The ultimate award for a Derbyshire‘ sustainable development’ firm

The TDP team celebrate the King’s Award for Enterprise announcement last year.

Catherine Roth looks at a Wirksworth company that has won the most prestigious business award of all.

A DERBYSHIRE company is celebrating after receiving a royal seal of approval. TDP was presented with the prestigious King’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development at a ceremony in May, acknowledging its commitment to the environment.

A small family-run business in Wirksworth, TDP designs and handcrafts stylish outdoor furniture made entirely from recycled UK plastic waste. What makes the products so remarkable is that they look just like wood, even down to the grain, yet require none of the time-consuming maintenance that timber involves. 

The product range has grown steadily since Rob Barlow, managing director, designed and made the company’s very first bench in 2012. There is now an extensive selection of benches, chairs, modular seating, tables, picnic benches, dining sets, planters and nature accessories. In that time, TDP has used over 4,500 tonnes of recycled UK plastic waste in its products, with every kilogram of recycled plastic using the equivalent of 630 bottle tops – all plastic waste that could otherwise have ended up in landfill.

The Hedgehog House that Rob Barlow pledged to design and build out of recycled plastic.
Above: The Hedgehog House that Rob Barlow pledged to design and build out of recycled plastic.

TDP was awarded the prestigious royal honour last year, which included an invitation to a reception at Buckingham Palace where Rob was joined by the other winning companies. He was also given an audience with King Charles III. Rob says: “It was really exciting to tell my story in person. We spoke about the environment and plastic waste, and the King was intrigued about how our furniture was made and wanted to know the processes.” 

However, the formal presentation of the award was postponed until the following year, due to the death of the late Queen and ensuing formalities.

May 15 was therefore a day of celebration in Derbyshire for TDP and its invited guests at Haarlem Mill, built by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1780, and sited just across the road from TDP’s factory and showroom. 

His Majesty’s representative in Derbyshire, the Lord-Lieutenant of Derbyshire Elizabeth Fothergill CBE and Peter Ellse DL, formally presented TDP with its award. This was followed by a music performance from renowned Derbyshire folk singer Lester Simpson, as well as a poetry reading from locally-based poet Rob Stamper whose Wirksworth Plasticators was written especially for TDP in honour of its sustainability work.

Elizabeth Fothergill said: “It is my absolute honour and privilege to present on behalf of His Majesty, King Charles III, the King’s Award for Enterprise, Sustainable Development, to TDP Ltd. 

“The King’s Awards for Enterprise are considered to be the highest accolade to be bestowed upon a UK business – the most prestigious award. Any business with a King’s Award is guaranteed to receive a warm welcome at home and abroad. It says so much about the calibre and the standing of the company, its dealings with its staff, its customers, its stakeholders and its community engagement.”

TDP has already seen numerous benefits from the award. Rob says: “The pride that the team have taken in winning the award is just one of the effects. We’re all really so proud. It has given everyone pride in what they do and working for TDP.” 

It also made it more attractive as an employer by increasing the company’s environmental credentials and it was this commitment to sustainability that encouraged the latest new recruit, Leah Barratt, to join TDP for her apprenticeship.

Rob adds: “From a business perspective, we saw growth that we can attribute directly to winning the King’s Award. After the results were announced, The Times newspaper ran a two-page article on the company the following day. Our website also saw an increase in traffic – we had over 20,000 hits on the website on one day alone! It was a tremendous spike and website sales increased by 37%. The increase was incredible.” 

Even one year on, TDP is still experiencing the sales boost as well as opening up opportunities in the export market, including a furniture order for a care home in the Falkland Islands.

Applying for the King’s Award was a rigorous process, and Rob said that the sustainability category was the most difficult of all the four categories. He says: “There were just 15 in the country, and just two in the East Midlands, who won the sustainability award.” However, he very nearly didn’t apply – it was only thanks to Dr Denise Taylor, who runs sustainability consultancy Wylde Connections, that he did. “Denise pushed me to apply for the award. I’m glad we were encouraged to apply!”

All of TDP’s furniture is manufactured from recycled plastic profiles. At the recycling plant, molten recycled plastic is poured into moulds with a wood grain pattern effect. An hour after they have been left to set, they are pushed out and left to cool, forming plastic profiles that TDP orders in to its Wirksworth factory, where they are cut to the required size and made into furniture. Every piece of furniture is built to order so colours and measurements can be customised. Customers can opt for the black or brown of traditional timber – or create a splash of colour or something even bolder with a multitude of combinations. They are ideal for schools and sports clubs, too, where benches and other furniture can be built to team colours.

As well as reducing plastic waste, the products come with little required maintenance except for a quick hose down or wipe clean, ensuring no harsh chemicals or preservatives are required to keep them looking their best. In fact, the furniture can be left outside all year round, looking just as good many years later. It can withstand hot summers and freezing winters without splintering, cracking or rotting and, being heavier than its wooden counterparts, means it will not blow away.

Although the company has been producing its furniture for well over 10 years, TDP’s story goes back much further to when Rob and his wife Anna founded “Trade and DIY Products” over 30 years ago, providing and manufacturing a range of products for the construction, building and landscaping market. However, increasing competition from cheaper imports meant growth was limited in the market, so Rob came up with the idea of branching out and making furniture from the recycled plastic planks that they already sold. 

A graphic designer by trade, he begins each new design by sketching ideas before considering the limitations of the material he’s working with, such as the inability to carve the material or create dovetail joints. Once Rob is happy with the design he sets to work on building prototypes before creating the finished product. At first, Rob was making the furniture on his own; now there is a team of 16 to fulfil orders, although Rob still helps out on the factory floor, particularly at busy times.

Following last year’s success, TDP has launched it’s modular outdoor seating – the Derbyshire sofa, as well as its poseur table and chairs set, a flat-pack raised bed, and its hedgehog house that came about almost by accident.

Rob was giving a talk to a group of 14 to 18-year-olds at an event that was attended by other businesses including Severn Trent Water and Rolls Royce. It was an opportunity for young people gathered to listen to local companies explaining why being a sustainable business was important, together with the chance to interrogate them. Rob says: “At the end, each of the businesses there had to make a pledge –  I was like a rabbit in the headlights when I was asked, ‘what will you do?’ I pledged to increase our nature range.”  

TDP worked in collaboration with the Hedgehog Society and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust to create a hedgehog house to add to TDP’s current offering of planters, bird tables and feeding stations. It underwent various tests for a year; then Rob could deliver on his pledge – the hedgehog house was ready. This story was just one that formed part of the award’s application process.

TDP also supports the local community and gives away a minimum of 10 per cent of its profits to charities. It is a corporate sponsor of Aquabox and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, as well as supporting Matlock & Cromford Cricket Club, Wirksworth Cricket Club, Wirksworth Heritage Centre, and various other local events. 

Every product that is made ensures more plastic waste is kept out of landfill and without the risk of it ending up in the oceans, the effects of which Rob and Anna have seen first hand. Since 2022, they have embarked on ‘citizen science’ trips that have taken them to the Arctic, Alaska and Antarctica to help undertake research into microplastics, and to the warmer climes of the Indian Ocean, where they helped to replant coral reefs. 

Rob says: “When we went on a research vessel to the Antarctic, we had first hand experience of glacial retreat and global warming. The most exciting research was studying microplastics. At the time, it was cutting edge research to see how many microplastics were present in the waters – the research had only started two weeks before we arrived there. Antarctica is very pristine and there appears to be little evidence of any effects from pollution apart from glacial retreat. With no inhabitants and very few visitors, the presence of microplastics was a surprise. Plankton and krill think it’s food so eat it and it then goes up the food chain, ending up in the food we eat – microplastics have even been found in human embryos. Microplastics are so light that when the currents move the plastic to warmer areas like the coast of California, the plastic evaporates into the air and then later falls as rain.”

In September 2023, Rob and Anna headed to a marine biology centre in Alaska undertaking the same microplastics trials as had taken place in the Antarctic. Rob says: “They are building a database to identify the type of plastic, the manufacturer and what it was made into. The database will inform governments and policy makers, so the worst culprits causing the pollution can be targeted.”

Back in Derbyshire, TDP is determined not to rest on its laurels after winning the award. Instead it is busier than ever, manufacturing its furniture while ensuring sustainability is at the very heart of its business. 

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