A movement to transform trash dumped in developing countries into job-creating, eco-friendly treasure is taking shape in the form of custom handbags.
East Liberty responsible fabrics company Thread has teamed up with Carnegie handcrafted bag manufacturer Moop to create the first suite of products using fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles collected from the streets of Haiti.
Debuted Monday on Moop’s online store, the Moop+Thread collection features special editions of Moop's Messenger No. 1 bag and Paperback bag that are lined with Thread's recycled polyester blend fabric. Moop founder Wendy Downs said she and her team five have created 30 units so far and will increase stock based on customer demand.
"We don’t carry a lot of inventory on hand. We’ve noticed that our business model follows the 80/20 rule. That is, 20 percent of inventory is 80 percent of profit. So if we get a large number of orders, we’ll shift everybody from making backpacks or whatever they’re making to making [Moop+Thread].“
Thread founder Ian Rosenberger said joining forces with Moop serves the dual purpose of teaming up with a Pittsburgh company and reaching a customer base attracted to handcrafted products made by responsible manufacturers.
"Thread wanted its first partnership to be with a company that makes things that mean something to people, that have an emotional impact," said Mr. Rosenberger. "So now when people say 'that's a great bag,' they can say a little more about it and tell the story of how it came to be."
Eyeing swatches of seafoam green and slate gray Thread fabrics in Moop’s 7,000-square-foot warehouse, Mr. Rosenberger couldn't help marveling at how far a concept born four years ago during a business trip to Haiti had evolved.
After traveling to the country in 2010 for an assignment, the former television producer found himself enraged by heaps of trash piled indiscriminately throughout city streets and enamored with the residents struggling to build lives in the environment.
"When Haiti came along and I saw all of those things, it really pushed me off of my pedestal,“ he said. ”I just went to take photos, spent a week there and fell in love.“
Fueled by the idea of turning trash removal into an industry for a nation where more than 40 percent of residents are unemployed, Mr. Rosenberger drained his bank account making bi-weekly trips to Haiti to craft a solid business plan. Before the year’s end, Thread was born, and he had teamed up with the Ramase Lajan Program, an Executive Without Borders initiative that already was providing jobs to Haitian citizens who collected recyclable plastic.
The efforts were enough for Mr. Rosenberger to raise a total of $780,000, including $200,000 from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, $200,000 from Innovation Works, $50,000 from Idea Foundry and hundreds of thousands from angel investors.
Since its creation, Thread has recycled millions of tons of plastic into polyester textiles, including 660,000 pounds last year alone. The process has created 1,620 jobs for Haitians who gather bottles for recycling and $164,931 in 2013 revenues for Ramase Lajan collection centers owned by Haitian citizens. The company is currently working to expand the program to Honduras.
In terms of product, what started as stiff polyester fabrics more suited to tarp has grown to a collection of six fabrics that include canvas and a soft jersey knit that is in the testing phase. The company is in talks with 80 potential partners to create everything from outdoor gear to women’s apparel, said Jenna Knapp, Thread director of production.
Despite a successful rollout that garnered 150,000 views on Moop’s website its first day, both teams agree the Moop+Thread collaboration wasn’t without its hiccups.
Mrs. Downs had never partnered with another entity and wasn’t sure her company was the right fit for Thread’s plan. Once she was on board, production was delayed several months when a water-resistant coating rendered an entire batch of Thread fabric unusable.
However, with both startups sharing the vision that customers will seek out quality products that make an environmental and economic impact, optimism for the next stage of the partnership is running high.
"Everything around us that is made is made by a human hand, often by someone who is overworked and underpaid. There is a constant struggle of wanting to do everything to help, from organizing to making your own clothes,” said Mrs. Downs.
“Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something and my customers buy bags because they want to buy from some place that has responsible goods and they’re making a deliberate decision. People want to know where their stuff is coming from.”
The Moop+Thread Messenger No. 1 bag is $187 and the Moop+Thread Paperback bag is $169. Visit moopshop.com for more information.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.