In today’s world, doing good is often seen as atonement for doing bad. It’s the balancing of a moral budget sheet. It’s an offset.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Not according to Ian Rosenberger, who says you can do well by doing good. His company Thread turns trash from Haiti into responsible fabric. Along the way, Thread provides jobs for Haitians who collect plastic bottles and offers a model of supply chain transparency in one of the dirtiest industries on the planet.
“I think business can be the largest force for good in our planet’s history.”
To help put that vision into action, Timberland has partnered with Thread to produce a line of bags and footwear for its Spring 2017 collection. All of the Ground to Good™ fabric has met or exceeded Timberland’s stringent durability standards. It’s no sacrifice. It’s just doing good.
Ian Rosenberger sat down to explain the genesis of Thread.
Ian Rosenberger, Founder & CEO
Can you start by giving us your elevator pitch for Thread?
Sure. Thread creates high-performing, purpose-filled materials for global apparel brands. We help our customers leverage the incredible data and stories from our 100 percent transparent supply chain, to help them sell more clothes.
Flake made from recycled plastic bottles will be turned into thread and woven into canvas.
Step back and tell us how the idea for Thread came about?
The earthquake in Haiti happened on Jan. 12, 2010. That was the catalyst for everything. I went down there to help, and on that first trip, I met a kid named Tassy who lived in a rough neighborhood. Long story short, he had a tumor on his face, and my objective became helping this kid get surgery. A bunch of friends and I raised money, got him to the States, and he had this crazy, major surgery.
Then it came time to take him back to Haiti. We get him down there, and were dropping him off in this rough neighborhood. I realized that unless we stuck with Tassy until he didn’t need us anymore, this was all just a self-congratulatory exercise. That begged the question: What did it mean for him not to need us anymore?
Playing football in Saint-Louis Du Sud
Did you have an answer for that?
No, I had no idea. I spent the next year or so trying to figure it out. Through a really long process, I realized that poverty is not just the absence of money, it’s the absence of dignity and that a job provides much more than cash. It provides purpose.
A lot of NGOs provide services that prepare people for jobs. I wanted to provide jobs. I saw two things in Haiti: a lot of poor people and a lot of trash. On that very first trip, I had written in my journal, “If Haiti can turn trash into $ = good.”
After losing both parents in the earthquake, Nadine saw neighbors collecting plastic and decided to give it a try. Over the past 3 years, her collection center has grown to a profitable business.
The recycling team at ECSSA bales the bottles.
So why fabric and not some other product?
I wanted a good that people can connect to emotionally. For example, it’s hard to connect emotionally to a doorstop, right? Clothes are something we wear every day. They literally hug us. And the entire textile industry is in trouble. Despite employing one in five people on the planet, it’s usually very bad for people and very bad for the earth.
So we started asking, what if we could turn waste into fabric, and sell that fabric to apparel brands and tell the stories of the trash collectors. What if you could make a product that was good for people, as opposed to making a product and then donating a couple dollars to offset that product’s impact?
Richardson Antoine, Thread’s Field Manager in Haiti atop the plastic bottle bales at ECSSA
It seems like you inverted the traditional business path. You didn’t start with a product. You started with a question: How to help people?
People say, “Oh, you make recycled products." Well, we do, but that's not the point. It's not valuable just because it's recycled, although that's nice. It's valuable because, at the end of the day, there's a person on the other end of it that had the opportunity to earn some money and put food on the table. We can look into that supply chain and be proud of that. We're by no means perfect. But we're going to do our best to be.
Residents of Les Cayes in front of their home on collection center owner Nancy's property. Nancy employs 14 people and supports 120 collectors, the majority of whom are women.
Want to learn more about the Timberland x Thread partnership? Read this article about the collaboration here.