Upcycling – what is it? There is a growing number of local and global fashion brands that give new value to materials once classified as “waste”. Speaking of commercial banners, it can be turned into bags, backpacks, or wallets with high resistant properties and unusual design. I collect and use designs from from all major Polish brands offering a banner-based accessories: HoLo, Rebago (formerly Foliklo) and Trashki, the company founded in 2010 in Cracow. I have met the founder of the latter, Magdalena Olearczyk, to talk about the idea of upcycling, her goal of zero-waste production process, and growing awareness among Polish corporations about the re-use of advertising banners.
Unpacking.design: Trashki. what does it mean? What kind of message your brand is carrying?
Magdalena Olearczyk, Trashki: I couldn’t find the perfect brand name for a very long time. It took me about 1 year to prepare the whole business idea for the company I wanted to start. Going back to the brand, various ideas, different terms, theoretical basis of upcycling were swirled in my head all the time. I wanted the name to encompass all that. One day, I got it: how about Trashki? As of 2010 when I have started the company “recycling” was already well settled among Poles, then upcycling was still a great unknown. I guess still cause a lot of misunderstanding. It was also very important to me that my brand will communicate that there is an ecological basis behind it. I am creating bags and backpacks made from so called “waste”. Therefore, I used an English term “trash” and created a Polish-English neologism: Trashki. “Traszki” (newts, /traʃki:/) are also a local kind of amphibian which tells us wether the water ponds they live in are clean enough. I though it’s great: the more newts are there in our waters, and the more Trashki bags are visible on our streets, the cleaner our ecosystems!
The more newts (/traʃki:/) are there in our waters, and the more Trashki bags are visible on our streets, the cleaner our ecosystems!
Sounds great! Tell me, what are the most important values that lies behind Trashki since the very beginning, until now?
Upcycling and ecology. Above all, I produce bags from recycled materials. I do not like to say that I work with “trash”. However this is how people who are not familiar with the art of upcycling, tend to describe my work. To me, the material from which the bags are made is a raw material, resource. Banners, among others, are materials that are quickly classified as waste, but shouldn’t. They were designed to have great resistant properties and last for a long time! Upcycling them allow us to “freeze” the world of mass continuous production and think about materials and resources we already have, and how we can process it to minimize our ecological footprint. I didn’t really care to create bags and participate in the fashion industry. My goal was to implement upcycling into fashion industry.
Any other values you’d like to mention?
Of course! My vegetarianism. Our bags are vegan, because they are not made from leather coming from animals. This is very important to me as well. Some time ago I was using a commercial slogan, going “vinyl city skin” to advertise my products (unpacking.design: commercial banners are usually made from PVC, Polivinyl Chloride). It was carrying a message that the “leather” for my bags was a “skin” taken from the city, not from the animals, as most of the companies in fashion industry does, unfortunately.
Since then, did you add some other brand values that you’re trying to incorporate into your designs?
I was thinking about zero-waste production process from the scratch. It’s not that easy though! I know it is possible, but it requires some investment. We would have to build a production line ourselves, from the scratch. Only then it would allow us to get rid of any waste from the production process.
I wonder, where does the waste come from during the production of bags made from “waste”?
Well, sometimes we can not use some parts of banners. For example, every time the company logo appear on the banner, we have to exclude this part from our design process. It’s a trademark, we cannot re-use it for our purpose. It happens these are quite large fragments of banners and no bag can be made out of it. Coming from this problem we came up with an idea those large parts could be cut into kind of a confetti and become a filer for other objects.
And how do all of these values you’ve mentioned materialise during your production process? What stages does your process consist of?
First, we have to source our material. I need t make a statement here though: I am not robbing anyone and I do not take the banners out of the buildings in the middle of the night! [laughs] That’s how people often think our banners appear in our workshop. The aesthetics you can see on our products largely come from the Cracow Jewish Festival. That was the first event I was collaborating with to produce first Trashki bags. I need to say that museum, festivals or art galleries are having the most beautiful visuals on their banners. There is another important thing here: people are literally moved by those events and cultural sites. So just imagine! I am taking those banners, re-make them into bags and people can literally wear the events or exhibitions they loved so much!
Today, we are still sourcing our materials from cultural institutions, but we are seeing more and more collaborations with huge companies, such as Polish State Railways (PKP). Very promising is that they are asking for those collaborations and are offering their banners to us themselves!
Printing houses are another kind of place where our banners come from. You know, they have iterations in their printing processes as well. So there at least a few prototypes or banners with some defects that would otherwise end up as a waste before even seeing the city lights!
I really hope my favourite Trashki bag I am wearing during the summer is this kind of a landfill-survivor! OK, what happens next?
Then we have to clean the material. It’s a really hard job engaging few, sometimes up to a dozen of people! so every time I am hearing “where does this price come from?” I need to remind people that the banners we are using are not popping up in our workshop for free. They are dramatically dirty when they come to us. Before we can actually start making designs, it has to be cleaned. So “what is this dirt?”, you may ask. Well: smog, car pollution, birds droppings, you name it.
Most of the time we create our bags from outdoor banners, not from a clean and perfect post conference roll-ups, so there is a lot of washing! Another thing is that roll-ups are relatively small, so you cannot sew too big products out of it. On the other hand, some of our outdoor banners may be up to 200 square metres of mesh banner. And it is delivered folded into cubes, so we never know how dirty it really is. It has to be spread, stretched, washed and cut into smaller modules. To do that, we hire local car wash services and we wash it with karcher pressure washers and mops. We then additionally hire few people to help us with that.
When materials are finally clean we can start with cutting them and designing our bags. Our production is non-massive and non-repetitive by design. There is no way to automate cutting or sewing, because we never know which parts of banner will hold the most beautiful aesthetics and patterns. All bags available in our online shop are created here, in our Cracow-based workshop and are sew by our seamstress Ms Wanda. In case of really big orders, when we are asked to produce hundreds or thousands of kidney bags for our corporate clients, we have to outsource it to a local sewing place, here in Cracow.
Trashki production process consist of few stages: material acquisition, washing process, cutting into smaller modules, designing and finally – sewing bags. All the production is taking place in Cracow.
Trashki and corporate clients: that’s quite unusual combination to be honest! How did it happen that big companies started to order your designs?
Originally, we meant our company to be operated in a B2C model, but for a few years now we’ve been working in B2B model as well. I am aware and happy that our retail customers quite often share the same values we try to incorporate in our business. And at the same time I am aware the same people need to work somewhere [laughs]! I am figuring out then, that if they hold some influential positions inside those companies, they may introduce our brand to co-workers and inspire other departments to include upcycling into their CSR or corporate sustainability programs. That’s how we’re seeing more and more corporate clients coming to Trashki and we are very happy to see that!
It all started with our first corporate client: Polish State Railways (PKP). We won a competition they have announced for the use of post-Euro 2012 outdoor banners. And you can imagine, they had a lot of them! We have designed and created simple shopping bags. Honestly speaking, our incomes are now generated by corporate clients to a great extent.
I am really curious about your opinion: where does this awareness about the sustainability or possibility to re-use commercial banners is coming from inside huge corporations?
Besides a word of mouth – I assume – we owe our success to Canal+Discovery documentary series called “ReMakers” (pol. PrzeTwórcy). Some 3 years ago, when we were actually dealing with some creative and financial lows, the producer of this series reached out to us and we were starring in one of the episodes. That was a real kick-off: we were able to change our small workshop inside my dad’s garage to the one we are meeting inside today. And – of course – we could see a stream of new clients “knocking” to our doors, including corporate ones.
In addition to that, I also believe that the changing waste-related legal regulations both, on a national and European level, have their part as well. Drawing from those legal regulations, companies are obliged to create internal CSR programs and report about their practices in the area of sustainability.
Last, but not least, Trashki is not the only upcycling brand anymore. There are at least a few other in Poland and many more abroad. I think we are cross-advertising for each other, and we work together to make the upcycling a growing trend, not a mere, seasonal fad.
Drawing from those legal regulations, companies are obliged to create internal CSR programs and report about their practices in the area of sustainability.
It’s quite natural to ask the owner of the company like yours about the real impact you have on other people consumer choices as well as other fashion brands production processes. Do you somehow try to measure or monitor the environmental impact of your brand?
It’s really hard to measure something like that, other than in a qualitative way. We can observe that upcycling is getting more and more media coverage, that it is affecting the state law, that more and more people are buying our designs, but we really don’t know to what extent it is happening because of our activity. Of course, I truly hope we are one of the game changers here, but it’s also been a while since I don’t think anymore that I am “saving the world with Trashki”. We have many clients from Netherlands, UK or Germany where this environmental awareness and environmental consequences of our consumer choices is much more mature, but at the end of the day, I am really happy to see this awareness growing in Poland. Step by step. Year by year.
Creators of Trashki tells how their production process looks like. Source: Outstanding Studios | YouTube
You have mentioned before that you are dreaming of making Trashki zero-waste company one day. How do you envision a truly zero-waste production process of your bags and backpacks?
Even though it’s hard to compare our relatively small ecological footprint with those of major fashion brands when it comes to energy, water usage or land contamination, we really strive to make our facility and process totally zero-waste. It would be a dream-come-true if one day we do not generate any waste and contaminants at all. To get there, my husband is experimenting with a zero-waste manual machine that is washing and cutting our banners in a closed loop system. That’s a light version. For the “sky-rocketing” version we are dreaming that the same machine would have a possibility to also incorporate a plotter that would cut the materials based on computer-generated designs.
The whole idea of this machine is based on a vision to set the amount of water use, to the minimum. This kind of a machine could be a part of a closed loop production system one day. Then, the same water could circulate: after washing dirty banners, we could filter it and use it to wash the next round of banners. to make this happen we need to consult the idea with engineers and – of course – money.
The idea, as you describe it, sounds marvellous! I keep my fingers crossed to see your vision happening! To sum up, if I had to point a fashion world icon who largely mirror the same values you have mentioned for your brand, it would probably be Vivienne Westwood. She’s been collaborating with Greenpeace for a couple of years now, and she does her part to communicate the great dangers related to climate change. By the way, at some point of her career, she had to choose whether stay a local, UK-based fashion house or go global, which also meant, loosing a great part of control over production process. Do you have any plans about going international or expanding to physical retail spaces, a.k.a. to scale your business?
I can see we are experiencing some development milestone now. That’s for sure. As a consequence of that, we are running out of human resources to make the demands being met. Simply saying, our demand exceeds supply. I also have o constantly educate myself about ever-changing e-commerce trends or client acquisition patterns, among other stuff, which means I inevitably have to step out from many areas and pass them on to other people.
And it’s really hard you know? Because I passionately take those scissors and I love to cut the banners for my bags. I truly love it! At the same time I know that as a responsible “parent” I have to dedicate my time to growth strategies and new design concepts. I have a lot of new ideas, but I see if I allocate my time resources to so called “dailys”, I will never move on with those ideas. Decisions has to be made!
At the very end of our conversation, I’d like to ask you what makes you truly happy and fulfilled when it comes to reception of your products?
Honestly? Those corporate clients we were discussing before. This is a partnership that really gives me excitement and hope about our future and the amount of waste we produce as a society. Imagine, I have clients who are thinking about the amount of waste they will produce with their outdoor campaigns, at the very heart of design process for this campaign. This is a positive sign for me that the corporate awareness about reuse of waste is growing, and thus my business activity contributes to a real environmental and social change.
That sounds awesome! Thank you for this conversation and I am looking forward to see the machine you were describing, soon!
Thanks. I am hoping to see that happening as well!