Going back to the middle of last year, I had just finished an MBA degree, and I was in the process of contemplating a plan for a new business, something that my conscience could live with and I would honestly be able say that I was acting outside of my own sphere of self-interest. After having signed up with the university’s mentor program some six months previous, I was lucky enough to have met up with Di Tompson, former Tasmanian Business Woman of the year and a strong advocate of social equality , especially in the furthering of women’s rights in traditionally male dominated cultures. With the benefit of her mentoring, and together with my own interest in business ethics and corporate social responsibility, I felt that there was an opportunity to develop a manufacturing and retail business from the ground up that put social and environmental responsibility at the forefront of its operations.
Having spent a lot of time in Thailand, and especially Chiang Mai in the north (where my wife Tik was born), we had long admired the resourcefulness of people such as the “khuad ma khay” who collect waste off the streets using modified bicycles packed to the brim with plastic and glass bottles, cardboard and other recyclable materials. We already knew about the large number of independent craftspeople in the area creating handmade goods and we had observed their creativity and skill first hand. With this in mind, Tik and I headed off to Thailand in February this year with a view to develop a supply chain that would originate with materials reclaimed from dumps, then to be transformed by local and independent craftspeople into high quality bags and accessories.
From the beginning we deliberately avoided seeking out factories to act as our suppliers. There is a large leather manufacturing industry in Chiang Mai, composed of many, mostly small to medium sized enterprises each employing from 10 to 500 staff. It certainly would have saved us a lot of time and money to approach this type of manufacturer but it didn’t fit with our philosophy and we were determined to deal directly with the people who would make our products. The reason for this was twofold. Firstly, it allowed us to design our own products and to get feedback directly from the maker. And secondly we wanted to foster the ability of independent craftspeople to work for themselves and attain a better livelihood than could be achieved from working in a factory. A further consideration was that we felt that there could be better opportunities for craftspeople with the adaptability to switch from traditional and less ethical materials such as leather where there is considerable competition amongst suppliers producing essentially identical products. After four weeks of often fruitless search and many hours of driving around the sprawl of Chiang Mai and its surrounds we were lucky enough to find our first supplier Phon. A native of Bangkok, Phon, her partner Benz, son and two dogs had only recently moved to the handicraft village of Baan Tawai on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. With a struggling young family, Phon was making woven bags out of plastic at the time we met her. We happened to have some tyre inner tube in the car so we left it with her and asked her to make us a woven bag. By the next day she had finished it and we could tell that she was a perfect fit with her enthusiasm and obvious talent for weaving and sewing. Of course, the learning curve has been steep for Phon, making the transition to working with tyre inner tube hasn’t been easy, but with persistence and patience she is now making great products and she is a valued partner in the Recycle Creative business, working full time with reclaimed materials and free to negotiate her own terms and conditions.
The sourcing of reclaimed materials has not proved as difficult. There is a fantastic resource in Thailand just waiting to be utilised and currently being dumped unsorted into landfill. According to a 2015 OECD report more than 60% of the Thai capital Bangkok’s landfill is either compostable or recyclable. There is no formal kerbside recycling system as there is in Australia, and most formalised recycling efforts in Thailand are instigated by private enterprise. To give you some idea, there are some 600,000 tonnes of tyre waste produced annually in Thailand, of which 63% is disposed of via dumping, open burning and landfill. As a landfill material rubber is extremely inefficient due to its resistance to decomposition and it also presents a health issue in that tyre dumps are breeding grounds for disease spreading mosquitos . From our point of view we want to close the lifecycle loop so to speak and give new life to materials that already exist and have reached the end of their conventional life. Tyre inner tube is one of our favourites and it offers many positives in its reuse. Not only does it prevent additional landfill (we estimate that we have collected around 5 tonnes of it since starting) but it is extremely durable and so offers a great alternative to leather. Furthermore it looks great and because it is not completely uniform, each product we make from it while black, is in some way unique due to the patterning on the tube or the tyre manufacturer’s insignia. Other reclaimed materials that we make use of in our products include plastic packing strip used on pallets and boxes, and a hand loomed fabric made from garment factory offcuts. We hope to add to these in the near future as we also strive to increase the amount of recycled content in our products.