While it may all seem like postcard views and umbrella drinks on the island nation of Indonesia, the South Pacific country is actually in the midst of a serious trash epidemic, producing nearly 20,000 tons of waste every day that will end up burnt, discarded or thrown into its oceans.
A trio of USC students are looking to dent this daunting number and are doing so in the name of fashion. Anthony Zhang, Monty Hasan and McKenna Weinsten are the co-founders of Topiku, an apparel company and social enterprise that makes 5-panel snapbacks from upcycled materials while providing jobs for local artisans in the surf capital of Bali.
Using discarded textile fabric, shoe leather and plastic buckets, Topiku has created a line of four 5-panel hats retailing for $35. Each hat removes approximately five pounds of waste, and the new company is looking to scale from its current one-village operation to several villages in Indonesia, teaching villagers proper waste management techniques along the way.
GrindTV caught up with Topiku’s, Zhang, to hear more about the brand’s mission and how a group of college students intends to address Indonesia’s trash problem one snapback at a time.
What is the motivation behind Topiku?
[Indonesia is] the fourth most populous country in the world and a lot of the big cities’ waste management hasn’t been able to keep up with development, so a lot of the cities dump excess trash into the villages and the ocean. These villages don’t have any infrastructure, either, so they are living in trash.
When my co-founder was in Indonesia over the summer, he saw that some of this trash could actually have second life, and that textile and shoe factories had an excess of these scraps. Maybe they couldn’t make a t-shirt or carpet, but it could definitely be used for a snapback hat.
How did you guys get it from idea to production?
It was a little bit of good luck. Monty, my co-founder, was interning at an NGO called the Access Project which aims to help the trash problem in Indonesia, so he was able to talk to people on the ground and see where they were getting these scraps of material. He went village to village around West Java and found one that was on board with our mission.
We buy these upcycled materials from these factories, and we make them with a home industry village called Cigondewah. The whole village works on this together and uses their profits to build better communal housing.
We are also the only employer of women in that area. Everything is handmade, we’re using things like discarded plastic buckets, excess fabric, and leather from old leather shoes at a nearby factory.
And there is an education component as well, yes?
Our other partnership is with non-profit Waste4Change. With the proceeds from our hat, we go into these villages we work with and educate them about waste practices, how to recycle, things like that.
A lot of the terrible environmental processes going on are not due to lack of care, people just don’t know better. With the purchase of one hat, we are able to run a program like this for an entire village for one week.
You guys operate in the surf Mecca of Bali. Does Topiku have a surf connection?
A ton of surf shops have reached out to us, and right now, we are actually talking with a huge pro surfer to do a sustainable line.
This community is always outdoors, they understand how beautiful the ocean is and connect with our cause.
Why do you guys appeal to the action sports crowd?
I think the main thing, aside from it being a cool looking hat, is that [Topiku] is a very sustainable and environmental cause, and I think action sports brands are moving towards sustainable apparel. Everyone is going organic, and consumers are more aware.
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