A couple of months ago I was asked to do an assignment for Alternet about the future of cardboard as a viable renewable alternative to other, less renewable packaging, building, and common use materials, especially all the oil-based, non-recyclable plastics and synthetics. I'd heard about the Israeli guy whose cardboard bicycle odyssey had gotten a bit of a buzz. However, doing my research I knew I wanted to focus more on everyday items that pass through our hands in huge quantities, where a switch to a renewable, recyclable, and compostable resource could potentially make a huge dent in municipal landfills and the great pacific garbage patch.
I had to look no further than my closet to find just the right heroes for my story.
My partner and eco organizer extraordinaire Deb had been turned on to Ditto cardboard hangers a little while ago, after doing her typical due diligence. "I was scouring the company's website and was blown away by what I read." Realizing that this was the real deal, she wrote via the form on their website, asking if they'd be willing to provide sample hangers for her to distribute to attendees of a talk on "green" organizing she was giving." Gary Barker, the company's brilliant, whole systems-thinking industrial designer turned CEO responded to her inquiry, and after a trip to Ditto's East Oakland headquarters she knew that this product had the potential for teachable moments to replace a lot of disposable materials in her line of work.
I had a feeling I would learn a lot not only about hangers, but about cardboard's sourcing, applications, and innovations for my article, so I dropped Gary a line. He immediately responded with an invitation to Ditto HQ, so a couple of days later I got on my bike and took BART across the bay to meet with the Guru of Cardboard Hangers. Much of my interview and impressions from my visit are woven into the final article, What's the Most Sustainable Material for Daily Life? The Answer May Be Hiding in Plain Sight — check it out if you're interested in the history of cardboard and its recent renaissance in some expected as well as quite a few unexpected places.
But since I got really busy after finishing the article, I never had a chance to share some of the extra photos and inspirations I came away with that day. So consider this a "backstage with Gary Barker" bonus track to put the finishing touches on an award-winning eco opus.
We were looking for an everyday ubiquitous product that everyone touched, so my partner at the time came up with the hanger, which I thought was the stupidest idea. Everybody hates their hanger, and I didn't want to be a hanger designer. But when I realized that hanger design hadn't changed in sixty years, it dawned on me how brilliant this was. I started looking at stores to see what was being recycled, and it was cardboard boxes. So we knew we had to make it out of paper.I realized as soon as I pushed my bike through the front door that I would like these guys. The whole place felt more like an artist studio than an office (no wonder they work with local artists), and everyone was super-friendly and seemed genuinely psyched about the work they were doing. It reminded me much more of one of the skateboard design studios I knew from my skater buddies than what I imagined a garment supplier to look like. With just a little bit of imagination it's not hard to see yourself taking a spin on one of these...
- Gary Barker
The fact that I would never in a million years have thought of a hanger as something to get excited about or even think of hangers much at all was, as I would soon find out, no coincidence. One of the first things Gary pointed out to me was that just as his own initial disdain at being a hanger designer had a deeper origin, my indifference toward coat hangers was not entirely of my own making.
Hangers have been invisible, and the reason they're invisible is that hanger companies don't want innovation because they make a tremendous amount of money.
- Gary Barker
Be honest: Have you ever reached into your closet in the morning and yearned for a more inspiring hanger? No? I thought so. We are mostly creatures of habit, and for the most part we use whatever industry standards are put in front of us. That's not to say life would be so much better with handsome door knobs and elegant microwave ovens, but from an ecological perspective it makes you wonder whether manufacturers who have no interest in making their products beautiful would put the extra thought into making their product the most energy-efficient and ecologically attuned. And whether people would know the difference.
So here was Gary, putting me to the test right away.
Okay, I get it, that plastic thing is plain hideous. That's what I've been hanging my clothes on without flinching, really?
But here's the thing: ugly or not, these plastic hangers can't be recycled, so they ultimately all end up in the landfill. Lots of them. Sure, you may keep your personal hangers a lifetime (sure about that? And then what happens, do you pass them down to your children?), but the big department stores where almost all hangers are "born" certainly don't.
In the case of coat hangers, the Garment on Hangers system prevalent in the clothing industry ensures that the minute a hanger is sold it is thrown away. According to Gary Barker, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 billion plastic hangers made every year, of which 8 billion — or the equivalent of 4.5 Empire State buildings — go in the landfill. Recycling facilities do not accept wire or plastic hangers, and wire hangers are doubly problematic as they foul up and twist into the drums that separate different materials. Cardboard hangers, by contrast, can simply be tossed in the paper recycling bin, or if your city has a composting program, in the compost bin. That’s 4.5 Empire State buildings of waste not created.So, there's a big difference whether your hanger comes from and goes back to here...
Bales of cardboard at the Pier 96 Recycle Central facility in San Francisco. Photo by Larry Strong
or whether it ends up here...
Non recyclable or compostable materials destined for landfill at the San Francisco Waste Transfer Station. Photo by Sven Eberlein
One of the things that became clear very quickly was that Gary is a whole systems thinker. It is of course great if individuals can change their habits and enact more sustainable ways of going about their daily business. And it's always those who are swimming against the current of the ingrained and conventional wasteful ways of western industrialized society that get others out of their rut and start new movements. But to institute meaningful change on a large scale you cannot go out and try to convince every single person to change their ways — you have to redesign the things we use on a daily basis, so that it's attractive and accessible to everyone while treading much more lightly on the environment.
Rather than making things as glitzy as possible, we need to think about simple ways to do complex things. Simplicity is really beautiful if it's designed properly and you're not trying to make it look like something else.So if you can convince mass distributors and big retailers like the GAP or REI and brands like Adidas or Liv/giant to use sustainable coat hangers at the point of first contact with their garments, you are well on the way to changing an entire industry.
- Gary Barker
And that's what Gary & Co. did with Ditto.
When we first marketed ourselves, we did it as designers. We said, look how beautiful our hangers are, we bring out the beauty in your fabrics. That didn't work so well. So we changed it to, ‘look, you're killing baby seals, you've gotta use it because it's environmental!’ That didn't go over well. Then we finally started saying, ‘look at the marketing power of this, think about what this does in the store. All a plastic or wire hanger does is defy gravity, that's it. It just hangs clothing in space. But here you can have different languages, get rid of labels, and come up with a very distinct look for your hangers. You have a marketing tool, a communication device, a way for your branding to go into homes.
- Gary Barker
It's a win win win situation: A small company dedicated to making beautiful, sustainable products gets to grow and hire new employees. Major retailers and clothing manufacturers get to be cool and woo their customers with a hip, uniquely branded, and environmentally responsible accessory. Municipalities are spared the tangled mess of hangers as we know them, keeping more waste out of their landfills. Most importantly, planet Earth gets to rejoice because all of a sudden we have shifted a cradle to grave throwaway process to a Cradle to Cradle infinite loop.
But coat hangers are just a start. Others are exploring new cardboard product ideas, inspired by the potential of recycled paper, a ton of which saves up to 31 trees, 4,000 kWh of energy, 1.7 barrels of oil, 7,000 gallons of water and 4.5 cubic yards of landfill space. (Bureau of International Recycling)
New uses range from the functional, like vacuum cleaners or desktop computers, and the comfortable, like beds or sofas, to the strangely logical, like the cardboard coffin. The versatile material has inspired low-budget solutions such as $5 solar-powered ovens that eliminate the need in developing countries for rural residents to cut down trees for firewood, as well as high-end design projects such as a Dutch advertising agency’s cardboard office.For Gary and Ditto, their experience with this medium has opened up a whole new realm of design, some of it just a logical consequence of their success with coat hangers. For one, if you can make a coat hanger out of cardboard, you can make all kinds of other hanging devices. Acorn, for example, asked him if it would be possible to custom design fabulous and sustainable hangers for their slippers, and Gary thought "why not?"
The next thought was that if you can do hanging devices for individual items, why not design entire racks and POP displays. So they did.
Closing the Cycle
After Gary shared with me a bunch more of his design ideas (furniture and laptop cases, anyone?) we chatted for another half hour or so about politics, art, environmentalism, and the meaning of life. As someone who has never been particularly interested in buying and selling things but knows that our future on this planet is directly related to how we exchange goods and organize our economy, I have to say I'm doubly appreciative of business people who "get it." Entrepreneurs like Gary Barker or Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard and the folks pushing the Benefit Corporation revolution. They understand that short-term profit for a few is a completely unsustainable business model that simply charges externalized costs on the earth's credit card and that the only functioning economy is one that respects and is rooted in ecological principles. We need as many of them to step up as quickly as possible.
As is often the case with people you're on the same wavelength with, they keep popping into your life. A couple of months later, as Deb and I were heading from my interview with Bill McKibben to see him speak at the Green Festival in San Francisco, we noticed a different kind of vibe at the coat check of the Concourse Center. There they were, Gary's Ditto crew, checking attendees' coats on beautiful cardboard hangers. It all made too much sense. I'm wondering how much plastic we could keep from being made and going to landfill if all concerts and event coat checks used cardboard hangers.
Gary, of course, wasn't far. We stopped by the Ditto booth, which happened to be right next to the Life Without Plastic booth, another one of Deb's favorite companies. As luck would have it, our friend Beth Terry was signing copies of her new book, Plastic Free — How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.
Problem, meet Solution. It was like a closing of a big loop, and everything made perfect sense that day!
People and Ditto HQ photos by Sven Eberlein
Product, store, and cardboard photos courtesy of Ditto
Crossposted at A World of Words
2:11 PM PT: Gary just responded to my email with the link to this post and a thank you for being part of the solution:
"I've got to say I was bitching and moaning as much as the rest until I started this business. I've read all the forecasts and reports and the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But just working in one area makes me very hopeful and encouraged. The changes I've seen in the last several years by some of the biggest corporations I've dealt with show that change is happening. It's slow, but is moving. When I read about Apple finally changing their work requirements overseas, well that's something I never thought I'd see. It's consumers, it's messengers like you that get the word out that there's good things happening. That's a powerful force of positive change."