Eleek Creates Less Waste, Gets More Satisfaction
"Sustainability may have come at a price for this small company, but its customers are willing to pay a premium for it"
by Kennedy Smith
Eric Kaster and Sattie Clark have always been sustainability-minded, so when it came to starting their own business—designing and manufacturing lighting, sinks, tiles and hardware—the question wasn’t how they were going to do it but how they were going to do it right.
That meant that Kaster, a third-generation pattern maker for metal castings, and Clark, who comes from a marketing background, would have to spend money up front to ensure their business fit their lifestyle.
They didn’t necessarily know what that meant for their business when they founded Eleek six years ago in Portland. But they knew they wanted to align it with their person values, Clark says, “because we thought it would give us the most satisfaction.”
They explored every aspect of their business—from the space they rented to the manufacturing processes they employed to the materials they used to reducing waste and adding sustainable practices—and found that, overall, the additional effort was more costly.
“We probably pay more for packaging than we might if we got whatever the cheap stuff was,” Clark says. And, Kaster adds: “It takes more time, too. We make a lot of our tools out of scraps, and it take time to find a good piece so we don’t have to buy a tool.”
But many practices also became money-savers. “We’re salvagers,” Clark says. “We’ve never done a calculation that shows how it pans out in the end, because we really don’t care, and we’d rather do it this way even if it is more expensive.”
Up-front costs for their current facility at 2326 N. Flint Ave included opting for a radiant heating system instead of a forced-air system. It cost more to install, but the savings were apparent when they compare heating bills to those of their old shop, which used industrial-sized, gas-powered space heaters and yielded an average monthly energy bill of $160. Their new place’s bill averages about $107 a month. That’s a 33 percent decrease in energy costs.
They paid to install three transformers outside the building that would make it possible to run their energy-efficient manufacturing equipment. “We try to get equipment with the highest voltage possible because the higher the voltage the more energy-efficient it is,” Kaster says. “There were fees for installation, but it was worth it.”
Eleek also uses recycled aluminum containing 70 percent post-consumer content and bronze that is at least 90 percent recycled to create its custom designs.
And using aluminum instead of conventional porcelain-coated iron has paid dividend in the form of lower energy costs. Aluminum melts at 1,220 degrees, whereas iron melts at 2,800 degrees. Plus, the finish Eleek uses on its sinks requires a firing temperature of 400 degrees compared to a porcelain finish that must be fired at 1400 degrees.
Its a matter of putting your money where your mouth is, Clark says.
Regionally speaking, Eleek spent more than 80 percent of its budget last year on local materials and supplies, which Clark estimates contributes $723,000 to the local economy. They also donate materials to the ReBuilding Center, a North Portland nonprofit that buys and sells used building materials. Socially speaking, they tend to hire artists who ride their bikes to work; if the artists don’t, Eleek fronts the bill for transportation passes. And technologically speaking, they leave the lights off and are in the process of figuring out a way to run their backup server during the day so it doesn’t stay on all night. Plus, they frequently post unneeded materials on Cragislist or give them to employees who might want to make art with them.
What they can’t recycle goes to the landfill, but after all their recycling efforts, not much is left except some sludge that results from Eleek’s tumbling process. But even the sludge—made largely of ceramic material—is getting a second look.
“We want to work on a way to make tiles out of that,” Kaster says.
If practicing sustainability has ever come back to bite them, they don’t seem too wounded. They may have lost a few bids because their materials cost more to make, but, Clark says, “there are so many people out there who get it and are willing to pay more because they see what the product is: beautiful, sustainable, recyclable.”