Thread: Pittsburgh Startup Bets on Sustainability
Bolts of finished Thread fabrics (click to enlarge)
By Mickey Gast
We’re fortunate to be surrounded by a strong community of innovators and entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh. We’re even more fortunate when the some of these entrepreneurs turn their attention towards solving social problems. Not instead of making a profit, but in addition to making a profit.
Ian Rosenberger, a Pittsburgh native, is one of these people with a grand vision. Rosenberger found himself amidst the rescue efforts after the Haiti earthquake of 2010 wondering how a country so badly affected by poverty could turn their luck around. Haiti has a 40 percent unemployment rate and, at the same time, is the victim of environmental pollution due to plastics littering the streets and canals of Port-au-Prince. There was only one question that Ian Rosenberg set out to answer: How can Haiti turn the trash epidemic into money?
It was then that an idea was born which now stands at the forefront of Thread’s mission: to turn the plastic bottles in Haiti into “the most responsible fabric on the planet.” With the textile industry as one of the most polluting industries in the world, second only to oil and gas production, that was a tall order.
In only three years, Thread, a Certified B Corporation based in Pittsburgh, has so far diverted over 70 million plastic bottles away from the littered streets of Haiti and into a production process which employs hundreds of people from some of the world’s most economically-depressed areas. “We’re firm believers that poverty is an epidemic that’s curable in our lifetime,” said Frank Macinsky, Thread’s director of marketing. “The solution is employment and opportunity. At Thread, we look at waste as a valuable, untapped resource to support the economic development places like Haiti and Honduras need.”
In its production process, Thread minimizes the use of water and energy while maximizing the social impact of the supply chain, a chain that is already more transparent than what’s usually found in the textile industry. What happens to the plastic that the company turns into pellets? It is made into filament, yarn and finished fabrics in the United States, then sold to suppliers and manufacturers who turn it into clothing and accessories.
Stacks of collected and crushed plastic bottles, ready to be recycled (click to enlarge)
Frank Macinsky believes that the way we currently look at the products that we buy needs to change. Because immense human effort goes into producing almost everything we own, clothing chief among them, we as consumers have the responsibility to consider the connection we should have with these products, the how, where, and most importantly, the who behind the things we wear. “The more companies that work with us and the more people who buy products with Thread fabric, the more we can bring our products to life,” said Macinsky.
Setting up camp in Pittsburgh was a simple choice – it was where the founding team met. But making the choice to stay in Pittsburgh, when a large percentage of startups and capital are on the East and West coasts, is a testament to the city’s friendliness and sense of rebirth and possibility. For the Thread team, staying in Pittsburgh made sense. “Everything from the countless resources and young, eager talent next door at world class universities, to a budding and thriving startup community make this a great place to be,” said Macinsky. Not only is there a strong startup community here, but it’s supportive. There’s a strong pool of young, eager companies willing and able help each other out. It’s a rare combination that Pittsburgh should be proud of and that Thread is happy to tap into.
Plastic pellets made from the recycled bottles, prepped for the next steps! (click to enlarge)
When asked for advice on what someone who wants to focus on sustainability in business should do first, the answer is as practical as it is idealistic. Focus on the business case first. To be a sustainable business, you have to be a sustainable business. Customers and investors (from whom Thread raised over three million dollars in funding so far) will care about your impact, but only if you have a great product and viable business plan to back it up. There are countless opportunities to make the world a better place, but the true innovation comes from balancing all the stakeholders – people, planet, and profit.