A look at what we have always thought of as a model of sustainable product design
Freitag has been a staple on TreeHugger since we started; back in 1993 the Freitag brothers first took the used vinyl sheets from the sides of transport trucks and cut them into bags of different sizes.
Trucks in Europe do not all have hard sides like American ones, but are clad in thick vinyl fabric. This makes loading and unloading easier as everything doesn't have to come out the back of the truck; it is lighter and allows more room inside. As a material, it is just about as durable as you can get, and makes a very durable bag. Over the years we have have always considered it the ultimate in sustainable design, although it is not without some qualifications: it is a soft vinyl, and it is expensive.
We have shown Freitag's manufacturing process in detail in David's slideshow here; however, we have never shown how they are actually marketed, which is an interesting problem when every single bag is different from every other. And indeed, visiting a Freitag store is a different kind of retail experience.
When you enter the store, all you really see are walls of what look like cardboard drawers, with hundreds of each design. On the face of each drawer is a little photo of the bag inside. There is a lot of inventory in the store, given that they have to store so many different designs.
On the other hand, their material cost is low (used vinyl and car seat belts) and their prices are high (150 euros for an iPad sized bag), so they apparently get by. As Margaret noted, " The price tag is comparable to some haute couture handbags, but the design and durability will outlast them."
I have always wanted one. To me it was always a model of how to create something wonderful out of what was essentially a waste product, and the pricing has helped make it a sustainable business model. The choice of which one to buy was tough; it is often said that one can give a customer too much choice and, in the end, I displayed my lack of imagination and bought one in red and white, which is pretty much their trademark bag, rather than any of the other wilder colours.
The bag is extremely well-made and indeed, will probably last a lifetime. However, even though it is made from what is probably 8-year-old vinyl (that's how often the truck sides usually get replaced), it does have that new car smell of phthalates. If it has not gone away by now it probably never will. Perhaps that is one of the reasons they have developed F-Abric, a new material made locally from hemp and flax, using as few chemicals as possible, and that is naturally biodegradable. Even in 2004 we were questioning the vinyl.
One of the problems with a vinyl-sided truck is that it is less secure; looking at the trucks on the roads of Berlin, I see more and more of them have solid sides. But there are still a lot of them, and even with the vinyl issues, the Freitag Bag is still a testament to sustainable design and sustainable business.