,” says Michael Stausholm, founder and chairman. But increasingly, the company’s message is more about the Sprout story, he says, about making a difference environmentally in everyday decisions, even if the difference is only a small one.
The pencil lead is the standard graphite-and-clay mix. And the wood is from sources certified by sustainable forest-management organizations PEFC and FSC, according to the company.
Mr. Stausholm used to work in the global shipping industry, and then in textiles and garments in Asia, before returning to Europe a decade ago as a business consultant and speaker on sustainability. Then he came across a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 by three Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who had invented the pencil.
“They came up with the idea during a design class at MIT,” Mr. Stausholm said. Being MIT students – robotics engineers, at that – their plan was a little more ambitious: to build a robot that made plantable pencils. Mr. Stausholm was more interested in the sales potential.
Within a year, he bought the global rights, although he doesn’t divulge the price. “It is a surprise,” he says, “that it’s possible to bring something as simple as a pencil you can plant to such great heights, selling in 70 countries. We just sold more than 10 million pencils.” He adds that it took only 57 trees to make those 10 million pencils.
At the same time, as it grows, Sprout is coming up against inevitable counterfeit copies. The crude fakes sometimes have tips that aren’t biodegradable but plastic, or sometimes contain unenvironmentally-friendly glue to hold the pencil lead, or they don’t sprout plants when planted.
On the flip side, Sprout is being looked on as a model for green-minded entrepreneurs. Sprout is now looking to increase sales in the United States by 15 per cent in 2019. “I get a lot of mail and calls from startups and people doing green products,” Mr. Stausholm said. But, apart from launching a makeup pencil with various major cosmetic brands, he is less interested in veering far from the current concept. He wants to keep it simple. “We are very focused on the Sprout pencil and building on that.”