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'Making' the business case for upcycling

Hands-on entrepreneurs are crafting the business model for sustainability
To meet Lupii Café’s zero-waste mandate, Basic Design designed and produced all the interior furnishings and signage from reclaimed, upcycled materials | Basic Design

What started out as a side project taking landfill-bound materials and turning them into furniture quickly became a business for Jesi Carson and Theunis Snyman.

The duo run Basic Design, a social enterprise housed in a studio at MakerLabs, a 26,000-square-foot Railtown workspace complete with laser cutters, 3D printers and other maker tools.

While the company produces unique pieces of furniture and products such as wallets and mobile phone cases out of second-hand materials, the business is really centred on redefining the value of waste.

“We just kind of began exploring with materials,” says Carson, who studied sustainability through Emily Carr University’s interaction design program. In discarded textiles and used pieces of wood, Carson and Snyman saw potential for products that were beautiful, sellable and in line with their environmental ethics.

“We just started playing with them and kind of designed a product line together using these waste streams,” she says. “It led eventually to growing into a larger business.”

Turning waste into opportunity ■ According to the Vancouver Economic Commission, two-thirds of the 1.8 million tonnes of construction and demolition waste discarded in Metro Vancouver each year is recycled. The rest heads to the landfill.

In 2014, 370,000 tonnes of solid waste from Vancouver was sent to those landfills, and the city is taking steps to lower that figure.

They include the Green Demolition Bylaw, which requires certain homes built before 1940 to have 70 to 90 per cent of the waste produced during demolition diverted from landfills. It provides a lot of opportunity for those in the business of upcycling.

“More companies and more people who are doing construction are now actively looking for people to take this material off their hands. So in a way it is shifting and it is becoming easier. It’s definitely not as easy as going to Home Depot,” says Carson, before detailing the work involved in acquiring the right materials, from sourcing to travelling to de-nailing and prep work.

With an initial focus on wallets and bags, Basic Design has shifted to producing furniture out of reclaimed wood, either for individual clients or for larger organizations. The company’s first contract was with Vancouver’s Lupii Community Café, where everything from the food to the furniture embodies the owner’s zero-waste ambitions. Carson and Snyman also provided multiple tables to Simon Fraser University’s RADIUS (Radical Ideas, Useful to Society) social innovation lab.

Over the past year, Carson says Basic Design has tackled five or six projects, and with that has come an on-the-job business education.

“I’m not a business person, I didn’t go to business school, but now I know how to do all my own accounting, and I know how to do my taxes properly, and I know how to do estimates,” says Carson, who also co-founded the Vancouver Trash Lab, which connects makers and designers with waste streams ripe for upcycling. “I feel really connected to that movement, but I think it’s a lot more diverse than people think it is.”

The artistry of upcycling ■ Being a maker isn’t necessarily synonymous with being sustainability-minded, but there is some overlap between the values of the maker movement and those inherent to upcycling.

Just over a decade ago, California-based Dale Dougherty founded Make: magazine to cater to a growing community of traditional artisans and those with a passion for making and doing it yourself. He created the first Maker Faire in 2006, and in 2014, more than 135 Mini Maker, flagship and featured fairs around the world attracted about three-quarters of a million visitors.

In Vancouver – which will host its seventh annual Mini Maker Faire in 2017 – some local makers and designers have been able to couple their hands-on skill sets with sustainability-focused values. They’ve also been able to find a market for their wares.

“Twelve years ago, the term ‘upcycled’ wasn’t even a term,” says Melissa Ferreira, the designer behind Adhesif Clothing Co., which offers garments that are handmade from vintage fabrics and discarded clothing.

“Every single time I go on Instagram, it’s crazy how much I see happening globally. It’s so exciting for me to see it become this movement,” she adds.

Ferreira doesn’t consider herself a maker, but rather an artist first and a designer second. Through Adhesif, she presents two collections per year, each with a dozen pieces. The accessories sold from her Mount Pleasant storefront begin at around $49, whereas a coat can go for between $800 and $900.

She regularly sells out, and often to “diehard” repeat clients.

“That’s a testament … to our concept of quality over quantity. Really, we’re trying to promote conscious consumerism. We want our pieces to stand the test of time, unlike a lot of big-box chains that don’t, because they want you to keep coming back and buying more, more, more,” says Ferreira.

“It’s great because it’s given me the opportunity to really progress my brand and my label, and use it as a platform to talk about sustainability.”

Ferreira founded Adhesif a dozen years ago. She sources her materials from second-hand shops, thrift stores and through the vintage clothing network she established as a buyer prior to entering into business for herself.

The sewing skills she learned from her mother, a seamstress; the emphasis on upcycling came from the exposure to the world of fashion afforded her by her previous position.

“If most people actually knew what was happening to their discarded clothing, they’d probably, like, flip their lids. It’s a massive industry,” says Ferreira, lamenting the wastefulness of the global fashion industry.

It’s that waste, however, that allows her to bring new meaning to the adage that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

“Using discarded textiles is just another medium; it’s like a collage artist using discarded paper or magazines,” she says. “The creative concepts are endless, really, when you’re using found materials.”

‘Maker’ is becoming a household word ■ For Jacquie Rolston, combining sustainability with making is an endeavour she’s trying to pursue “semi-professionally.” Together with her collaborator, Lin Ho-You, the duo has been making lanterns for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival for more than a decade.

“Technically we were in the first Maker Faire, which was 2011,” adds Ho-You. With bamboo, paper, glue and a significant amount of time, the team behind Illuminiferous create candlelit lanterns on a volunteer or commission basis for clients that include the City of Surrey and Metro Vancouver.

“We just started moving into lamps, and those would go to individual purchasers,” says Rolston, who also works as an illustrator, artist and teacher. “We’re just seeing how we can take the lantern technique and make them meant for electronic, indoor lamp use. And I think there’s business potential here.”

“Most people don’t want a three-foot-by-four-foot light sculpture hanging from their ceiling,” adds Ho-You, who says some of the more complicated lanterns take upwards of 40 hours to complete, and are meant for outdoor use. “There’s not really a market for that.”

Currently in the exploration phase of commercializing a lantern-like household product, Illuminiferous is also pursuing ways to make such a product more sustainable – swapping out glue for beeswax, as an example.

“I love the fact that ‘maker’ is a word that’s getting a lot more use in common parlance,” says Ho-You. “It’s a great movement that encompasses so many great ideas, like working with your hands, making things instead of necessarily buying them, and a lot of the other people in the maker’s movement are also interested in sustainability issues.”

Such issues include life-cycle design and the cradle-to-cradle concept, which include thinking through what happens to a product at the end of its use, and building sustainable disposal or reuse into the product’s initial design.

Both concepts are deeply embedded into British Columbia Institute of Technology’s School of Construction and the Environment programs, according to instructor Dixie Hudson.

“I’ve been a designer for over 30 years, and I definitely caused a lot of damage to the planet and the buildings that I was designing for people,” says Hudson, who runs her own interior design business under D.Hudson Design Inc.

By encouraging students to reuse the materials they have, and by introducing almost exclusively sustainable materials into the classroom, Hudson hopes the next generation of builders will look at their work from a different perspective – one where, for example, the materials of a project at the end of its life are intended for repurpose by companies like Basic Design.

“What that does for the students is they recognize the value of reusing things, and not putting it in the landfill. All of a sudden they begin to see value in all of the discarded items,” says Hudson.