SBIO 2013 Semi-finalist Interview: Thread

threadby Candice D McLeod

Each week leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open Innovation (SBIO) finals on June 5th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will feature two articles on SBIO semi-finalists. Meet semi-finalist, Thread.

Ian Rosenberger visited Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake with the intention of assisting with relief efforts by taking photos and donating the profits to an NGO. However, overwhelmed by poverty during his visit to the Francophone island, he wanted to do more. He realized that although immediate aid was undoubtedly crucial to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Haiti, job creation – and subsequent self-sufficiency – was also needed, as approximately 80 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.

While looking for avenues to increase economic development, he also noticed an overabundance of trash on the streets. “I wrote in my journal during my visit, If Haiti can make money from trash = good,” says Rosenberger. He then decided to focus on creating a solution that tackles both poverty and untreated waste by forming Thread.

Thread’s mission is to “provide dignified jobs for the poor” while “creating a sustainable business for the future of the planet.” The company specifically operates three lines of business whereby it (1) collects and processes plastic bottles in Haiti to form recycled (polyethylene terephthalate) PET flake, (2) sells the recycled PET flake to businesses in the United States to be used in their supply chains (3) uses the recycled materials themselves to create diverse consumer products such as fabric, belts, and watch bands. Thread respectively calls these three areas 1) Recycled by Thread 2) Powered by Thread 3) Made by Thread.

To fulfill their mission of creating sustainable jobs, the team ensures that Haitians are directly involved throughout Thread’s entire supply chain. In partnership with Haitian-based recycling nonprofit cooperative Ramase Lajan, Thread pays local entrepreneurs to collect plastic bottles to be delivered to 25 collection areas throughout the country, employs 180 local workers at their Port-au-Prince facility, and, finally, enlists local artisans, in addition to U.S. resources, to make the final products.

Overall, Thread indirectlyTHREAD_webslider_Pano benefits 1,300 Haitians, and as of May 2013, they have recycled an estimated 500,000 pounds of plastic waste, which COO Lee Kimball points out is “equivalent to the size of twenty-five Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaurs.” They have also recently increased their production from eight-hour shifts, five days a week to a 24/7 operation, and so they expect to increase these numbers by five times within the next four months.

Thread’s main target market consists of U.S. manufacturers, particularly those that supply materials to the global brands responsible for driving sustainable sourcing within their industries.

Purchasing recycled PET flake from Thread for use in a U.S. supply chain translates into reduced transportation costs, decreased shipping times (average 6 days vs. 31 days), and a smaller carbon footprint for the American companies who currently source their materials from much further regions, such as Asia. These savings are a result of Haiti’s close proximity to the United States coastline. Port-au-Prince, Haiti is only 710 miles from Miami, while Thread has calculated that eastern China is 7,500 miles from Port-au-Prince.

Most importantly, Thread is keen on being able to provide consumers with a story for their products. Rosenberger states, “Not every consumer may want to know the story behind each product that they use, but they should have the right to know.”

The company measures their work using 21 different metrics, including how recycling trash is changing people’s lives. They are also in the process of adding GPS monitors so that, according to Rosenberger, they can track how their materials are sourced, processed, and distributed “breadcrumb style.”

Thread’s three-year journey has not been without its challenges. In addition to the expected hiccups that entrepreneurs often encounter while starting a business, such as finding investors and adding motivated staff, the “Threadheads” faced obstacles in the form of cultural and language barriers (the team is currently working on becoming fluent in French and Haitian creole), and working with a country slowly emerging from political and economic instability.

“Our method is to be patient, and to be humble. We frequently ask – how can we be most helpful here? What do you need?” says Rosenberger. Their Director of Community Development, Kelsey Halling, focuses on engaging the communities in which they operate.

Thread, nevertheless, has had many victories since its inception. Thread founder, Ian Rosenberger, has spoken about Thread for TEDx and One Young World, and in 2013, was recognized as one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s “40 Under 40.” Also, in addition to being a Sustainable Brands Innovation Open 2013 semi-finalist, Thread has been selected as one of Echoing Green’s semi-finalists for 2013.

Furthermore, Thread has recently recycled their 20 millionth bottle, created $150,000 USD in income for Haitians, and helped to remove 17,389 miles from the typical supply chain. The company’s current short-term goal is to have recycled 1 million pounds of waste from Haiti by the end of this year, as well as to add an additional 90 jobs at the plastic collection centers.

However, the team continues to aggressively seek additional ways to increase the social and environmental impact of their products, which includes aspiring to starting their recycling business in other countries. “Over the next 15 years, our big hairy audacious goal is to turn 1 billion pounds of waste into things that people love,” says Rosenberger.

The first “Powered by Thread” products will be made available in fall 2013, and the first round of “Made by Thread” products will be available by 2014.

Visit Thread to learn more about how they are changing lives by recycling waste. You can also meet founder Ian Rosenberger, and COO Lee Kimball at Sustainable Brands Solution Expo at SB’13. Enter the discount NW3pSB13 for free entry.

Candice D. McLeod is the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open Co-Coordinator. She received a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies, concentrating in Energy Management & Policy, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @candicedmcleod


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