ReThread “Threads the Word” about the Environment
It’s not unusual today for companies — especially those that claim to be green or socially responsible — to give a percentage of their proceeds to nonprofits. ReThread is one of them. But there’s a whole lot more to know about this start-up clothing and graphic design company than just its charitable practices.
ReThread is a hip, new clothing company that sells “rad and responsible” organic t-shirts and hoodies, screen printed with enticing environmentally focused designs. Each item is linked with a nonprofit, so that proceeds from a particular design support a related environmental cause.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed reThread co-founder and lead graphic designer, Rob Irwin, to find out about the company’s creative business model. We asked Irwin to tell us about the company’s sustainable practices and how he and his business partners, Brett Maurer and Paul Quick, work together to produce eco-friendly clothing and unique graphic designs. — Publisher
IRWIN: ReThread has a little bit different business model than most companies. Even some of the sustainable companies out there — where people are trying to be green and sell green products — oftentimes, they’re still just concerned with the bottom line.
We attempt to embrace collaborative efforts across a multi-disciplinary plane. By doing this, we create a cooperative commerce. The ability to be sustainable in an economic downturn hedges very much on joining hands and networking with other companies. That is to say, your bottom line doesn’t stop at your own company. You end up transferring back and forth, not just clients, but actual education and analysis to better the world and increase the quality of life.
When you think about cooperative commerce in these terms, it can really create some moving things within your company and within commercialism itself. I guess that would probably be one of the largest things about reThread, and it has nothing to do with whether we sell clothing or sell graphics. The way that we operate is a very, very important aspect in commerce today.
Cooperative commerce also has the ability to shift the paradigms of culture. Think about the book that Paul Hawken wrote, called The Ecology of Commerce. It’s a fantastic book that’s been out about 15 years. It was way ahead of its time — you don’t normally think of ecology and commerce being put together. Ecology is oftentimes one thing and commerce is another.
But when you think about the actual, natural capital of a company and how they operate, it behooves the company that cuts down forests to increase their long-term shareholder value by re-growing those forests or mandating how often they cut them down. Much of The Ecology of Commerce discusses the ability to be sustainable. And being sustainable means that you understand that there are limits to growth. This is all based on the knowledge that we turn biomass from a finite planet into commodities and are doing it at over twice the rate that it grows!
BPGL: When you started reThread, how did the blend of ecology and commerce shape your thoughts about the company?
IRWIN: We started back in 2006, though we weren’t technically licensed until the beginning of this year. But all through our development, we were very focused on creating a higher quality of life for people through spreading the word about environmental issues. We wanted to share how 6 billion, almost 7 billion, people on this planet can actually shape the air we breathe.
BPGL: What does that look like in terms of your business model? How do you collaborate with a company?
IRWIN: I guess I use the term “collaborate” loosely. One of the interesting things about reThread is that, oftentimes, we donate blindly to these companies, so we’re an unknown donor in the bigger, greater world of commerce.
We start by creating a graphic. And this particular graphic may have issues based in water resource management and education, for example. There are many different directions you can go, many different avenues that you can discuss, relative to who might be pertinent to a particular donation on that graphic.
BPGL: When you say you “donate blindly,” what do you mean by that term?
IRWIN: We don’t necessarily call ourselves out and say, “Hey, look! We’re donating to you guys. We want some press,” or anything like that. So, for instance, with Carbonfund, we’ll just send them a check. Oftentimes, these smaller nonprofits don’t know who we are. It kind of gives us a feel-good sense about what we do as well.
Once again, it’s not about our bottom line, it’s about how many lives we touch and how many minds we educate, and how much discussion we can actually get going and get on the table.
BPGL: How do you select a nonprofit for each graphic?
IRWIN: What we do is go in and research nonprofit organizations relative to that environmental issue or topic for that graphic, then narrow it down to just one. We decide, based upon some loose metrics, who we’re going to donate to every time we sell one of those t-shirts or hoodies.
Essentially, you could look at it as a pass-through. It’s like, “How about you guys donate $27 to us, and we’ll donate a portion of proceeds of that $27 to World Wildlife Fund or the Carbonfund or EcoStewards Alliance (ESA)?”
BPGL: And in that $27, they get a t-shirt.
IRWIN: Exactly. And then they get a t-shirt with a cool graphic on it that they can talk about with their friends. Everybody needs to buy clothing. Why not buy clothing that’s not only environmentally conscious but also exists to promote and help other nonprofits continue to exist?
For example, we have a polar bear graphic. We are still looking to identify a nonprofit in that sector to donate to. We would like a nonprofit in, say, Alaska that’s rescuing polar bears from drowning or doing work in their local habitat that relates to the restoration of the polar bear environment.
Really though, the graphic isn’t as limited as that. The polar bear is really just a keystone species that draws attention to environmental problems. Amphibians and other smaller, less prominent species are what people should be concerned about, because we are losing them fast; but people connect with polar bears. Connecting is just the start. The real issue, though, is sharing the planet and realizing that we as humans are encroaching upon these natural environments.
And when you buy a hoodie with a wind power graphic on it, we donate to the Carbonfund. The Carbonfund sets aside land in a trust so that it can continue to grow and sequester CO2 for companies and industries that don’t offset their CO2.
Oftentimes, we’ll choose a smaller nonprofit, because it tends to be more focused. Though we do support some of the larger ones, like the World Wildlife Fund. Even the Carbonfund is a pretty large one.
BPGL: For a given shirt do you have multiple charities that you are going to contribute to? Or do you say, the polar bear shirt will always go to this charity? How do you decide?
IRWIN: As of now, we’re sticking with one particular nonprofit. In a perfect world, and if we were donating tens of thousands of dollars, certainly we’d say, “The first quarter of this year, we’re donating to this company. The second quarter it will be this company, and so forth.” It’s not like that yet, but hopefully it will be someday. Right now we identify a single nonprofit per shirt.
BPGL: Are all of your shirts and hoodies organic?
IRWIN: All of the items are organic and/or recycled. All of our hoodies are organic cotton grown with non-genetically modified seeds, zero pesticides or herbicides. The cotton is grown in the USA. The fabric is manufactured in the USA. And each item is made in the USA. We do our best to keep it on U.S. soil all the way through.
We do have some Anvil recycled t-shirts — those are the men’s t’s and they are made in Honduras. The women’s t-shirts are all organic, as well as the hoodies.
BPGL: You have very cool designs. Are you the sole designer?
IRWIN: We tend to bounce ideas back and forth on the table from the inception. I would say that we each have come up with different graphic conceptualizations and then these rough sketches are worked on collaboratively, and cleaned up for launching. I personally do a lot of the final touches. Paul Quick, Brett Maurer, and I come up with the ideas together.
We have about 30 other graphics we haven’t released yet. Every month we release one graphic via a survey on Facebook. We’ll say, “Hey, heads up everyone. It’s the middle of November, and we’re about to release our December graphic. We need your help.” It’s a Survey Monkey thing. They get an image of the graphic, a description of the graphic, who we might donate to, and what it’s all about. And then they vote.
BPGL: Do you just put up one graphic, or show three graphics and ask them to choose the one they like?
IRWIN: November’s new graphic is “Unplug.” We showed four different graphics. It was a neck-and-neck race, but Unplug got it. It was about vampire outlets and unplugging and being conscious of wasted energy. It is also reference to our lives as being connected to a virtual world, and we should be spending more time outside with nature away from technology.
BPGL: What do you do with the designs that didn’t win that month?
IRWIN: We cycle them through. But the bane of our existence is our creative ingenuity. Last night I just came up with six more graphics. At our meetings we’ll discuss these and others that Brett and Paul may bring and decide which ones to move toward finalization. Some “pass the initial test,” and others are stored under ideation for revisit at the next go around. But it’s an attempt to continue to update our company and to keep people interested and learning about new topics and issues.
Often times, when people do a big mind dump on the public, they just get flustered and don’t retain any of the information. So, by releasing graphics every once in a while — a new one every month — we attempt to get people’s attention and focus on that particular issue. This also keeps visitors checking in on our latest unique graphic and even suggesting what they would like to see next.
BPGL: What else is unique about you?
IRWIN: One of the biggest things we want people to take away from this is that there can be success stories when you don’t focus primarily on the bottom line. I was actually thinking about this while driving to work this morning. I feel that companies do much better when they judge their worth on how much more value they give than receive in payment.
When you think about that in a system-wide, holistic perspective — globalized, if you will — if every company in the world was operating under those pretenses, paradigms of almost every culture around the world would be shifted tremendously toward the better. That is probably the underlying mover of our company and all of the future companies that we may or may not start. We hope to produce a baseline model for other companies to follow in that regard.
We also have a very diverse staff from backgrounds in engineering, art, and marketing. Paul digs deep into the numbers (spending a lot of his free time balancing out LCA’s (Life-cycle Assessments) and designing renewable energy systems. Brett reaches out and embraces the public, bringing his energy and positive outlook to each business and personal relationship. And I work with them on designs and finalize the graphics, photos, and our image on-line.
BPGL: I read on your site that you use recycled shipping materials. What does that look like?
IRWIN: We try to be as sustainable as possible — at least net zero; that’s our goal. We use Tyvek to ship. At our local lumberyard, they get large shipments of lumber wrapped in Tyvek plastic. They end up throwing it away. So we will pick up yards and yards of this stuff for free. It gives the Tyvek one more use before it goes to the landfill.
We’re using packaging tape to secure it. That’s not the best solution, but it’s better than paying for virgin material in an envelope. We are constantly considering what the next best step is. Years ago, we had the idea of reusing plastic bottles for packaging the shirts to ship. That was before Terracycle, and we decided it was too messy of an adventure to undertake.
BPGL: How did reThread get its start?
IRWIN: We officially started reThread in February, but launched at the Fort Collins Sustainabile Living Fair in September. Paul and I had started another business, re:thought, years before that. We both have full-time jobs on top of reThread and re:thought, our sustainability consultancy firm. Needless to say, our workloads are fairly intense every week.
When Brett came back from his travels, we started reThread and pushed a lot of the things on his table. He’s the director of marketing and PR. Much of his time is spent marketing reThread through different mediums, including social media and blog sites, internet advertising, and print. He also develops local community collaboration projects.
But like I said, it’s all about creating a higher quality of life. And that was what it was always about with Paul and me before reThread. Our background is in product design and development as industrial designers. We took it upon ourselves to say, “Look, as designers, we have a moral obligation to speak for the public, to increase the quality of life for people, because that’s what design and the evolution modernity is all about.” If not for that, then for what?
ReThread is the social side of our environmental action. Re:thought is on the commercial side of the industry. So we wanted to hit both sides and this just happens to be our creative outlet between the two.
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