To hear Ian Rosenberger tell it, the idea behind his Pittsburgh-based start-up Thread International was very simple.
“Every time I traveled to the developing world, it was poverty and trash,” he recalled, explaining that when he went to Haiti after 2010’s catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, he knew he had to help somehow. “Could we figure out a way to solve these problems at the same time?”
A Google search later, he found his answer.
Today, Thread partners with Ramase Lajan (which literally translates to “picking up money” in Créole), a cash-for-recyclables program by the non-profit Executives Without Borders that works with Haitian owned and operated plastic-collection centers to create sustainable jobs for locals.
Reduce poverty and plastic waste: check and check. But Thread doesn’t stop there.
Sorted recyclables are sold to Haiti Recycling, which bales and stores the plastic for the production line where it will be washed and shredded into “flake” and shipped to production facilities in the U.S. to be spun into synthetic fiber that’s then woven into fabric to be sold to clothing and accessories manufacturers.
The company also has operations in Honduras and has so far moved nearly 1.5 million pounds of trash from both places—that’s the equivalent of about 28 million plastic bottles. In addition, Thread has injected nearly $370,000 into local economies.
“We started making fabric about two and a half years ago,” Rosenberger said, adding that not all recycled fabric is created equal. “It’s possible to have something that’s made from recycled content but not recyclable. And we have a 100 percent transparent supply chain from ground to good.”
Combine that with a social mission that puts the poor to work along with a fabric that’s made in the U.S.A. and it’s little wonder that Rosenberger tends to call Thread’s final product “the most responsible fabric on the planet.”
It’s not surprising, then, that in June the start-up closed a $2.8 million Series A funding round led by Draper Triangle Ventures, DNL Capital, Riverfront Ventures, BlueTree Allied Angels and Bill Besselman, head of strategy at Under Armour, bringing the company’s total capital raised to date to $3.5 million.
“In my mind there’s no reason that in the next three to four years that every company in the U.S. shouldn’t be using or considering our stuff,” Rosenberger stated, noting that Thread raised the round in order to scale the business by expanding its production capabilities and increasing its impact on the ground. It also wants to grow data and content collection throughout its supply chain.
“We are at a major inflection point as an industry. I still think apparel is woefully behind in terms of what’s possible in transparency. We have immense amounts of work to do. We are still one of the dirtiest industries in the world, no matter how many incredible announcements we make in terms of supporting climate change,” he stressed.
Another hurdle: convincing consumers that recycled or recyclable clothing isn’t just for crunchy-granola types.
“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from someone in denim: no matter how responsible the fabric is, their ass has to look good in those jeans,” Rosenberger laughed. But he was quick to note, “Not only are we not a pity buy, we’re better than a lot of the stuff that’s out there.”
Thread currently offers 27 different textiles, ranging from T-shirt material to shoe canvas. It just finished developing its first denim and a micro denier material is in the pipeline.
And thanks to a long-term, strategic partnership signed with Burlington Industries—a division of International Textile Group—last summer, Thread is on its way to “creating these super fabrics that not only have an edge technologically and from a technical perspective, but then also this incredible story to tell.”
Greensboro, North Carolina-based Burlington has seven manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and Mexico that supply advanced performance fabrics to the apparel, military and activewear brands around the world. Rosenberger, however, remained mum on the companies that Thread is in talks with, but said, “You would definitely recognize the names.”
“Not only do we sell the material, but because we keep such careful track of the data in the chain of custody and the stories of the people whose lives are changing because of it, we easily integrate into the marketing and corporate social responsibility teams of the brands we work with to tie their products back to really rich, accurate stories,” Rosenberger added.
Plus, a lot of brands are approaching Thread about developing supply chains in countries other than Haiti and Honduras. “That allows us to go into communities that no one wants to do business in, help set up those businesses and pool resources in a way that’s dignified,” he said.