“First make a really good product. Then keep them by making it sustainable,” says Ian Rosenberger, founder of Thread International. This is the philosophy of the brand’s backpack Kickstarter (which has just 12 hours left) that has exceeded its goal of $45,000 by more than $500,000. The pack is made from recycled plastic bottles and is the first product to be launched by the company. Ian, an ultra runner, Survivor survivor, and Brooklyn entrepreneur, created the company to help his friends in Haiti have jobs. Now Thread is providing jobs around the globe using post-consumer trash. See our interview below.
What problem in the world do you want Thread International to impact?
I started the company because I had a bunch of friends in neighborhoods in Haiti. When I asked them what it is they needed, they kept saying, “I just want a job.” Nobody asked for a handout.
Everybody I met had the same sentiment: “I want to be able to put a roof over my head. I want my kids to have a better life than me.” It was in that moment that I realized that we were way more alike than people realize, that there is not an “us” and “them” with the poor and the wealthy. Our futures are tied up together, and we all want the same thing.
The problem I’m trying to solve is to give my friends jobs. It just so happened that the renewable resource that I came across to do that happened to be a shit-ton of plastic trash.
How did you get from “Okay, I want to create jobs,” to “I’m going to use plastic bottles to create jobs?”
After the quake in 2010, I started going back and forth. Originally, I went down to take pictures, and I was going to sell the photos to a non-profit to raise some money for earthquake relief. I had no idea what I was doing when it came to non-profits or understanding of poverty economics.
When I started looking at my pictures, I realized in the background of every single picture was this incredible amount of trash. I thought, “What the hell am I doing? Here it is!” So I Googled, “What can I turn trash into?”
Did Google have an answer for you?
Yeah! I came across this little fiber facility in Massachusetts that was making fleece out of recycled bottles. My buddies and I road-tripped to visit them and learned how to make fabric from trash.
Before that, had post-consumer plastic been on your radar as a problem?
I would love to be able to say that I was on the front end of something. But you know, we’ve known this plastic trash problem exists. I like to think that over the past couple of years, we’ve been yelling loudly enough that we were one of the voices that contributed to people paying more attention to it.
Nat Geo published their plastics issue in June. We saw this big outcry against plastic straws earlier this year. I think this is definitely a year of plastics. That said, it’s been a massive problem for the past 15 years, even before that.
Remember that until the 50s, when plastic became commercialized, the vast majority of materials that were put out as trash in the world were biodegradable. It wasn’t until the 50s and 60s that this became a thing. So, this is a recent and acute problem.
As the world’s population grew, we realized that the world cannot cope with this amount of plastic. It’s just untenable.
— Ian Rosenberger
So, when you see plastic litter or trash around, are you like “Oh! We’ll make something out of that!”
A hundred percent. I was definitely a recycler before I was in this business, and I considered myself as somebody who cared about the environment. But like most people, I didn’t know what to do about it.
Haiti trip changed my perspective from “Oh, what a shame,” to “Oh, this is a business! We can make money doing this. What if we can make a lot of money doing this?”
I was the guy in college that I told my dad, “I’m never going to be in business. I’m definitely going to work in non-profits. I hate capitalism!”
What I realized throughout this process, and after the earthquake, is I now believe that business can be the single greatest force for good in human history. It just requires businesses to begin taking responsibility for their actions in the ways we expect people to.
Your kickstarter is on fire. Why?
First want to make a really good product—you get them by making a good product. Then I believe you keep them by making it sustainable.
Totally. I know you all generally create the fabric that is used by other brands, to create their products. Is this backpack your first product to put out there?
Yes, it is. We essentially looked around and said, “The industry is not changing fast enough. We need to help precipitate that change.”
The immense amounts of waste that are produced out of companies is crazy. I’m sure you saw on the news that Burberry just decided to stop burning their excess inventory. I think, “Is that the bar we’re jumping over? Because if that’s the bar, we’re in deep shit!” That’s one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got Patagonia. We look at them as a company we can look at and say “Yep, alright.” They really dive in, in a big way. Patagonia has probably done more than anybody else to be able to figure out a way to limit the bad and still make money.
I think we just want to take that one step further, and say, “I really, truly believe that we can get to net good.”
Will there be more products?
Yes. I found this massive hole from 26 to 40 in the 10 percent of the average person’s closet that gets used 90 percent of the time. It’s the stuff you own that is your go-to, day in day out, conquer the world clothing. There is not one brand that makes all that stuff, soup to nuts. We’re going to own that, soup to nuts.
How has travel has impacted your philosophy on creating this business, and wanting to create these jobs?
Travel is how I got into this in the first place. A buddy of mine who runs an NGO across the African continent was a professional soccer player in Zimbabwe back in the late 90s, early 2000s. Half of his team died in the prime of their careers because of AIDS. So, he started an NGO that teaches kids about AIDS prevention using soccer. It’s called Grassroots Soccer.
In 2008, he invited me to come to South Africa and Zambia with him to see some of the work. I went and it was the first time I got to spend time in a slum. I don’t know what was, but I was drawn to this environment. There was something incredibly industrious about it, something incredibly alive. The people who live in slums globally have to be incredibly resourceful. In many ways, a lot of the rules that I found I hated about traditional business didn’t exist in those places. And the people that I met there, I just liked.
I wondered, “What if there is a way to work in this space?” And I kind of put it away for a while. When the earthquake came along in Haiti, and I went back down, it was like “Oh, my God! This is the opportunity!” I was meeting all of these people who were both resourceful and industrious. All they lacked was a connection to an actual job.
I’ve also been a climber, so I know the value of wild spaces for the mind, body, and the soul. When we can keep things alive and natural, I think everybody does better.
For Thread International, is everything coming out of Haiti now?
We come out of Haiti, Honduras, and Taiwan, now. I get asked a ton about West Africa, whether it’s Nigeria or Senegal or Cape Verde. You’re seeing the same thing happen there that you see in Haiti, but on a larger scale because the population is exploding and the infrastructure has not caught up yet. I really believe that places like West Africa, south Central Africa, and East Africa have the ability to leapfrog burn-and-bury sanitation technology and move straight to a reusable economy, in the same way they leapfrogged landline telecommunications, and went straight to cell phones.
I just was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the site of some of the planet’s first climate refugees. There are many areas of the country that are underwater. And it doubles as the most population-dense country on the planet.
So, you’re seeing all of these problems come together in one place. I think a lot of people look at that and say “What the fuck are we going to do?” I think we look at that, as an organization, and say “This is the single greatest opportunity for business that we might have ever seen.”
— Ian Rosenberger
We did some work earlier this year around micro-plastics, and the gyres and all of these things are just really overwhelming.
Yeah. It starts on land, too. I’m following the deployment of the kid that’s doing the clean up with the arm. A lot of people are poo-pooing it. I don’t know. First of all, name somebody else that’s trying to work on it in a real way? And secondly, I think they’re very much under the same impression we are, and I think you are too, which is plastics starts on the land. So, we definitely have to solve that problem, too.
However, I say this all of the time. I will very gladly stop making backpacks and essentials out of plastic. Please! I’ll find something else to make it out of. But until that point, until we get Pepsi and Coke to stop making bottles, we’re going to keep fighting this issue. If those two companies stop doing it, this problem is over.
Because they are such huge contributors to it on a global scale?
Massive! You look at the United States, and the states that have bottle return policies, like the five cents per bottle deposit states? Recycling is up around 80%. If you look at the states where that’s not the case, it’s down around 30%. The number one driver of how that works is law. All it takes is the state to say “We’re going to do this. It’s the law. And we’re going to require the bottle companies to help subsidize it.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out that the bottle companies employ lobbyists that make sure that those states don’t do it. You want to solve recycling in America? Incentivize Americans with the one thing they know, which is the dollar. We could solve this problem tomorrow!
Why did you want to be on Survivor and what did you get out of it?
I did it because I wanted the chance to be Robinson Crusoe. If you were like “Listen, we’re going to put you on a desert island, and you’re going to live there, and there’s no money involved,” I would be like “Yes! I’ll do it!” And it just so happened that they had all of the other crazy-town bullshit that went along with it, of reality TV.
Early reality TV, so arguably better reality TV.
I like to think so, the vintage years. Right? It was a good experience, for somebody who grew up living outside, and didn’t wear shoes for a fair amount of time, and really enjoys not being inside. It was unbelievable. And you know what’s also so great about it, now? I didn’t take a single picture. Phones yet, were not – we didn’t have phones. I didn’t take a single picture.
Every single memory I have of that place is in my mind, and it’s so much more vivid that way. I can smell it. And it’s because I had to. I don’t have a reference point.
That’s cool. I miss that, sometimes.
I completely agree. Yeah, we’re in the midst of a crisis. As somebody who really loves wild spaces, and there are less and less of them across the planet right now, I think if I were speaking to a group of people who enjoyed the outdoors, the thing that I would say to them over and over and over again is while we should continue to give our dollars to places like the Sierra Club, we should be creating businesses that help protect these spaces.
We should be creating businesses that incentivize people to stop cutting down trees, and continue to be in love with wildlife, and to make sure that people throw their trash away, or to use it to create jobs. Because 20 years from now, when the last rainforest in Africa is cut down, or 50 years from now, when the last rainforest in Africa is cut down, it’s going to be not because the person hates trees, but because they’re just trying to put food on the table.