How Tillberg Design of Sweden is turning talk into action

Jon Ingleton discusses how the marine interiors industry is pursuing sustainability goals with Tillberg Design of Sweden’s Helena Sawelin, a highly regarded champion of sustainable design

How Tillberg Design of Sweden is turning talk into action

Tillberg Design of Sweden

Tillberg Design of Sweden has used a wind-electric hybrid propulsion system, green technologies and eco-friendly materials to design Aegir 2.0

By Alex Smith |

What constitutes a sustainable ship interior? It’s a question that many stakeholders in the passenger shipping industry have asked, but to date no one has been able to provide a commonly accepted answer.  

“We all agree that making ships more sustainable generally means reducing their impact on the environment, but we don’t have a consensus on what criteria a material or product must fulfil to be defined as sustainable,” explains Helena Sawelin, partner and business director at interior design firm Tillberg Design of Sweden (TDoS). “In addition, we don’t have a reliable and consistent method for calculating the environmental impact of products throughout their entire lifecycle – from raw materials to end of life – so it’s difficult for suppliers to create items that would be universally considered as sustainable. Similarly, we don’t have a system for accurately comparing the sustainability credentials of different products or materials to determine which is most environmentally friendly, making it challenging for designers and shipowners to choose which to use.”  

The lack of a common definition also means that opinions on which materials are, or are not, sustainable often change over time too. “Aluminium was previously regarded as the most sustainable choice of metal but recently we learned it is now listed as a critical raw material due to it being a key component in the transition to green technology/clean energy, so we need to consider metal reserves,” says Sawelin. “Many things change and it can be difficult to keep up with the latest information. If we don’t introduce a common method for calculating the sustainability of a material or product, companies may end up wasting their research and development efforts on solutions that are later decided to be unwise.” 

Consequently, many cruise brands focus on making big structural, fuel and efficiency-related improvements to minimise the environmental impact of their ships, says Sawelin. However, they have become increasingly interested in understanding the environmental impact of interior design over the past five years.  

“Designers, suppliers and other stakeholders have been exploring how they can use different materials, rethink their manufacturing or installation processes, reconsider how they design spaces, and more,” says Sawelin. “Stakeholders are now working together to explore how we can move to a circular economy, where we consider the environmental impact of every single material or product used onboard a ship throughout its lifecycle. Achieving true circularity will be challenging, especially in an industry that is quite conservative, but we’re already starting to take a holistic approach to making ships greener.” 

One tool helping the industry to do this is the 9R Framework, which outlines three approaches for closing material loops to minimise the waste and environmental impact associated with a ship throughout its lifecycle. The shortest loops – refuse, rethink and reduce – focus on finding smarter ways to use and manufacture products. The medium loops – reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture and repurpose – centre on extending the lifespan of products and their constituent parts. The longest loops – recycle and recovery – look at how to create value from materials to prevent waste.  

“The framework helps people to consider how raw materials can be used and reused at their highest value to prevent them from becoming wasted resources at the end of their service life,” says Sawelin. “The smaller the loop, the fewer external inputs needed to close it, and therefore the more circular the strategy. You can use the 9R strategy when working on big projects, such as building an entirely new ship, or when focusing on small elements within an interior design, for example deciding which wood to use for a countertop.” 

TDoS is already using the 9R Framework, which Sawelin says is making it “much easier” for the firm to deliver circular designs.  

“To create the most sustainable space, we must minimise the number of materials we use, while ensuring we don’t compromise on function, aesthetics and ease of maintenance,” she says. “We can consider the lifecycle variables for every product or material used in our designs across the 9R framework to develop the most sustainable solution. For example, we can explore how changing the layout of a space impacts on the number or types of materials we use, or how a modular design could make it easier to refurbish.” 

However, it can be difficult to align 9R strategies effectively within the different loops. 

“We struggle during projects where there is a disconnect between the newbuild and refurbishment teams,” says Sawelin. “For example, we might specify a product that has a higher upfront cost for the newbuild team but delivers overall cost and environmental savings for the refurbishment team. In these instances, the big structural elements of a new ship form a long 40-year circularity loop, whereas the interiors might operate within a five to 10-year loop, and there will be even smaller loops for items like mattresses, carpets and some pieces of furniture. Reassuringly, some clients – particularly new market entrants that are not limited by an existing fleet and legacy processes – are giving us greater opportunities to pursue the most sustainable design choices from the outset.” 

According to Sawelin, more suppliers are committing to following the 9R Framework and extending their focus beyond simply manufacturing recyclable products to instead focus on the other Rs in the framework.  

“In keeping with our founder Robert Tillberg’s legacy of timeless design, we’ve been working to push beyond trends that create outdated designs for many years, and as part of that, we’ve been considering how to make them more sustainble,” says Sawelin. “Ten years ago, we worked on our first cruise project with a shipowner who shared our sustainable vision, but it was challenging to find an extensive range of properly certified materials that were considered both eco-friendly and suitable for use in the cruise industry.   

“Today, our supply chain is delivering new smart products and materials that hit more Rs from the top down on the framework and reducing energy, waste and resource use in the manufacturing process. However, we’re still struggling to find partners that can help us to take care of the waste and end-of-life elements.”  

Sawelin believes regulatory changes will help to drive significant improvements. “The European Commission and similar bodies in other countries are building robust frameworks that will change the product landscape,” she says. “Solutions like product passports could be a good first step in providing complete transparency about the materials and other resources used in making the product. Ideally, they would also suggest solutions for each of the Rs and ultimately solve the waste problem at the end of a product’s life too. Stakeholders across the industry are taking lots of small steps and we should celebrate this progress, but we must still keep pushing to make the necessary giant leaps forward.” 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of  Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe  for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.  

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