Markus Freitag's passion for recycled materials and biking was evident before he and his brother started Freitag. When he was still in art school in Zurich, he would build bikes from discarded scrap parts.
In 1993, when Markus couldn't find a suitable messenger bag to carry as he biked, he again looked to re-use discarded material. "Recycling was attractive," he said, and found inspiration on the highway that ran near his apartment building in Zurich. Markus and his brother, Daniel, began making bags from truck tarpaulins, bike inner tubes and seat belts. Because these materials are designed for road use, they're exceptionally durable and waterproof.
When asked about design inspiration, Markus said that utility was foremost, but the material also dictates the style to some degree. "It's quite stubborn," Markus said, explaining that some prototypes didn't turn out as the designers imagined because of the stiff material.
The company is dually committed to promoting bike transportation and recycled materials. The Freitag product line now includes a range of styles, but Markus said that each bag is still designed to be "bike-able." Styles like the "Joan," which couldn't be comfortably worn while biking, feature Velcro tabs that allow the user to strap the bag to his or her handlebars.
I met Markus at Freitag's SoHo shop in New York, the company's first U.S. location. The shop is clean and colorful, with a wall of drawers that house each unique bag. No two bags are alike, because of the variability of the tarp designs.
Markus is forthright about the challenges of building a sustainable business. As the company has expanded to new markets, shipping the products with the lowest footprint has become a concern. Just two months ago, Freitag was able to ship its first cargo load of products to Japan by boat. Previously, the company could only deliver smaller shipments by air, which come with a higher carbon price tag.
Sourcing the recycled materials consistently is another challenge, one that Freitag shares with most companies producing items from re-proposed materials. On their site, Freitag has a page that asks, "Would you like to sell your used truck tarpaulins to FREITAG?"
"It's a wish," said Markus. No trucking companies have ever approached them. Instead, the company has five employees dedicated to scouting out, contacting and buying materials from thousands of suppliers.
Freitag also pays to have any tarpaulin scraps recycled. In theory, old bags that become worn out could also be recycled this way. However, setting up the infrastructure to collect the bags is a challenge, particularly with an international market. Markus asks, "Is it worth it to ship a damaged bag back to Switzerland?" However, Freitag is remarkably close to a zero-waste model. After all, the bags are designed to last a very long time.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Freitag is that it is the antithesis of fast-fashion. The first messenger bag designs, introduced 20 years ago, are still for sale. Some designs may be retired, but the introduction of new items operates completely outside of the fashion world's arbitrary seasons. The price tag is comparable to some haute couture handbags, but the design and durability will outlast them.