In recycled candy wrappers, designers see the makings of a handbag
Worn, discarded mattresses. Fire hoses that have outlasted their lifesaving years. Candy wrappers and soda pull-tabs. Billboards advertising movies long since out of theaters.
To most, this sounds like a heap of trash headed for a landfill. But to an increasing number of designers set on creating eco-friendly merchandise, this refuse inspires innovative fashion.
As the global warming crisis becomes front page news, the issue is also making its way into the style pages. Swarms of Hollywood stars chartered hybrid cars to the Oscars, where the programs were printed on recycled paper and Al Gore’s documentary on global warming snagged two statuettes.
Consumers who want to do their part can now wear their heart on their sleeves, in the form of handbags made from recycled materials--from tarps to seat belts to juice containers. After achieving success in Europe, companies that make these bags are bringing them to the United States, and sales are surging.
“Global warming is really being recognized as an issue, and part of the issue is our expectations of material culture,” said Stuart Walker, professor of industrial design at the University of Calgary. “So visible recycling, as is the case with these bags, makes an important contribution in reinforcing that and giving a message to the public that these kinds of things can be unique and interesting.”
Swiss brand Freitag is the father of the trend. The Zurich factory’s workers hand cut the body of Freitag products from used truck tarps, stitching them together with recycled inner tubes and attaching old seat belts for straps--resulting in a product that is both environmentally friendly and one-of-a-kind.
Ubiquitous in Europe, Freitag bags have become extremely popular in America over the past two years. U.S. sales climbed 85 percent in 2005 and rose another 45 percent in 2006 despite the lack of an advertising campaign and despite the fact that only 35 shops across the country carried the bags.
Chris Houston, Freitag’s first U.S. retailer, says the bags he carries in his San Francisco shop Modern Artifacts sold slowly when he first introduced them in 1999, but buzz around the brand has gradually grown.
“Because people have discovered we live on a place called Earth, they start to care and want something sustainable,” said Houston, who owns nine Freitag bags himself. “When you buy quality stuff, it’s already sustainable. When you buy crap, it’s next month’s landfill.” Products like Freitag, he says, are “next millennium’s landfill.”
And other designers are catching on. Dana Harvey usually uses new materials to make bags woven from seat belts, but he recently decided, after repeated requests from customers, to design bags from scrap seat belt material that car companies would otherwise toss.
Since leftover seat belts come in smaller pieces and varied colors, Harvey said, it was more difficult to construct quality, fashionable bags, resulting in prices that were roughly 15 percent higher than usual. But consumers were not deterred, he said. Released three months ago, the initial run of 1,800 bags sold out in two weeks, and customers still call requesting more--including a woman whose life was saved by the seat belt in her Volkswagen Beetle and wanted it turned into a handbag (which Harvey did happily).
“Consumers are making conscious decisions about their beliefs,” Harvey said. “If you have to pay more, it’s not a problem. People have really caught on to being green.”
Many consumers are attracted to the bags because they believe recycled materials make more interesting products. “You get much more creative design when you have to respond to the messy and untidy aspects of the world in which we live,” he said. “If you have to deal with a material that is worn out, scarred and scratched from use, you have to be very creative to make a product with a character of its own.”
The search for creative designs made from refuse has sent Jonathan Marcoschamer, one of the founders of Ecoist, another fashion brand, around the globe. Ecoist markets bags that are manufactured from recycled candy wrappers by craftsmen in Mexico, from soda cans in Peru, from billboards in Chile and from soda pull-tabs in Brazil.
The biggest challenge for the company, which sells products in 300 American stores and 10 other countries, has been convincing consumers to pay top dollar for products that would otherwise be trash. A small clutch made from candy wrappers--which holds a wallet, keys, cell phone and not much else--goes for $60; a tote bag made from a vinyl movie billboard is $55.
“Just because it’s recycled it doesn’t need to be cheaper,” Marcoschamer said. “It’s exactly the opposite. People have found a way, with ingenuity and creativity, to re-engineer something that would be in a landfill into a handbag.”
Although Marcoschamer wants to promote environmental awareness, support sustainable production and create jobs for craftsmen in poorer countries, he’s also upfront about the business potential. ”People are going to make millions selling solar panels, ethanol,” he said. “And that’ll trickle down into other industries, fashion or home products like laundry detergent.”
Though Freitag’s sales have grown through word-of-mouth, the company is planning to launch an American sales campaign next year.
Haul, an Australian company inspired by Freitag that uses old billboards for bags, plans to introduce its brand to the United States in August. A German company called Feuerwear, which began making bags from used fire hoses a year and a half ago, is searching for a U.S. distributor. Meanwhile, Feuerwear's products and many others, including Nina Raeber’s bags made from vividly colored Cambodian rice bags and Doreen Westphal’s mod-looking inner-tube satchels from Amsterdam, are available online.
And although the increase in such products will result in greater competition among manufactures and retailers, some small environmentally conscious retailers welcome that shift. “We’re hoping to put ourselves out of business one day,” said Brian Hoffman, founder of the Web site Abundant Earth, which sells thousands of organically grown and sustainable products. “We hope these kinds of products will become mainstream.”
Ann Savageau, a professor of design at the University of California, Davis, says at the rate things are going, that goal may be possible. “It’s not just a fashion or a fad, it’s here to stay,” she said of sustainable design. “This is not something that’s optional. It’s something that everyone’s going to have to do in a major way for the future.”