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In the Loop

This Swiss shoulder bag maker shares the secrets of 30 years of circularity

Graphic designers from Zurich grew one of the longest-lasting circular economy brands. Now Freitag is pursuing "intelligent design for a circular future."

Freitag messenger bags. Source: Freitag

Freitag messenger bags. Source: Freitag

Freitag has been making messenger bags and accessories from used truck tarps and other materials since the early 1990s. Its corporate philosophy is, "We think and act in cycles."

The company is widely regarded as one of the original champions of circular business. To learn more, I interviewed Elisabeth Isenegger, communications lead and 13-year veteran at Freitag, by email in November. 

Suz Okie: Can you give a bit of background on Freitag's origins and why circularity is so central to its strategy?  

Elisabeth Isenegger: Something that started with the recycling of discarded truck tarps has encouraged us time and time again to use resources and energy sparingly. 

Today, our main focus is keeping products and materials in circulation for as long as possible and working out how we can leave the linear economy behind us once and for all. 

Life-extending measures we have already implemented, such as upcycling, one-time recycling or repair, do not fully satisfy this goal. Instead, we are attempting to drive the circular economy by closing our material cycles and becoming a circular organization. …Furthermore, all good things deserve a second life.

Okie: How were repairability, durability and other circular principles factored into the design?

Isenegger: This can be seen in the attached pouch made of recycled truck tarpaulin and the zips, which have been visibly sewn. Also, the piece of tarpaulin that was cut out of the pouch to insert the zip is used in the main compartment as a docking strap for keys. In this way, the tarpaulin is used efficiently and functionally in the product without leaving production leftovers. On top of this, the spare parts, such as punched reflectors, are provided for free in our stores so that the bag owner can fix some elements themselves, if they choose.

Okie: In regards to materials, how big of a waste stream are truck tarps, and why did Freitag start with this particular material stream? 

Isenegger: In the beginnings of Freitag in 1993, our two founders, graphic designers Markus and Daniel Freitag, were looking for a functional, water-repellent and robust bag to hold their creative work. Inspired by the multicolored heavy traffic that rumbled through the Zurich transit intersection in front of their flat, they developed a messenger bag from used truck tarpaulins, discarded bicycle inner tubes and car seat belts.

All-in-all, industry estimations claim that around 10 million square meters of (PVC) tarpaulins are produced every year. 

We are also working with various industrial partners to develop a truck tarpaulin that, even after a long second life as a Freitag bag, doesn’t end up in the garbage, but back in the cycle. The first prototypes of a circular tarp are now into its first round of testing by being mounted on small trucks, and in 2024 there will be a second test round with a first small fleet of trucks.

Okie: Traditionally, designing products from upcycled materials can be difficult to scale given sporadic sourcing and more involved testing/quality control. How does Freitag overcome this?

Isenegger: Instead of ordering a new material in huge volumes, we look out for used truck tarps all over Europe from several hundred different trucking companies, in as many colors and prints as possible. Not all of them can be used because they sometimes fail quality checks. However, we don't see these limits to scalability as solely negative, as it has helped us to pursue a healthy, organic growth and maintain our authentic character as a niche brand.

Okie: The Freitag impact report denotes that you're "actively searching for better solutions" to recycled PET.

Isenegger: We are aware that materials made from recycled PET bottles can only be an interim solution as long as the PET is sourced from [what could be] a functional closed cycle. Accordingly, we only use them where no circular alternatives are available and are actively searching for better solutions. In parallel, we are currently working on different circular projects.

The Freitag Material Cycles.

The Freitag Material Cycles. Source: Freitag

We are embarking on a new cycle with a product made from just one material. This latest circular development from Freitag is called Mono[PA6] because every part of the backpack, from the fabric to the buckles, is made of just one material: polyamide 6. The first 1,500 units of the first circular backpack will be made of virgin PA6, a non-recycled material, and are expected to be available in spring 2024, along with a repair concept and takeback process. 

Okie: In regards to your circular services, it's exciting to see you pursuing multiple circular services at once. 

Isenegger: We offer product-related services such as repair, take-back, customization, a complimentary bag exchange and a lending program.

On top of the existing services, in the Freitag Laboratory of Progress (F.L.O.P.), a small team is puzzling over new circular solutions and business models that are in line with our brands’ purpose of "intelligent design for a circular future."

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