24 January 2011

Colorado company converts old inner tubes into high fashion

We draw inspiration from many things, but who would have ever thought that a defunct inner tube would become the star of the “eco-chic handbag” company English Retreads. The Boulder, Colorado company has been making its mark in fashion ever since it opened its doors in 2001 by changing the common perception of what a functional hand bag should be made of. Recently Heather English, the owner and founder of English Retreads, was kind enough to answer a few questions for This Dish is Veg.

This Dish is Veg (TDIV): When you wake up in the morning what makes you smile?
Heather English: My puppy dog and green tea.

TDIV: How long have you been vegetarian?
Heather: I became a vegetarian in 1997; I must have been very, very young!

TDIV: What inspired you to go vegetarian?
Heather: I took a class in college that was about ecological sustainability and I learned about the disconnect between the amount of resources it takes to raise animals for food and keeping the biological systems on earth diverse and productive. But the real reason is because I had a "pet" pig when I was a kid. It turned out Piglet wasn't really a pet. It would have been less deceiving and traumatic had we called him Bacon all along.

TDIV: What is your favorite piece in your current collection and why?
Heather: My favorite piece is the Mini Luxe in Scarlet red. It's my new going out bag. I love it because it's new to me (I just got one for myself even though it's been in the collection for a couple of years), it's the perfect size to fit everything I want, it's super sassy and cute, plus I always get asked out by handsome, available, smart men when I carry that bag.

TDIV: What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
Heather: Sustainable and fashion together is almost an oxymoron due to the planned obsolescence built into the fashion industry, although we are starting to turn that around. Sustainable fashion encompasses the environmental as well as the social impact a product has throughout its lifespan. Fashion is designed to last one season before the industry tells us we can't wear it anymore and to get rid of it; many products are mass produced so that they fall apart after only several uses; things are made by people who are taken advantage of due to their socioeconomic position. These are all non-sustainable situations. We have to move in a direction of sustainability or we're just going to hurt ourselves in the end. I'd like to see more cool, hip, well made products that are sustainable so that consumers are willing to choose this over throw-away products.

TDIV: What inspired you to use rubber inner tubes as the material for your bags?
Heather: I was floating down Boulder Creek on an inner tube and knew I wouldn't be doing that again (shallow, rushing water, lots of rocks, very cold- I'd rather be hiking or biking or in a nice warm hot tub). I was vegetarian and didn't wear leather products but couldn't find a handbag that was stylish, non leather, and eco-savvy. So I made one... out of the defunct inner tube.

TDIV: How much work goes into creating your bags?
Heather: It's quite the process: procuring inner tubes from truck stops, cleaning the greasy, dirty tubes with eco friendly degreaser, cutting, riveting, sewing, all with lots of care and love.

TDIV: What is the most challenging part of your work?
Heather: What has been challenging for me is running a business. Like a lot of crafty people, I started out because I enjoyed making things... out of rubber, it turns out. I've had to learn the business end of things which has been a long process. I feel that I've surpassed getting an MBA by just jumping in and learning how to run my own business.

TDIV: What do you think surprises most people about your bags?
Heather: That such a good looking, sexy product is made from a truck inner tube... AND the lining is made from recycled plastic bottles!

TDIV: What are your best sellers?
Heather: The best selling accessory is our bifold wallet- it's unique, its fun, it will make you richer. Our best selling handbag is the small Model T Tote Luxe- it's sleek, it's savvy, it'll help you land your dream job.

TDIV: In the last year the term “going green” has been all over the place, even though most of us that are vegetarian/vegan have been living a green life style for many years. Is there anything about the current “green” movement that frustrates you?
Heather: It's fantastic that words like "green", "eco", "clean", "environmentally friendly", and "organic" are common words in our vocabulary today. Word is getting out, consumers are starting to vote with their dollars. What annoys me is green washing. People want to do the right thing, but they don't want to be inconvenienced. Companies are taking advantage of this by marketing their products or company policies as eco-friendly when they actually aren't.

TDIV: Does your company donate to any charities?
Heather: We donate a lot of products to local charities, schools, environmental endeavors, and animal welfare non profits for silent auctions in order to give back to our community.

TDIV: What is the one item you wish people would recycle more?
Heather: Brilliant ideas.

TDIV: What’s in store for the future?
Heather: Just one word... rubber.

Jodi Truglio | email
Jodi is a strict vegan and animal rights advocate that grew up in up-state New York. She holds a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. In her spare time Jodi enjoys doing yoga and pilates.

Photo credit: English Retreads