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  • Writer's pictureAlizée CCM

Changing the business system: Irem, Material Researcher & Regenerative Design Find.

by Eva

Irem has a weird professional job title: Material Researcher and Regenerative Design Find. Irem has been living in Shanghai for 5 years and currently has her own brand called Re:mtr. She works for global brands and design studios based in China.

She has a beautiful smile, with a perfect American accent, born in Turkey and raised around the world. She has been living in Germany, Singapore, London, and Shanghai.

We talked with her at the 1984 Cafe, trying to understand this new inspirational world.

Q: Can you describe yourself in 2 lines?

A: A researcher, curious about objects, people, places, the role of materials, and the power of design. An optimist, interested in regenerative design and development.

Q: In your words, what do you think means “sustainability”?

A: Living in awe, respect, and in harmony with the natural systems, we are a part of.

Q: Re: mtr is the name of your brand. How do you pronounce it?

A: Re:mtr is short for Re:matter which is short for rethinking matter or rethinking material. You pronounce it Re-matter.

Q: In an easy way, what is the mission of Re:mtr?

A: To facilitate brands’ transition to responsible sourcing, positive material selection, and healthy material development.

Q: How did you end researching sustainable materials?

A: I was always interested in materials and stuff. The objects we have around us, what those objects are made of, the feelings certain products give us. I’m still fascinated by that, the psychology of it.

Actually, my mother has a very good eye and feeling for these things… She has a knack for fashion and interior design and styling. She was and still is very curatorial with the furniture, objects, and accessories in our family home. Our home always felt like a museum of hand-crafted objects, colorful, moody textiles, and antiques. When we lived in Singapore and then Shanghai in the late 1990s early 2000s, I would often go with my parents to rummage for unique, handmade, objects and antique furniture. I think that much of my love for natural materials, processes, and traditional craftsmanship, which is by nature slow-paced, non-invasive, and sustainable is rooted in that.

A quiet and comparatively empty corner of our family home.

Q: You said that “ The biggest environmental impact in a product’s life cycle happens in the raw material extraction and manufacturing stages''? Can you translate this? What exactly does it mean?

A: Yes, actually that is a quote from a report by The Sustainable Angle. Similar points are made by various consultants, agencies, and organizations that deal with principles of The Circular Economy. It is referring to the initial stages of a Life Cycle Assessment, which, so far as I know, is the only way to truly know if you have a comparatively sustainable product.

The quote emphasizes the importance of the initial choices we make, right at the very start of the supply chain, to create a positive or negative impact on the environment and the people in the environment within which our brand is operating.

When you consider where the raw materials used to make your product come from, and how the raw materials have been raised, grown, or otherwise developed, you’re taking stock of how much land, water, energy, transport is required for the raw materials to be, and to be extracted from the ecosystem. You can compare this information with raw materials grown or extracted in another way, to find what is the right fit, for your case. Each case is different!

Tea picking, photography by Gabriel Gauffre.

When it comes to processing your material and manufacturing your product, if you remain cognizant of the way your material is being developed, the methods by which your product is being manufactured... Again, looking at where it is being manufactured, how much water and energy is used to process your material and produce your product.

Does the manufacturing facility have an environmental management system in place? Can your product be manufactured such that it is easily disassembled, easily repaired, easily re-manufactured? It’s about asking these kinds of questions, at the very start of your journey, and “starting off on the right foot”, as it were.

Mechanical processing of pliable, clay-like material made from tea-waste using a biodegradable binding agent, developed by Jiwei Zhou. Photo courtesy of Jiwei Zhou.

Q: What is the process for helping companies to shift towards a more sustainable material?

A: Much of the process is about putting a company’s supply chain under the microscope and surveying the region to understand what the supply chain looks like now and what resources are available in the region the company is operating in, that could be tapped into, to shift to a more suitable raw material source, supplier or manufacturer.

That is essential in moving towards not only a healthier material alternative but also better integration of a company’s product into a kind of positive feedback loop in the local economy.

That overarching process is tailor-made for each case. But generally, the first step involves defining the term “sustainable material” and taking stock of how the company is sourcing or developing materials now. What is working, what is not working with their current process. What needs to change? This first phase of identifying challenge areas can be done through meetings, presentations, workshops. Workshops work especially well. The whole team is involved, and they are able to address the challenge areas together in a fun, hands-on way.

Facilitating workshops on Positive Material Selection with interior and architecture studios.

The next step in the process involves analyzing the information gathered in the first phase to create project parameters and guidelines for researching and sourcing alternatives.

Researching a locally available, biodegradable, or fully recyclable TPU sole replacement.

Q: What is the most amazing discovery you did?

A: Honestly, every day, with every project, with every conversation and interaction I am discovering new materials and new pieces of the puzzle.

At the beginning of last year, there was a material I came across which I thought really considered the issues we are facing today on a material, consumption, production, and design level. It looks like a multi-material, like terrazzo, but really it’s a mono-material. It is made of 100% waste ceramic, from the aggregates down to the binder, and can therefore be upcycled again and again and again. A truly circular solution.

It’s a sigh of relief because we have all seen a fair amount of materials coming out in the past few years that are using “waste” materials to create new materials, but in doing so are creating composite materials which don’t have a place in our current recycling, upcycling or even downcycling streams. That means that those products will most likely end up in a landfill, and that’s a real pity, especially when the waste materials being used are biodegradable in the first place!

Plastic granules made using rice husk, an agricultural by-product that degrades slowly and is therefore often burned instead. A controversial material!
“What will happen to your product at the end of its life?” This question should still apply whether you have used waste materials to create your product or not. The most amazing discoveries for me are the ones related to this question.

Q: What is your favorite place in Shanghai?

A: Do I have to choose one?! That’s hard… Lately, a group of friends and I have started taking “field trips” to visit Creative Industrial Zones and Industrial Zones around Shanghai.

Last weekend we made a trip to Fuxing Island and stumbled upon an Industrial Park in Yangpu District. There were old factories and warehouses being divided up to make room for film studios that would be moving in there. There was a full-blown airplane on site. It was a film set, but still, it was unexpected and felt so bizarre! I like these kinds of surreal environments that skew your idea of time and place.

Q: Your dream or wish for 2021?

A: To continue working with like-minded people in finding better and better ways to help brands and manufacturers to transition to healthier materials, material applications, and life extension strategies.

I would also love to create a platform for the materials I have been gathering throughout the years.

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