One man's discarded cellphone is another man's polo ... or pants or T-shirt. At least that's how one Boston startup sees it.
The LiveProud Group recycles trash taken from landfills and uses it in a line of athletic apparel. But unlike other clothing manufacturers who use recycled polyester, wool or plastic bottles, LiveProud grabs the electronic junk Americans toss out by the tons to produce its clothing line.
There’s the $210 "Gutter-Bunny" Flow Coat, designed for bike commuters, with a shell made from recycled cell phones, keyboards and computer shells. Its inner fleece is made of plastic bottles. Or you can buy the $75 “Dahlia Yoga Pants” made from 60 percent recycled nylon, 30 percent discarded coconut shells and 10 percent lycra.
As a result of its innovative take on recycled fashion, LiveProud's clothes showed up in Boston's three-day GreenFest last year. Its cofounders, Charles Bogoian and Phil Tepfer, both 25, were picked as America's Best Young Entrepreneurs in 2010 by Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Most e-waste is recycled to be used in new electronics. Supply is plentiful. As many as 60 percent of Americans say they don’t recycle computers, printers, cell phones and television sets, according a 2010 survey by the website Retrevo. Millions of tons of electronics — computers, television sets and cell phones – wind up in U.S. landfills each year.
“Once I saw a landfill (and) I said, ‘Oh my god, this stuff will be here forever,’” Tepfer said. “There is so much material that isn’t being recycled on this planet.”
Tepfer didn’t start out as an eco-apparel maker. An avid sailor, he and buddy Bogoian started their business selling T-shirts, hats and polo shirts to yacht clubs their sophomore year at Babson College. But customers told them they wanted more ways to tout themselves as green.
In 2009, the duo began to explore recycled materials. A trip to a New England landfill sparked an idea to use products that were being thrown away instead of recycled.
They borrowed $25,000 from family and friends and launched an eco-friendly line of clothes. Sales to small yacht clubs and athletic stores doubled to $210,000 last year and expanded to 30 different styles of polos and vests, plus coats and T-shirts made from e-waste and other materials.
At least one e-waste expert says wearing clothing made from recycled electronics may not be such a safe idea. Plastics from electronic waste often contain flame retardants and heavy metals like lead and cadmium used as stabilizers, said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basal Action Network, an environmental group that focuses on toxic products and waste.
“My immediate reaction is ‘Look out,’” says Puckett. “In theory it sounds wonderful, but it’s not benign. This is not necessarily a good idea.”
LiveProud’s co-founder Tepfer says he is unaware of any safety hazards associated with his products. “In our R&D we looked at what we could and couldn’t use, and our manufacturer would not be working with materials that would be hazardous,” he says.
Increasingly, companies are learning that being earth-friendly is not just about recycled materials, says Beth Jensen, corporate responsibility manager at the Outdoor Industry Association. A product that uses recycled materials may not necessarily have less of an environmental impact than one that uses regular fabrics but is more durable and lasts longer, she says.
To cut down on so-called greenwashing, the Outdoor Industry Association has organized 200 companies to come up with an “eco index” that will measure sustainability of products, from recycled materials used, how much energy is used in manufacturing, how long the materials last and what happens to the products at the end of their lifecycle.
LiveProud is not among that “eco index” group of companies, nor has the startup initiated any certification program for green products. Tepfer says he likes the eco index idea, and says LiveProud looks to be efficient at every step of the manufacturing process, from using organic cotton to minimizing its carbon emissions.
“One of the biggest problems out there is the greenwashing issue,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’ll come out on top.”