The Story of Freitag Bags: Building a Business Around Reclaimed Materials

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A Freitag bag that says Fax made from up cycled materials.

Henry Faber / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1993, two graphic designers, Markus and Daniel Freitag, were looking for a functional, watertight bag to carry their work in, but couldn't find one on the market. The solution, they found, was humming past the front of their Zurich flat every day. Taking inspiration from the colorful tarps closing the sides of flatbed trucks, the brothers used their apartment as a makeshift studio and created a line of messenger bags from recycled truck tarpaulins, bike inner tubes, and old car seat belts. Today, Freitag ships its bags around the world but the real story is in the company's origin: Looking at the manufacturing process provides a unique insight into a company that has built a business on reclaimed materials.

The recycling process begins with tarps, the same ones that are stretched into side walls on trucks across Europe. Life on the road is a tough one for a tarp and the intense weathering they experience means that truck companies are required to retire them every five to eight years.

Once the tarps are discarded by freight companies, Freitag steps in and collects the scraps. Back at the factory, the tarps are stretched out and any unusable parts—like straps, grommets, and damaged sections of fabric—are removed.

The tarps are then cleaned using special industrial washing machines. These machines draw water from a large under-ground storage tank that Freitag fills with roof-top rainwater collectors. During the very early days, the Freitag brothers washed the tarps in their bathtub, their former roommate reveals (PDF).

All of the cutting is done by hand. This is one of the reasons Freitag recently had to build a new factory: Increases in production required more space for tarps, tables, and storage. Instead of building a new factory from the ground up, however, the company decided to retrofit an existing building. The greenest structure, after all, is the one already standing.

The tarps are cut to size, and then sewn together, along with the inner tubes, belts, and labels.

Once the pieces are sewn together, the bag is done. It's that simple. Sometimes maintaining simplicity is a huge challenge. Freitag is very proud of its model of business and growth—something that makes the story about more than just bags.

Indeed, the company that began in an apartment in downtown Zurich has worked hard to stay in Zurich. It's not just about keeping a local business in its hometown—by resisting the push to outsource production, Freitag has been able to limit shipping of parts, materials, and finished products. The company's founders have also been able to maintain control over the ways in which resources are used and workers are treated.

For example, the two brothers, created a plan to partially outsource production to a manufacturing facility employing disabled people.

The effort to remain local belies an even deeper philosophy—that of slow, organic business growth. The Freitag brothers point out that they started their company without venture capital or an exit strategy. Instead, they have focused on steady, sustainable growth.

As the businesses that survived the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed struggle to reestablish themselves, models like Freitag are essential.

Freitag shows that a business can succeed with a plan that emphasizes responsible, sustainable behavior—for the environment, employees, and company as a whole.