By Jamie Siebrase | Oct 30, 2016
Bags and accessories
Industry: Lifestyle & Consumer
Products: Bags and accessories
As a design consultant, Lewis stumbled on a conundrum: Most outdoors manufacturers love nature; problem is, this technical industry revolves around petroleum and offshore manufacturing. Lewis, then, devised a situation that would help the environment, breathing new life into upcycled content in American factories.
"This is my chance to give back to the active lifestyle I really enjoy," Lewis says.
In 2005, he founded Ecologic Designs. As the custom arm of his newly formed conglomerate, Eco Brands Group, Ecologic Designs repurposes materials otherwise destined for landfills for an impressive roster of corporate clients: ATT, Patagonia, Honest Tea, New Belgium and the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, among others.
Upcycling wasn't foreign to Lewis when he opened shop. Back in 1999 at Virginia Tech, the designer's capstone project was transforming bike, truck and tractor inner tubes into backpacks, wallets and belts.
Today, the bulk of Ecologic Designs' business is turning banners into bags: tote, messenger, duffel -- you name it, Lewis does it. Bike inner tubes still reappear as wallets, and old climbing rope might live on as a keychain. "With Patagonia, we've been recycling their wetsuits into beverage cozies for six years," Lewis says.
Clients bring their own materials -- usually worn-out products; sometimes new gear, too, that can't be sold due to a manufacturing defect. "They approach us because we know how to handle, process and transform those materials into finished goods," Lewis explains, likening his process to the Native American practice of harvesting elk hide. "It's just weird skin to work with," he says.
The trick is good planning. "We have an interesting design development studio that accesses the usability of materials before we build it into a product," says Lewis. Beyond in-house design, Ecologic Designs does development, sales, and marketing, along with pre-production sorting and cleaning in Boulder County. From there, Lewis works with sewing factories for production.
"It's semi-traditional cut-and-sew," Lewis says. Well, except for the machines, that is, which are heavy-duty. The ones that sew inner tubes, for example, have been adapted from the leather industry.
Two years into custom corporate upcycling, Lewis was ready to unveil his own designs. He launched the Green Guru brand in 2007 to produce backpacks, wallets, travel bags, and a whole lot of bike bags.
Without corporate clients furnishing materials, though, Green Guru had to improvise. Lewis works with companies -- "REI, Patagonia, Kelty, and a lot of bike shops and climbing gyms," he says -- to source raw goods.
Green Guru products are marketed specifically to outdoor and biking enthusiasts, and sell in select REIs, as well as bike and outdoors shops. Online, Green Guru augments national and international direct-to-consumer distribution with other outlets, including Amazon.
In spring 2016, Lewis incorporated Eco Brands Group after acquiring Alchemy Goods, founded in Seattle in 2003. "They were kind of a competitor against Green Guru, but in fashion and gifts," Lewis explains. When owner Eli Reich was looking to sell, Lewis says, "He thought we were the best fit for continuing his legacy, which was very similar to our DNA, but more fashion-forward."
Capturing a new market has bolstered all of the brands. "We can handle more materials and have bigger production runs," he says.
Challenges: Being competitive with imported products is an ongoing obstacle that Lewis dubs "a marketing challenge." Lewis's goods are typically priced higher than the competition's, and Lewis is constantly exploring ways to, "Make sure consumers know the value of the Made in America and upcycled stories," he says.
Opportunities: Ecologic Designs, in particular, is expanding its repertoire by accepting "more unique materials," Lewis says, adding, "We're currently working with Patagonia on reusing fishing waders." As his company evolves, Lewis might even experiment in different industries, too.
Needs: "Staffing wise, we're making some evolution," Lewis says. He recently brought on a marketing manager, and will continue adding to his team.