Earth Day or not, however, being eco-conscious year-round is a savvy move for brands aiming to target millennial buyers, who have shown a willingness to pay a premium for sustainable and organic products. That’s especially true for outdoor enthusiasts, who are often extra-conscious of the environmental impacts of their purchases. So perhaps not surprisingly, as a wardrobe staple for outdoorsy types, backpacks have long been made with eco-friendly materials, including recycled plastics and hemp fibers. However, one brand is introducing a new material into their bags: algae.
Vancouver-based Tentree International, Inc. makes their Mobius line of backpacks, totes and travel bags out of recycled products. However, the foam for their bags, which provides padding for laptops and shoulder cushioning, among other purposes, is made from algae foam. Tentree CEO and Founder Derrick Emsley, 28, says that the inventive process actually makes the environment better than they found it.
Not only is the end material more sustainable, but the process to harvest the algae and create the material is incredibly beneficial to the environment. While algae typically helps keep water ecology in balance, too much of it can actually hurt the freshwater habitats and the people and animals living around them. The algae foam is created by harvesting the algae from polluted water and recirculating clean water back into the environment.”
They source from Bloom Foam and are the first company to make bags out of the materials. Before working with Tentree, only shoes and surfboards were made from the organic, naturally occurring substance. But after Tentree and the team from Bloom met at a product convention, Emsley became convinced that if the algae could work for shoe padding, it could work for backpack padding.
To make the foam, algae-filled water gets pumped into a filtration system. When the algae clump together, they float to the top and are scraped off while the filtered water goes back to the source. The algae mass is then dried before being expanded into the semi-spongy foam final product.
The Tentree team made more than 30 sketches of what the bag could look like before narrowing it down to one design to use as a starting point for the prototype. They then produced the sample at their factory and sent a designer to review the work and make additional changes. While considering options for the bag, they also sourced eco-friendly materials in addition to the algae foam, like buckles made from post-industrial waste. They source the outer material for the bags from Repreve, which makes fibers and fabrics out of used plastic bottles that would otherwise end up in landfills. It takes about 31 bottles to make the material in one Mobius backpack.
Emsley says that using the materials increases the cost of the parts of the bags by nearly three times as much in some cases, but that he believes it’s worth the smaller profit margin to stick to the Tentree guiding principle of sustainability. Rather than introducing the bags straight to their inventory at a higher price point to reflect the manufacturing costs, they opted to instead crowdfund as a way to gauge consumer interest. “Launching it on Kickstarter proved that people cared about investing in a backpack that was this environmentally progressive,” says Emsley.
They set a goal of $35,000 but raised $270,000 through the sale of more than 2,300 bags during the month-long campaign. Since making the bags commercially available, they’ve sold an additional 1,000 and expect to be entirely sold out of their first production run of 5,000 in the next month.
Emsley says that while algae is an exciting material to work with, it’s not the only one they’ve set their sights on. “We’re currently experimenting with natural rubbers to produce our trims whereby the tree is tapped, similar to maple syrup,” he says. “It actually encourages faster growth.”
He says he has broader goals for the business, however. Tentree plants ten trees for every product purchased (hence the name) and hope to have planted 1 billion trees by 2030. By 2020, they plan to use only fair-trade cotton and recycled cotton in all their products and by 2025, Emsley says they hope to make all of their products fully circular, meaning all products will have a solution for what to do with them when they’ve reached the end of their useful lifespans. “They’ll either be biodegradable or fully recyclable,” he says. “No matter what, our products will not have to end in a landfill or an incinerator.”
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This article was published on www.forbes.com and written by Suzie Dundas