Relan, a small business led by the mother-daughter team of Della Simpson and Kari Brizius, partners with large companies to showcase their commitment to sustainability through an array of upcycled products. We recently interviewed Kari to learn more about their story and their company’s commitment to building a more sustainable future.
REV — Please briefly explain what your company, Relan, does.
Kari Brizius — Our goal at Relan is to create value from what is an often overlooked waste stream. What we’re doing is partnering with organizations to help them tell their sustainability story in a new and visibly tangible way. We want to help large brands broaden their sustainability goals by taking their marketing materials — from banners and billboards to overstock t-shirts and old team jerseys; anything that can be cut and sewn — and turn those into products such as totes, sports bags, and accessories.
We’re helping our clients give a purpose to these kinds of products, to be very transparent about their sustainability efforts. What we’ve sometimes found with organizations is that telling their sustainability story can be difficult. What this does is gives them something that they can put in peoples hands. As a result, their customers can now go out and tell their story for them.
REV — You took over Relan, which was originally a boutique and lifestyle company founded in 1995, a few years ago. What inspired you to expand its mission and capabilities?
KB — Della and I had always wanted to be in business together. When we heard about Relan, we thought ‘this is it.’ We are both very passionate about the environment and health and having something where we thought that we could really make a difference in the world. I was an environmental engineer by training and my mom also raised us to be very environmentally conscious. When we found that we could take someone else’s waste and make value out of it and subsequently learned that there are 600,000 tons of vinyl billboards created each year, we knew that there was so much more opportunity out there and we wanted to make a difference with that.
In terms of what drives us, it’s really about making a difference for the next generation, reducing some of the waste that is going into our landfills, and giving organizations a different way to look at their waste and to look at promotional product marketing — to create real value for them.
Since we took over the business five years ago, we’ve doubled its size. As sustainability has grown, our business has grown and obviously we’re very excited about that.
REV — Other than the products you produce, what are some of the ways that you are operating your business in a sustainable way?
KB —Right now there are a few components of our products that aren’t recycled or upcycled so we’re always looking at ways to make that better. But the biggest thing that we’re doing is working with the local community in Minnesota. All of our sewing is done by the local Hmong and Hispanic population, who are very skilled but of whom many don’t speak English. We’ve been able to work with them so they can do contract sewing out of their homes, on their own time, and at their own pace.
We also work with an organization called ProAct which helps people with disabilities to become more self-sufficient. They help us with a lot of things – sorting, cleaning, and cutting materials. A big part of our mission is about giving back and providing jobs. We are also looking at ways to start supporting the veterans’ community. I’m a veteran, so that’s an area that’s important to us as well.
REV — What challenges have you faced, if any?
KB — I don’t think you can be in this business without running into challenges. Even though sustainability is growing, there is still a ways to go. One of our biggest challenges is to get organizations to actually wrap their mind around what we are doing and to be OK with taking something that was previously thrown away and turn that into products – to get them to see that value. The education piece has been a big challenge for us
Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, the straps and binding that we’re using right now are not recycled material. We’re working through that and talking to some companies who could help. Obviously for us, we’d rather have everything be recycled or upcycled, but there are still challenges with that.
There area also challenges for organizations themselves – the big companies – who want to do something green or sustainable, but the price point or the fact that they have to go that extra step to supply us with their waste materials deters them.
As with any business, there’s always some type of challenge. One of the big things we’ve focused on is that we want the products to be sexy and fun and cool — to avoid that idea that because it’s recycled, it’s ugly. We want people to say, ‘oh I like that, I want to have it,’ not ‘I’ll get it because it’s green but its kind of ugly.’
REV — Why is upcycling important as compared to recycling?
KB — One of the biggest reasons is that upcycling has a positive impact on the environment. We’re not against recycling but the more we can upcycle or reuse, the more it reduces the amount of trash that goes into the landfill and it reduces the amount of new materials we need to make. And upcycling takes less energy than recycling which requires breaking down and manufacturing new materials. Our goal is to be saving energy and reducing waste in the process.
REV — Have you seen any other upcycling innovation that you particularly like?
KB — There are so many. An organization called Sword & Plough takes old military items and turns them into tote bags and other products. We’re also big fans of Hipcycle, TerraCycle, and so may others that are upcycling – taking wine bottles and turning them into drinking glasses, or taking coca cola bottles and turning them into jewelry. There are so many ways that people can upcycle.
REV — What advice do you have for other businesses trying to become more sustainable?
KB — My advice would be to think outside the box and listen to your customers. One of the things that we’ve found is that yes, its great that we’re upcycling and making a grocery tote, and there are a lot of people that use those of course, but for instance we’re working with a hockey team, and they don’t really need totes, so we created a hockey bag for them. Instead of just having a set list that clients can choose from, it’s about really listening to what people are looking for and responding to that.
Working together in collaboration with other organizations is another thing we found in the sustainability world that is important. I really feel like we’re all in this together and trying to do it all on your own is nearly impossible.
REV — Any last words?
KB — The most important thing is for all of us to work together to make a difference for the next generation. We can do so much with the materials that already exist on our planet. If we can just change the mindset, be more innovative in our thinking, and think about using the things we already have instead of creating something new – that’s what will make the biggest difference.
For more information about Relan, visit http://www.relan.green