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Urban Barrels: Giving Sails, and Local Manufacturing, a Second Life

Image Credit: Urban Barrels

As humans, the number of problems we have created and must solve in the world can feel overwhelming at times. But if we all picked one thing and did our best to solve it, we would collectively make a tremendous impact.

As a sailor and a sustainability enthusiast, I’ve always assumed old sails would go to landfill at their end of life. So, I was excited to discover Urban Barrels, a Southern California startup working locally to find a solution to this little-known problem by turning old sails into hats, bags and other products.

I met with founder John Paul “JP” MacDonell to learn more.

Tamay Kiper: How did Urban Barrels start?

JP MacDonnel: Urban Barrels originally started as a blog; my brother, Mat MacDonell, myself and couple other friends would get “barreled” (term for surfing inside a wave is hollow when it is breaking) outside of the water, so we just started sharing photos and people were catching on and sending us photos to post on the blog. After a year, we started the Instagram account and posting the photos there. We were going from pools to the ocean, so we had this idea of a backpack that turned into a beach towel; we wanted to make something to share with the community (our Creative Director Eric Locko’s mother is a seamstress, and she did our first-ever bag towel).

Our grandparents have a house in Minnesota, so we go there every summer to sail; we found an old sail laying around there, so we brought it back to add it into the product. Then we were ready with the sample product and started the Kickstarter campaign in July 2014. We hit our goal and sold around 300 units. We also made 100 extra bags that we took to a show in San Francisco in December, and the first day we sold out. That’s when I quit my job and focused on Urban Barrels.

We didn’t have any funding to start so we went to sports teams, water polo teams, swimming teams, etc, and that gave us the idea to sell to these groups, eventually leading up to B2B. Six months later, our friends in Salesforce were doing a trip to Russian River and they wanted the bags, and that was our first strong partnership. We made an awesome collaboration bag, we learned how to brand sailboat sails, custom screen printing the sails.

At that time, we were collecting old sails from the community, and our supply chain was very slow to start, as it was word of mouth. We didn’t want to buy any sails; we wanted to find sails that were about to be thrown away, and we started researching about the landfill problem. We talked with the sailing community to understand where these sails go if they aren’t given second life, and how big the problem was. Initially, we didn’t have upcycling in our mind; then we realized sailboat sails are very durable and there is an opportunity for us to save these from the landfill.

We started to work with repair shops up and down the coast of California – people bring sails to these repair shops and if it can’t be repaired, it’s thrown away – so that gave us access to more supply chain partners. About a year ago, we created a partnership with a large sail manufacturer and that’s how we went to the source, where the sails are made. That helped us to get the scraps, prototypes and faulty manufacturing rounds.

Sails2Stuff is our sailboat sails program. Right now, we have a pretty cool collection of products - our flagship bag towel, a pocket tee and a hat, which are direct to customer. For our corporate partnerships, we launched a duffel bag, a tote bag, and a blanket. [Sailor] Eric Doyle became an ambassador for our products, and he’s been a huge part of our program.

TK: What makes UB different than other upcycled products?

JPM: We focus on local production when we’re collecting sails from a certain area; we’re going to manufacture them around the same area. We’re focused on where sailboat sails are coming from, so we’d collect sails from California, make it here and then sell it to the communities. Our bigger vision is potentially setting up manufacturing areas around the world where we would have a recycling facility, and creating jobs by manufacturing locally and selling the product. adidas has great ideas and they inspire us; something similar to the Parley for the Oceans/adidas partnership is something we would love to pursue in the future. We rescued 3000-5000 sails and lots of scraps from landfill, as there are no programs for sailboat sails. That’s why we were excited to build this program that is very accessible to people. There are challenges to the growth of that, as recycling is part of the business and takes a lot of effort and resources to grow. There is also the sentimental aspect of it, people have a hard time getting rid of their sails as these sails have stories, and having a program that really ensures that those memories are brought back in life as a form of a new product is something we value.

Right now, we’re spread very thin and our day-to-day work focuses on growing our business and hitting our sales goals and raising money.

TK: Ok, I love the idea of saving sails from the landfill and creating a great, durable product. But your business model is built around consumerism; do you have any plans in the future for shifting towards a circular model?

JPM: We have a 100 percent guarantee – if anything happens, they can return the product – but I would love to have a circular economy aspect as part of the business in the future. Also, selling these locally made products to businesses [is] shaking things up, any company can order promotional goods from abroad China, but we’re seeing this as an opportunity for companies to invest a little bit more and share our story with their employees. We have a family-owned sewing studio in Downtown LA and it’s very cool to see that grow – they are able to hire more people, and they get on us asking for more orders, keeping us on our toes.

TK: What type of challenges are you face as you grow?

JPM: Scaling is a big challenge for us – when you get to those opportunities to do really big unit runs, to have those suppliers set up and ready to go – and we want to keep it local. Our lead sewer knows our vision and we empower him to facilitate the suppliers and require someone with this particular knowledge, as it’s a special material – it’s not a fabric on a roll, and it’s recycled. It’s always a hurdle.

And then there is one big hurdle that kind of gets you where you want to go – that one partnership, or even reaching the right people through this Sustainable Brands interview and hopefully finding the right partners to come on board and help us. In order to grow, continue to recycle materials, build products, and to keep this sustainability piece going, we have to have the infrastructure and we have to sell and invest in the business, so raising money is a big part of it.

TK: Are you partnering with any other organizations?

JPM: We’re working with LinkedIn – they have this wellness program that we’ve been working with and it aligns with our values, because their goal is to create an environment where they inspire their employees to go work out and lead a healthy lifestyle; our products, especially bag towel, speaks right to that – it’s an adventure bag, so hopefully it inspires people to go surfing, biking, hiking, sailing, swimming, etc.

Our friends at Bureo have been an inspiration for us - they would put bins to marinas to collect the fishing nets. They are also bootstrapped and going out of their way to save that material; we like getting our hands dirty, too - going into the sail loft and digging through dirty sails – and it’s really fun to discover extremely cool sails.

TK: What’s next for Urban Barrels?

JPM: We’re looking to raise a $250,000 seed round, and find the right partner to share some equity to grow the business to really invest in our recycling program and build our infrastructure with a key hire in the production area. Our sales grew year over year.

We want to keep the flagship product and launch two new products with new recycled materials, one at the end of this year and another one next year. We want to launch a new recycling program every two years.


Tamay joined the team as Content Development Manager and she is excited to be part of the global impact Sustainable Brands is making. She is a risk and strategy professional with international experience in sustainability strategy and corporate citizenship in… [Read more about Tamay Kiper]