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Thread: Reducing Waste and Creating Jobs for Those Who Need It Most

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

If you purchase a product from Thread, chances are that it started off as a plastic bottle in the slums of Haiti.

The Pittsburgh-based company, started by serial entrepreneur Ian Rosenberger, collects plastic bottles in Haiti and processes them into recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) flake, which is then converted into a diverse range of useful consumer products from performance apparel to belts.

Thread, formed after Rosenberger visited Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, is on a mission to “provide dignified jobs for the poor” while “creating a sustainable business for the future of the planet.” While assisting with earthquake relief efforts, Rosenberger was overwhelmed by the area's poverty and 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 live 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 set about creating a solution that tackles both poverty and untreated waste by forming Thread.

Before beginning their operation, the company researched the Haitian waste and recycling industries for two years and secured key partnerships with non-profits Executives Without Borders and Samaratin's Purse, as well as a Haitian company called Haiti Recycling.

The company’s business can be divided into three categories, whereby it (1) collects and processes plastic bottles in Haiti to form rPET flake; (2) sells the flake to businesses in the United States to be used in their supply chains; and (3) uses the recycled materials themselves to create diverse consumer products such as fabric and watch bands. Thread respectively calls these three areas 1) Recycled by Thread, 2) Powered by Thread and 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. 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 US resources, to make the final products.  

Overall, Thread indirectly benefits 1,300 Haitians, and as of May 2013, has recycled an estimated 500,000 pounds of plastic waste, which COO Lee Kimball points outs 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. 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 rPET 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 more distant regions, such as Asia. These savings are a result of Haiti’s close proximity to the United States coastline  Port-au-Prince is only 710 miles from Miami, while 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 its 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 typical of starting a business, such as finding investors and adding motivated staff, the “Threadheads” face obstacles in the form of cultural and language barriers (the team is working on becoming fluent in French and Haitian creole), and working within 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?” Rosenberger says. Their Director of Community Development, Kelsey Halling, is charged with ensuring that the needs of the communities in which they operate are being met.

Thread, nevertheless, has had many victories since its inception. Rosenberger has spoken about Thread for TEDx, and in October 2012, Thread was invited to join a U.S. Trade Delegation to Haiti led by President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 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 its 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 one million pounds of waste from Haiti at the end of this year, and 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 expanding their recycling business to other countries. “Over the next 15 years, our big hairy audacious goal is turn one billion pounds of waste into things that people love,” says Rosenberger. For example, Thread would love to open recycling centers in North Africa to sell rPET to European supply chains, while creating jobs within poverty-stricken areas in the region.

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.

SB '13   See Thread and our 11 other SBIO finalists present live at the SB Solutions Expo, June 4 at the SB ’13 conference. Enter the discount NW3pSB13 for free entry.

Candice D McLeod is an Energy Associate in facilities management at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), working on energy efficiency and whole systems sustainability, writing on the intersection of business & sustainability for Sustainable Brands. She received a Masters… [Read more about Candice McLeod]