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Empowering the World to Breathe Better

Episode Summary

We are back with another installment of the series by the IFMA Foundation, "Rework The Sustainable Development Chronicles" In this installment, host David Karpook sits down with Erwin Hasselbrinck, Sustainability Manager for Airthings, a maker of sensors that monitor Indoor Air Quality. Together they discuss the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how Airthings incorporates them at the center of their philosophy, operations, and even their marketing.

Episode Notes

We are back with another installment of the series by the IFMA Foundation, "Rework The Sustainable Development Chronicles"  In this installment, host David Karpook sits down with Erwin Hasselbrinck, Sustainability Manager for Airthings, a maker of sensors that monitor Indoor Air Quality. Together they discuss the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how Airthings incorporates them at the center of their philosophy, operations, and even their marketing.

Resources Mentioned: 

Episode Transcription

Erwin: [00:00:00] We embedded the SDGs into our core business and I'm very proud of that. And then we created like this ownership from the leadership and that they own the SDGs in the core core business and that they want to achieve this metrics. And I think that's essential for any organization. I mean, if the leadership is not there, then it will be very hard for the organization to actually.

Growing those terms.

Host: Welcome to Connected FM, a podcast connecting you to the latest insights, tools, and resources to help you succeed in facility management. This podcast is brought to you by IFMA, leading professional association for facility managers. If you're ready to grow your network and advance in your career, go to ifma.

org to get started. Today we're back with another installment of the series by the IFMA Foundation, Rework, the Sustainable Development Chronicles. In this installment, host David Karpook sits down with Erwin Hasselbrinck, the sustainability manager for Airthings, a maker of sensors that monitor indoor air quality.

[00:01:00] Together they discuss the UN's sustainable development goals and how Airthings incorporates them at the center of their philosophy, operations, and even their marketing. Now let's get into it.

David Karpook: Hello podcast series, Rework. The Sustainable Development Chronicles. I'm your host, Dave Karpook. In each session of this series, we'll focus on one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and their impact on the profession of facility management. The Sustainable Development Goals, part of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, constitute an urgent call for global action to end poverty and other deprivations.

with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth, all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. Today, we'll be looking at SDG 3, Good Health and Well [00:02:00] Being, SDG 12, Responsible Production and Consumption, SDG 13, Climate Action, and more.

My guest is Erwin Hasselbrinck, Sustainability Manager for Airthings, a company that has placed the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the center of their philosophy, their operations, and even their marketing. Airthings, which was founded in 2008 in Norway. Manufacture sensors that monitor air quality in buildings, including levels of radon, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and more.

Since 2020, Airthings has been a member of the UN Global Compact, a voluntary association of companies, educational institutions, public sector entities, and others. Who have joined forces to support the UN's sustainable development goals and build the businesses of the future.

Erwin: Welcome Erwin. Hi Dave. And thank you so much for having me here.

I'm really happy for sharing our little story on, on [00:03:00] sustainability here at Airthings.

David Karpook: Well, we're really glad to have you Erwin, and we've got a lot to talk about, so let's get started. Yes. Erwin, I know that Airthings was started in 2008 as a manufacturer of radon detection sensors. But the company's mission now seems much broader.

I love your tagline, empowering the world to breathe better. Can you tell us a bit more about how Airthings has grown and evolved as a company over the past 15 years or so?

Erwin: Perfect. Uh, past 15 years, okay. I have to be brief, so I'm going to make my best for this, but, but basically it did started with, with the two founders and these two founders are actually scientists from, they were working in this institutional called CERN.

It's a particular accelerator facility here in Europe, and they're actually answering the big question, like what is the universe made of, you know? So that's a big role for this to scientists. And, and when they were working on this, they realized something very particular that it's [00:04:00] about in the last 30 years, they have never, the homeowners haven't changed the way that radon is actually being tested at home.


David Karpook: That, that was certainly a big thing in the United States. A number of years ago, radon testing became very common in American homes.

Erwin: Definitely. So for those who are not familiar with the term, radon is basically an odorless gas. And as I said, odorless gas is actually radioactive. And today it's actually the first cause of lung cancer for non smokers.

So it became like this very big problem that we don't know what it actually is. And people were having these cancers and all of these situations without smoking. And then it was like, okay. We haven't actually made an evaluation or made it easy and accessible for homeowners to test their home. And this is when the scientists decided, okay, we have to make it easy.

We have to make it accessible for everyone. And they created this, this device. And, and well, after some years of testing, tweaking here and there, they came up [00:05:00] with a product launch in 2011 that is called the Orenthium Home. Which is sold as our, actually today, our most sold product yet. And, and well, then it started evolving because then we started evolving into other kinds of sensors that are testing CO2, for example, humidity, um, temperature, PM levels.

So it was like, we extended the idea of the, of how to empower the world to understand what is. Inside of their homes and what are they actually breathing at each day. So, so that was actually very particular because of very different reasons to actually understand what it is that you breathe. So I always try to explain it like today we're obsessed with our watches that aren't like telling our steps that are telling us, so you know, how much, how is our, our footsteps that is telling you like everything that you do is your body.

But then you actually take around 28, 000 breaths a day and you have no idea what you're breathing. So that's why, how I think that it's extremely important that we understand everything [00:06:00] that we're actually breathing and what is in the air.

David Karpook: Yeah. When you put it that way, 28, 000 breaths a day, that, that, that makes it a pretty staggering number.

So, so what brought you guys to the UN development, sustainable development goals? How did air things make the decision to embrace them as

Erwin: thoroughly as you? Yeah, well, the story is very nice because we started as like, just before COVID and, and we started analyzing, okay, we have a big purpose and we started re imagining this purpose.

What is this purpose or purpose about? And when we're re imagining this, we have like, okay, we are actually making an impact into people. And we have a very nice, beautiful story about how we can improve people's life from monitoring their air. But we did, we were not telling the story properly. Like, how do we start understanding how is actually the impact based on a bigger framework?

And this is when we, I came up with the proposal, like, okay, what if we start telling the story into the UN Sustainable Development Goals as our framework to [00:07:00] understand what is our impact positively, but also negatively. So we have to analyze both sides into the system. And this is how we started analyzing like the whole.

Everything's a holistic point of view. So we started with the unsustainability goals there. So, so yeah, so we started aligning them with the sustainable development goals. And one of the main things that we did that I think it's very important for our storyline and in our journey for sustainability.

It's that we didn't take it into a side, like, Oh, this is a side project, but we actually made a part of everyone's project. And we started making a strategy of authorship and ownership. So if people are able to create goals by their own, and then they will own them and then we'll actually reach them.

It's basically like the, in, in a very basic steps of how we started working. So I took people from the different departments and other things, at least one per department. And we started analyzing each one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals into how they're related into [00:08:00] their departments and how they're affecting, how are we affecting them positively and negatively in, in, in each one of them.

Right. So it was like this workshops where we started discussing all of this and we ended up understanding quite a lot of things around, around our supply chain and our value chain, basically. So that was pretty cool. One of the main things was like this, we, I call them the sustainability ambassadors. It was really truly eyeopening when we started analyzing all of them, because at the beginning we were like, Oh, I think that this is going to be, you know, good health and wellbeing.

It was like the most common one. We are actually impacting health. But then we started seeing that this SDGs are very interlinked in between each other. So if you go impact one, you're actually going to be impacting another one. And we started like telling the stories of how we started realizing that our story was bigger than just SDG three, good health and well being.


David Karpook: fascinating. I noticed in your annual sustainability report [00:09:00] that you adopted the SDGs in March of 2020, just as the world was going into isolation. Due to, uh, the COVID 19 pandemic, was there any relationship there, or was that just a coincidence of timing?

Erwin: Well, yes and no. I mean, it was a coincidence.

It was definitely a coincidence because it started, I mean, we were listening to like all these stories about what was happening in, in China, right? And we were all like, okay, there's something happening there, but it was not really like, maybe it would fade away. But, uh, so we started working just because of our purpose.

Reimagining our purpose and understanding our line of purpose, right? And from this line of purpose, we just went, just when the pandemic hit and. Then this isolation period just made it clear for us that our purpose was becoming even more relevant for the future and, and that the pandemic was just reinforced the idea that the sustainability efforts, it has to be done today and not tomorrow.

So, so this is how we just [00:10:00] created a strategy that, that we can understand how our impact, how we impact people and how we can help balance the ecosystem basically. And yeah, so it was a coincidence, but also just reinforce our purpose.

David Karpook: Sometimes you got to be prepared for those coincidences to happen. So it's not just your products that embrace the SDGs.

Airthings also organizes its internal operations around SDGs, such as number three, decent work and economic growth. Number 10, reduced inequalities. And number 12, responsible production and consumption. How has that benefited your business?

Erwin: That's super nice that you asked, because I don't receive that question that much.

So, so that's fun. Mostly they're asking me all the time about our products, right? So it's really fun to understand that our internal world, it is extremely important. So, so something that I like to explain is that if our story is telling a positive story, we have to back up everything that [00:11:00] we do also to that positive story.

So we also have to analyze ourselves first and try to make a self assessment. Uh, to understand how we are to be able to tell the same story. The product tells a story and we tell the same story. They cannot be contrary to each other. So, so this has done basically as a holistic commitment to sustainability.

And, and it has definitely brought tremendous benefits. I mean, when we talk about decent work and economic growth and reducing inequalities also, it's about creating this positive and very inclusive workforce here. Actually, in Nurtings today, we are over 30 nationalities. Even if we're so, even if we're so small and that's, that's pretty, pretty impressive because we have like, I got used to call the beer, like the little UN because we have so many people from so many different peoples and countries and different perspective and cultures.

And that just makes it extremely exciting that we can actually work together, right? And make it so fun, fascinating. So we definitely believe a lot about [00:12:00] reducing these inequalities through to giving people a decent work. But of course, it's also about our supply chain and how do we extend this into our supply chain?

And this is for, of course, much more of a challenge. Especially in the technology sector, the more that you analyze your supply chain and the deeper you go into your tiers, like the further you go into the raw material extraction, then in the technology sector, it tends to be more impactful socially and environmentally because there's no clear routes.

So you have to, so, so that's like the big challenge, right? But then you also have like this responsible consumption and production. So how are we. Making sure that the way that we produce our products are actually responsible sourcing in the best way Designing them in the way that they are actually less impactful And likewise, when, when people are actually consuming, it's not a product that is going to last you one year or two, but it's actually going to last you 10, right?

Because we have to make this in products that are actually good quality. So they're actually left in [00:13:00] longer and then makes actually the impact of your product, a decrease also in time. So, so that's also extremely important to, to have it very clear when we're designing our products.

David Karpook: It all, it all works together.

SCG4 quality education also plays a big role at Airthings, both on the product and the operation side. What can you tell us about the importance of education to the work that Airthings

Erwin: does? You know, it's education. It's, it's fascinating for, for two main reasons for us. One is because if we feel that this is a responsibility that we have is to.

Explain what is indoor air quality. That's a big responsibility that we have taken, and this is part of empowering the world to be better. It's not only about monitoring your air, but it's also explaining you why it is important to, to monitor your air. And this is big part of our platform. If you go to airthings.

com, you will always find what is BOCs, what are PM levels, why is pollen causing [00:14:00] you distress, and we're in a, this is part of our mission to Make people understand what is actually indoor air quality and what is the importance of indoor air quality. Now, the second hand, of course, we also are super into, or taking into account this, we also created a platform, which I will totally recommend for a lot of people to use it.

That is called Air for Kids. And this is actually designed for children and for education centers, that you can actually go to this website and you have like a bunch of different guides. You have different quizzes, games, challenges, all dedicated for kids to learn about indoor air quality and the importance of indoor air quality.

And actually we have a very nice, uh, challenge. Our kids make three challenges and they send them back to us that they actually did it, so are like this very cool experiments. On indoor air quality, but we will actually plant a tree per every kid that actually does this three challenges. So that's quite cool and but then [00:15:00] in the other hand now, also for us, it is important that we understand that indoor air quality in institution centers and in education centers are the best.

And why do we want this to be actually good is because. If there's too much, too much CO2 in a classroom, for example, our kids will actually lose around 20 percent of their cognitive levels. So this is how we start, you know, the lucid focusing. Sometimes you're in a room and you're like, Oh, I feel very tired.

And this is most likely because our ventilation systems are not working properly. And most likely the CO2 levels are going high. And this is making us are, they feel unfocused, feel tired. Where our cognitive levels go through the neck. Uh, below, uh, 20 percent basically. So, so it's quite impressive. So this is

David Karpook: what we've always blamed it on, uh, boring speakers.

Erwin: I'll blame it on both. I will blame it on both.

David Karpook: Well, let's take a short break now to hear from one of our sponsors. [00:16:00] Uh, we'll be back in just a minute.

Host: The IFMA foundation is a nonprofit organization and a United Nations NGO offering scholarships to future facility managers and other professionals within the built environment. The foundation programs focus on workforce development, career building, and academic education. Contact the IFMA Foundation and learn how your company or organization can impact lives at foundation. ifma. org.

David Karpook: Welcome back to this episode of Rework, the Sustainable Development Chronicles. I'm Dave Karpook, and I'm talking with Erwin Hasselbrinck, sustainability manager for Airthings, a manufacturer of air quality monitoring [00:17:00] sensors. So, Erwin. In addition to adoption of the SDGs, Airthings adheres to the 10 principles of the UN Global Compact.

These include environmental, human rights, fair labor, and anti corruption guidelines. How have these affected the way your company operates?

Erwin: When we started with our sustainability journey, the first actual step that we took was to sign the participation of the UN Global Compact. And I think this was like a major step that we took with our CEO.

Because it made that real, it made it like, okay, this is not bluffing. We are actually trying to do our best with all of this. Right. And I think that we became more mindful of our environmental impact. We implemented the third treatment with our amazing employees. So we became more mindful about how to develop our employees wealth and of course, and healthy environment.

And most importantly for me has been about [00:18:00] boosting, you know, the transparency and the integrity across our actions. So, because when you're a part of the Ewing Global Compact, you have to report every year and be as transparent as you want. And I think that we want to be very transparent. I mean, we are very far away to call ourselves a sustainable company, but we're definitely in the journey and we're going at high speed because we believe in this, we believe that there is no future if we don't now.

And into our, in the way that we do things. So I think that the Global Compact has been a very useful platform also to, for us to continue our, our transparency. Oh, and

David Karpook: in terms of that transparency, your sustainability report is full of metrics. You know, clearly you want us to know that you're not just talking about these goals and principles, but acting on them, living them.

What are some of the major achievements Air Things has attained? In your work, supporting the UN's missions.

Erwin: That's fantastic. Actually, [00:19:00] the one thing that I'm most proud of is that we, we embedded the SDGs into our core business. And, and I'm very proud of that. And then we created, as I was telling the group in the beginning, like this ownership from the leadership.

And that they own the SDGs in the core, core business and that they want to achieve this metrics. And I think that's essential for any organization. I mean, if the leadership is not there, then it will be very hard for the organization to actually grow in those terms. So I will say that will be my number one.

My number two will be.

David Karpook: That's a pretty major achievement.

Erwin: Yeah, I might, yes, I agree. And my number two. Achievement, I will say our product, the Space CO2 Mini, the Space CO2 Mini, it's a wonderful product because it was the first product that we actually made following after we embedded the G6 in our car business, that they're embedded the, the sustainability, something we call the circular principles and in the design of our products.

And. What it made it [00:20:00] fantastic is because of thinking of these terms, thinking about how can we decrease our environmental impact and having a tool to embrace this. We actually lower this, uh, space CO2 mini is actually the lowest environmental impact in our portfolio. We extended the battery lifetime for 10 years, which that decreased the environmental impact by quite a lot.

Actually, we decreased. The CO2 emissions of our product in the manufacturing by 58%, which is quite impressive. And we decreased the emission of the printed circuit board. I don't, for those that don't know, it's basically the green electronics that is in every, the green little board that is in every electronic.

That would decrease the impact of the, of that board by 84 percent and, and we reduced the environmental plastic impact by more than 74%. Of course, this is comparable with our products, right? Portfolio. So, so this is quite impressive because we started like only by thinking about it, only by designing about it, we want to [00:21:00] make the goals, we made it really happen.

So it's quite amazing.

David Karpook: Very impressive, yes. So a lot of businesses seem to have trouble quantifying their progress on sustainability. Air Things, maybe because you're a technology company whose business is focused on the environment, appears to have the quantification problem solved. But what advice would you offer to companies that are struggling to figure out the metrics they should use to measure their progress on environmental issues?

Erwin: Yeah, you know, I think it's about patience, perseverance and don't give an up because I think that definitely having the matrix is a struggle. It's a, it's like, you have to dig, you have to ask questions, you have to push the buttons, you have to go for it. But I think it's about being patient and being continuously going for it.

Definitely being a technology company made us not be afraid of metrics. We believe in data. We believe that data it's the new, the new gold. [00:22:00] And so therefore we have to treat it as one as it is. So we were not afraid of trying new tools, trying new metrics and just go for it based on that. But we, one of the most important things that we started, we clearly stated, okay, which ones are our goals?

And based on our goals, we were like, okay, these are the metrics that we need for these goals. And we started from there analyzing, okay, which ones are our CO2 emissions? Where can we get those? So scope one, two, and three, we found a testing tool that helped us with that. We did it, we actually took a very cool strategy that is that we took the product as our main source.

We understand that all of our impact comes from our product. If, if you analyze it in your life as a life cycle analysis, then you start understanding that you can find all of your emissions and all of your impact through the actual product in itself. And, and that's how we made our strategy based on our product.

impact. So we analyze each part, each material, where do they come from? How did, how did they move around the [00:23:00] world? How do we move it to other places of the world? Where does it end? What is the end of life of, of, of this product? And we started analyzing them, not only in CO2, but in water consumption and waste and all the other things that we track and evaluate.

So, so basic. So I will definitely suggest other people that actually tracks their, their products will give you a lot of information about your metrics. Great.

David Karpook: My final question, Airthings has made some spectacular progress by combining technical innovation with commitment to a set of environmental and social principles.

What's next for Airthings? What new challenges is the company planning to tackle?

Erwin: Yeah. Well, we have very bold goal. I have to say, I think that one of the big bold goals is that we have actually set four main bold goals. One is to actually help. Our customers reduce one ton of CO2 emissions from our customers.

That means because we understand that our, if you understand the indoor air quality of a building, you [00:24:00] are able to reduce your air, uh, your energy consumption. By we have seen buildings and cases that up to 40%, for example. So that's quite impressive. So we think that our products have much more story to tell other than indoor air quality.

It also has a big story to tell in energy consumption. Um, we want to help educate 10 million people on indoor air quality. That's extremely important for us. We want to help 4 million people actually to breathe better. We want to empower them to breathe better. And, and we want that all our projects, uh, are following our circular design principles.

And, and so we are able to reduce their impact or throughout their supply chain. So, so we have to see, we're always seeing this in both ways. What our product does to the world, but also how we design our products and how we design our ways of working.

David Karpook: Well, this has been great to talk to you and to hear about all the amazing things that Airthings is doing.

I want to [00:25:00] thank you, Erwin, for your time today and for your insights into how your company has made that commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals central to your business strategy. I look forward to the next chapters in your company's growth and process and certainly wish you the best with all of that.

Erwin: No, thank you, Dave. And I'm pretty happy to share our story. And please, if anyone has any questions, just reach me out. I'm very happy to talk about this. This is my favorite topic ever. It's a great, it's a great story.

David Karpook: Thanks again, Erwin.

Host: Thank you so much for listening. I hope you really enjoyed this episode. And as always, please don't forget to rate, review, podcast for more incredible content.