Terrapax Bags: Ahead of Their Time?
With the demise of Nau, many commentators have been suggesting the trouble was that the company was ahead of its time. We respectfully disagree. Firstly, if ever there was a time for businesses to flourish, who are environmentally and socially responsible, surely that time has to be right now. Secondly, others paved the way for Nau. A path that has been beaten for well over a decade.
Let's look back at a few of those pioneers. In future posts we'll also visit the likes of Deja Shoe and Esprit Ecollection, but we begin with Terrapax. In 1992, James Cox, who'd been a design director at the North Face, struck out on his own to produce a line of planet and people friendly packs and bags. James questioned the outdoor industry's heavy reliance on petroleum-based nylons, polyesters and vinyls to make packs and luggage.
In contrast to such materials, which deplete finite fossil fuel reserves and subsequently take 400-500 years to degrade into plastic dust, the idea with Terrapax was to use renewable materials that could be later fully composted.
To this end their daypacks, briefcases, messenger bags, totes, etc were crafted with robust outers of Hungarian hemp, french linen (flax) webbing and linings with vegetable tanned leather reinforcing. Shoulder strap padding was wool felt. The closures, rather being plastic buckles, were brass rings, through which slipped a toggle carved from elk stag horns (they naturally shed them each year). Stiffening frames were of timber salvaged from the bench seats of a University.
Terrapax's guidelines for their materials selection read:
"1. Does the material have any historical significance?
2. Is the origin of the material close to the earth (e.g., minimum processing?)
3. Can the material be returned to the earth (does it produce usable biomes) or continually reused without requiring re-manufacturing?
4. Does the processing of the material encourage a sustainable ecology and economy in the communities where it is developed? Is there educational value in the material production?
5. Does the material meet or exceed performance standards for its application?
6. Is the material beautiful?"
(sounds kinda like Nau's credo of beauty, performance, sustainability)
Their line of gorgeous luggage pieces was impeccable constructed. It also had a lovely tactile quality that made you want to touch it. And it was designed to last for many years of faithful service. Yet end-of-life was factored into its design also. The plan was that when a bag truly did need retiring it could be placed into a compost bin, and six month later would become soil. But you could send back the hardware, so Terrapax could clean it and reuse it on future product. (A process known in the trade as EPR - Extended Producer Responsibility, or more simply 'Take-back.') Customers who returned the brass fittings and stag horns were then entitled to a 20% discount on a new Terrapax product.
This was not solely a marketing strategy -- it was a deep felt practical philosophy espoused by Terrapax. "... we talk a lot about industrial ecology. It isn't a particularly beautiful term, but it has a poetry all its own. It means crafting industry to work like an ecological system - completely in balance, with no waste and total accountability."
Hence the fabric scraps from their bags production was send off to Green Field Paper Company, so they could use it to make sketch books, greeting cards, and paper from the hemp fiber. Terrapax's own swing tags used such paper. Those aforementioned brass fitting were solid brass, uncoated and non-electroplated, not brass dipped zinc. Their leather was bark and vegetable tanned, instead of relying on the usually toxic chrome and heavy metals.
But Terrapax weren't saying they'd found the holy grail. "Technically speaking nothing is sustainable. Entropy is at work in our environment and eventually takes its toll on every system." Or put another way, "These issues are complex, and we at TerraPax do not think that we have solved the world's problems by using hemp and linen. [...] There must be a balance with respect to the demands on resources and the appropriate use of those resources."
Their mission statement read in part: "design and build functional and durable packs and bags, using a minimum of 90% natural materials. Foster compassion in business. ... establishing TerraPax as a trusted, service oriented company dedicated to sustainable economic enterprise."
At one point the Terrapax bags, made in California, were on sale at over 160 stores in the USA, and also available in four countries. But now Terrapax is no longer in the US. After slogging it out for nearly a decade in a marketplace which paid only lip service to corporate ethics, James sold the business before ended up in real estate, of all places. (The product does seems to be available through one, or more stores in Japan)
Were Terrapax more widely available today, with the current deep level of interest in all things green, it would, we expect, be experiencing some of the limelight afforded to the likes of Keen and Timbuk2. But it was certainly one of the lead companies, with an outdoor bent, to engage in the practicalities of running a responsible business. Fifteen years before Nau sold a single t-shirt.