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In 2008, as landfills overflowed and trash piled up in Naples, Aldo Savarese was disheartened by all the bad press southern Italy was getting. So he came up with a plan he thought might improve the region’s image—and turn a profit for Sabox, the 35-employee paper company Savarese had founded in 2004 with Italian packaging group SADA. Three years ago, Savarese reinvented Sabox as an eco-friendly producer of boxes and cardboard furniture made from recycled paper. “Sabox mixes the best and worst Italy has to offer: the garbage of the Naples area, which shamed us, and the design, creativity, and resilience we are known for,” Savarese says as he shows off tables and chairs in red and brown with splashes of green at his warehouse in Nocera Superiore, the town 25 miles southeast of Naples where Sabox is headquartered.
His most successful product is the sleek furniture created by designer Generoso Parmegiani. This comes in various colors and shapes, from simple rectangles to sinewy designs that can be pieced together to form desks, bar counters, and even chandeliers. Chairs weigh 4.4 pounds and retail for €40 ($54) each, while desks cost €120. To boost its profile, the company has donated chairs, which can hold up to 600 lbs., to the Venice International Film Festival and other artsy events in Italy.
Sabox uses energy-efficient technology, nontoxic glues, and water-based inks. Its products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit environmental watchdog, and the Carbon Trust Standard, which tracks carbon emissions. And Sabox has published a sustainability report. Savarese hopes these steps will reassure customers and investors about the green makeover.
Italian paper companies are squeezed between rising costs for raw materials and falling prices for their products due to foreign competition. Sabox’s green strategy has set it apart from the pack. Profits last year jumped 58 percent, to €536,000, as sales climbed 28 percent, to €8.3 million. Sabox’s main clients include local foodmakers and the regional government, which uses Sabox’s chairs and paper products in schools and offices. Sabox is “making the best use of local raw material—in this case, trash,” says Matteo Caroli, a management professor at Rome’s Guido Carli University.
Nocera Superiore recycles about 70 percent of its garbage, as do many towns in the surrounding province of Salerno. That’s in sharp contrast to Naples, which does little recycling. The city started suffering trash collection problems in the 1990s as landfills overflowed, organized crime moved into waste hauling, and authorities were slow to build more dumps and incinerators. “Sabox is a case of good money pushing out the bad,” says Michele Buonomo of Legambiente, an environmental group. “New technology and innovation tend to push out the low-level activities of organized crime,” he says as he watches Sabox workers shove wads of ripped paper into vats of gurgling brown water, the first step in recycling.
Savarese, who received a European Paper Recycling Award for his work at Sabox, is trying to establish a “green district” in Nocera. He has already enlisted a jar maker, can-lid company, and a label maker to serve producers of sauces and pasta in the region. “We have a lot of clients in Northern Europe who are very sensitive to [environmental] issues,” says Carmine De Riso, purchasing chief for La Doria, a food processing company. “Buying Sabox products even at slightly higher prices makes both environmental and business sense, helping us get more clients.”
The bottom line: By reinventing itself as a producer of recycled paper products in a trash-filled area, Sabox last year boosted profits by 58 percent.