Resolving Trash and Poverty, with Ian Rosenberger

This month Parvati Magazine connected with Ian Rosenberger, Founder & CEO of Thread and Team Tassy, created in 2012 in the wake of the Haiti earthquake. To date, Team Tassy has helped prepare almost 500 Haitians for employment. Thread has shipped nearly 30,000,000 plastic bottles out of Haiti and Honduras to be turned into high-performance materials. So far the network supports nearly 4000 jobs.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Parvati Magazine: What was the inspiration for Thread and how does Team Tassy fit in?

Ian Rosenberger: I went to Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake with an original mission of taking and selling photos to contribute. I noticed the over 3,000 photos I took had two common elements in them: trash and poverty.

We all fundamentally want the same things – a roof over our heads and a way to give our kids a better life than we had. I was convinced an effective solution would require a money-making enterprise creating real jobs that would invest the Haitian people with dignity, autonomy and purpose. I found out you can make fabric out of plastic waste, and the idea for Thread was born.

Thread recently created a joint partnership with Team Tassy, Timberland, HP, and ACOP to address the issue of undignified and child labor in the supply chain. We call this the First Mile Coalition (FMC). Team Tassy leads the efforts on the ground to provide services to some 300 Haitian children – with access to medical care, educational opportunities, safety workshops and supplies, and job training and placement in the future.

PMAG: What have been some of the challenges in making Thread a reality?

IR: The single biggest challenge: because the apparel industry is struggling it is even more resistant to change than it normally is. Frankly, that’s forced us to get smarter, cheaper, and faster. We have to have the best material out there, and I think we’re getting there faster than even I’d hoped.

PMAG: What impact does the First Mile philosophy have on your business decisions?

IR: The First Mile is how Thread refers to the people in the very first parts of the supply chain. They collect the plastic bottles, that we process into yarn and fabric. The more bottles we transform into yarn, the more jobs we support, and the less trash makes its way to landfills or the ocean. Every decision we make at Thread starts with β€œhow will this impact the people in the First Mile?” Thread has created a number of programs to help the entrepreneurs in our supply chain grow their businesses, [including] a zero-interest loan system. Through a partnership with Kiva’s direct-to-social enterprise program, we were able to 10x the available capital, and have had a 100% payback rate.

PMAG: How does hurricane season affect Thread’s operations?

IR: This is a great question. From where I sit, it’s clear that climate change disproportionately affects the poor, and hurricanes are great examples.

Luckily Port-au-Prince, where the majority of Thread’s suppliers operate, has been largely spared by the recent hurricanes [Harvey, Irma and Maria], but in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew slammed into the Southwest of Haiti, killing more than 1,000 people, displacing many more, and causing heavy rains and flooding. Two hundred or so of the families we serve were under water. Friends from the neighborhood, all desperately poor themselves, asked if they could help their neighbors, and if we could facilitate bringing sand in to raise the elevation of the flooded area. A dozen or so dump truck loads and a massive bucket brigade later, the community literally rose up. All we did was work with Team Tassy to help them connect the dots.

PMAG: Thread has recently partnered with HP to provide plastic flake material for sustainable ink cartridges. How is the HP partnership helping you achieve your mission?

IR: This partnership is a big deal to us for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is they would be purchasing dark colored plastic flake. Clear and green plastic tends to be in higher demand in the world market. We were able to use the weight and leverage of HP to negotiate on behalf of the collection center owners for a 35% increase in price per pound of plastic. The best part? The recycling center reported a 15% increase in collection volume shortly after the price increase. The more outside cash we can infuse into the collection network, the more it allows center owners to reinvest in their businesses or use the profits to further support their families.

Ian RosenbergerIan Rosenberger is Founder & CEO of Thread and Team Tassy. After placing third on CBS: Survivor, his work in media took him to Africa in 2006 where he realized he wanted to work with the poor. Ian has spoken about Thread and Team Tassy for Harvard Business School, TEDx, and One Young World, and his work has been featured in Fast Company, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the Huffington Post. To date he has raised over $7 million to end poverty and create jobs.