The sleek, durable backpacks created by the Pittsburgh-based company Thread International look more akin to an accessory featured in a style magazine than a product made out of recycled plastic bottles.
To say the Kickstarter campaign that is getting the backpacks off the ground has been a success would be an understatement. With a goal of $45,000, the campaign had raised 10 times that amount by Sept. 14, with still another five days to go.
But the success of Thread extends beyond the creation of a trendy and functional backpack. The company, which was founded in 2011 by Ambridge, Pa., native Ian Rosenberger — who some might remember from his 2005 stint as a contestant on the CBS reality show “Survivor” — has also succeeded in putting those who need jobs to work, from Haiti to, more recently, Homewood.
Last March, Thread moved its Pittsburgh headquarters from a small office in East Liberty to a warehouse in Homewood, and is creating jobs for its neighbors, some of whom have not before been in the workforce.
A grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation helped facilitate the move.
Thread got its start following Rosenberger’s visit to Haiti soon after it had experienced a devastating earthquake in 2010. Seeing an enormous amount of garbage in the streets, particularly plastic bottles, he was inspired to find a way to turn that trash into something useful, while employing people who needed jobs.
After three years of research, he and four other founders of Thread had figured out a way to produce yarn and fabric from recycled bottles, explained Sam Klein, Thread’s director of product.
“In Haiti, Honduras and Taiwan, communities are collecting bottles off the ground, and selling them to collection centers,” said Klein, a Squirrel Hill resident and board member of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. “Then, the bottles are sorted and sold to recycle centers. We are not only using the plastic through the supply chain, but we are creating a demand in the industry for it.”
Thread has so far created almost 4,000 jobs for those collecting the bottles in impoverished neighborhoods. After they are recycled and converted into plastic flakes, they are shipped to mills in the United States and converted into yarn and fabric, then sold to brands such as Reebok and Timberland.
Now, Thread is branching out to create its own products, beginning with the stylish backpacks, and small “cord pouches” which are being sewn by the new hires in Homewood.
“Most of these women haven’t sewn before,” said Klein, “so we are training them, and teaching them a new skill set.”
After the women improve their skills, Thread hopes to broaden their duties to include partial assembly of the backpacks, according to Klein.
By 2019, Thread is planning to have a full e-commerce facility operating from its Homewood location, creating additional employment opportunities, beyond sewing, for residents. PJC