Everybody is familiar with recycling, but how much do we know about upcycling?
The term, first used in the mid-1990s, refers to the practice of repurposing waste materials or useless products into new items of better quality. Think: a kitchen table made from salvaged barn wood; a 1950s ballgown, thrifted and reconditioned for the 21st-century bride; portrait art made from film negatives; even earrings made from an old skateboard.
While upcycling is naturally suited to art, design and fashion — derivative fields that celebrate originality — building a scalable business around such sustainable manufacturing and the creation of one-offs doesn’t seem feasible.
Or so I assumed before encountering Rareform, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company that manufactures one-of-a-kind surf bags, backpacks and totes from a source material we see every day but never think about, at least not from a sustainability perspective: advertising billboards.
“Most people assume billboards are made of canvas, but they’re actually made of a durable but non-recyclable vinyl that holds up in all sorts of weather conditions,” Alec Avedissian, co-founder of Rareform said.
Avedissian discovered this on a 2011 trip to El Salvador where he noticed villagers using discarded billboards as roof tarps. After a friend suggested billboards could also be repurposed into bags, he returned to California to pursue the idea. He and his brother Aric founded Rareform in 2012.
Today, Rareform intercepts billboards from the landfill at a rate of 10,000 pounds a month. A single billboard, meticulously washed, cut and sewn, typically yields 100 backpacks. Although Rareform upcycles as much of each sheet as possible, the designers steer clear of images of logos, food or faces. “No one wants a bag with a nose on it,” Alec Avedissian explains.
Even though every repurposed bag is an original, the endless supply of source material keeps prices low and accessible, at $40 to $65.
An immediate hit with surfers and outdoor enthusiasts of the West Coast, Rareform is making a name for itself thanks to its sustainable manufacturing across the United States in more than 200 independent surf and sporting shops, as well as national distributors such as Patagonia, Whole Foods and REI. Expect Rareform’s repurposed bags to be available in Canada soon.
Getting potential buyers passionate about the sustainable manufacturing process and Rareform’s story has been key to expanding its distribution, Avedissian said. While no consumer brand is built on eco-friendliness or upcycling alone, he calls social impact the convergent factor.
“Once consumers’ style and functionality requirements are met, social impact becomes that something extra people are looking for and respond to. Especially when it’s wrapped in an amazing story, simply told,” he said.
Rareform continues to tighten and refine its story as the company prepares to expand into mainstream retail fashion, where there is ample opportunity for growth, Avedissian said.
“The emergence of smaller, socially responsible brands is forcing larger brands to be competitive in this space,” he added.
As a first mover in the category of recycled billboard as consumer product, Rareform has a good story to tell: one with the power to educate consumers on upcycling, while selling them a piece of California cool.
This content was originally published on Financial Post.
Image courtesy of David Evers.