In 2010, Ian Rosenberger traveled to Haiti looking to help people after the earthquake. And help he did. He met a young man called Tassy Filsaime who had a cancerous jaw. He brought him back to Pittsburgh and raised $50,000 for a life-saving operation. Then, he hit on a way to support the locals more permanently: a business that recycles plastic bottles into "the most responsible fabric on the planet."
Today, a string of brands, including Timberland, HP, and Kenneth Cole, now use the material in their products (see our previous story here). And the impact in Haiti has been dramatic. Thread International, Rosenberger's company, supports about 300 recycling jobs on the island and, in 2015, sent 440,000 pounds of plastic to the U.S., where it's blended with cotton to produce canvas, jersey and denim products. Timberland is launching a Thread-infused collection in February (boots, duffel bag, backpack) and Thread has just signed up another major brand (soon to be announced) for next year.
"People want brands to care about where their stuff is made. If brands can do that with any semblance of reality or truth, they can create something that's truly good for people," Rosenberger says. He stresses that provenance is crucial. It's not just about making things from recycled plastic. It's about making things from a particular bottle picked by a particular person in a particular place. "The trash from a Syrian refugee camp that gives people jobs is inherently more valuable than trash that comes from the local dump," he says.
Though the apparel industry has been trying to improve its environmental performance, its impact is still woeful and growing all the time. The fast fashion revolution, which sees brands like Zara produce 24 new collections each year, has seen clothing sales double in the last 15 years. Clothing is falling in price relative to other consumer goods, and we now buy and discard t-shirts and pants at a far quicker rate than we use to. If the developing world takes on the same habits—and it probably will—the industry's carbon emissions will grow by 77% by 2025, according to a recent analysis by consultants McKinsey. Water use could jump by a fifth.
Rosenberger, who before Thread worked as a MTV host and appeared on the tenth season of Survivor (he came in third), criticizes the buy-one-give-one model pioneered by Toms and now adopted by numerous socially-minded startups. He says it leads to unnecessary waste and may negatively affect local economies by freezing out native producers. Much better that the product itself does good, as in Thread's, which helps take plastic bottles out of waterways and landfills.
Thread produces both yarn and fabric, depending on the need. Its manufacturing process is simple. It heats up plastic and extrudes it through a fine shower head-type machine, then cuts up the result. The method reduces energy consumption by 80% compared to making virgin polyester, but the cost to clients is roughly 10% higher. Rosenberger says brands need to factor in the marketing and CSR benefit of using Thread. "They don't get this level of engagement from the recycled material companies," he says.
Thread has raised VC capital and recently participated in Unreasonable Impact, an accelerator program launched by the nonprofit Unreasonable and Barclays bank.
Rosenberger argues ethical startups like Thread can help companies improve the visibility of their supply chains and take on cleaner, less-intensive manufacturing processes. "If people adopt Thread as a material the same way they adopted organic or fair trade, we will absolutely change the industry for the better and, in the process, eliminate immense amounts of waste from poor communities," he says.
[Photos: via Thread/Timberland]