Jay Dillon’s atypical journey to the outdoor furniture industry started when he lived in New York City and was on the hunt for patio furniture for his rooftop.
“I was pretty quick to realize that I couldn’t afford the high-end specialty retailers, which run four or five thousand dollars for a set,” Dillon says. “That seemed crazy.”
Instead, he and his roommate purchased a generic furniture set from Home Depot and (after five and a half hours of assembly) stuck it on the roof, only for it to look worn out a few months later.
After chatting with his father, Bob, about a potential business idea, Dillon packed up and moved to Hong Kong with his now-wife, Rachael, to study wicker weaving, powder coating and welding. They spent their weekends exploring beaches off the South China Sea but found the water and its shores were littered with waste.
Dillon says it’s common for small Asian communities to lack a waste management system. “They can either let it pile up on their land, burn it or put it out to the ocean,” he says. “And they almost always choose that third option of putting it out to the ocean because it makes sense for them.”
At the Chinese factories, Dillon recalls seeing “literally millions of pounds of virgin plastic be made into wicker.” So he started working with a Tawainese recycling plant to pull plastic out of the ocean off an island near Manila in the Philippines. That plastic is then imported to China and extruded into resin to make wicker to be hand-woven onto frames. The product? Yardbird, which opens a showroom in Kansas City on March 30.
Was it eye-opening to see all that ocean waste?
Yes, but it’s common for us in a relatively rich country to say, “I can’t believe they’re doing that.” Their concerns are more about, you know, “Where am I going to get money for food?”
How does your furniture get from China to the U.S.?
When looking at the whole process, I learned that the fifteen largest container ships in the world produce more carbon emissions than all the cars in the world combined. I knew I couldn’t straight-faced as a brand say, “Hey, we’re environmentally cool,” but then also ship this really bulky furniture from Asia to the United States. We’ve worked with a nonprofit called carbonfund.org to determine all of our carbon emissions from transporting furniture so we can offset that. We make a donation and then they, in turn, will do things like provide clean gas stoves to people in Africa or Central America to offset carbon emissions.
You’re based out of Minneapolis. Why choose Kansas City for your showroom?
We found about thirty markets where we had a fair amount of customers and started looking at demographics of those cities. I have two friends who live in Kansas City who actually bought outdoor furniture from me, and when I went to visit the market, I met up with each of them. In talking with them, it became apparent pretty quickly that the same issue I had in New York when looking for furniture was happening to people in Kansas City. And you guys have great barbecue, so I was like, “Let’s do it.”