Ethical Ecommerce Interviews: QWSTION on Creating Their Own Sustainable Fabric

This is the second in a series of interviews with ethical online entrepreneurs: we hope they’ll be helpful and inspirational for anyone trying to find their way in business. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Our second interviewee is Hannes Schoenegger, co-founder of QWSTION. As well as their collections of sustainably and ethically crafted bags, the brand have developed their very own sustainable fabric: Bananatex.

What inspired you to start QWSTION?

I founded QWSTION with four of my friends back in 2008. We were all working in different fields, but we all did a lot of travelling, and we were looking for a bag that would meet our needs: something functional, but which could also be used for business meetings. Way back in 2008, if you had a functional bag it’d look like you’d just come from a mountain when you entered a business meeting! So we decided to make our own backpack.

How did you go about setting up the business?

We didn’t set it up like you set businesses up nowadays: with business plans, pitches, investors, all of that. We just started the business because we thought our product was great and there was a demand for it. We started by giving the product to our friends: no one gave it back, which we took as a good sign!

And everything else followed, there was no real strategy behind it. But it always felt right to focus on the product: its functionality and its sustainability were the things that mattered to us.

Was the brand sustainable from the start?

All of us wanted to be as sustainable as possible, but when you’ve just started a brand and you’re only dealing with small volumes, there’s a limited amount you can do.

So at first, we had to work with what we could afford, and what we could get in the market: but we made the decision to work with natural, plant-based fibres from the outset. So our first editions were made of conventional cotton, and just a few years later we had the capacity to develop our own materials: high-density organic cotton and hemp. Then, four years ago, we invented Bananatex.

The starting point was this idea of a circular supply chain: how could a plant be turned into a product, and back into a plant again?

Our supply chain was in Asia. So the question was, what is a sustainable Asian fibre? We found out that there’s a history of using the banana fibre for textiles in Asia: but the problem was that—because there wasn’t a way of processing it into a fine yarn—it had only been used for really sturdy things, like ropes for the shipping industry. But together with our partners, we found a way to process it.

Bananatex is an “open source” fabric: what does that mean?

It means that we’re happy to share it with any brand that has a serious interest in sustainability: even if they’re a competitor. And if someone wants to develop something new out of it with us, we’re open to that. We really think that cooperation is better than competition.

The feedback has been overwhelming from all sorts of industries. Fashion brands want to make lighter versions of it for clothing; furniture brands want to make a heavier version; automobile brands want to explore the possibilities of using Bananatex in cars!

How have you grown the company?

We don’t advertise at all, we never have. Instead, we focus on creating projects that matter—like Bananatex—and talk to the media about that, which is PR I suppose.

And we’re trying to build a community of conscious people who are interested in well-made products. We do have an Instagram page that we curate, but we mainly talk to people directly through our newsletter, The QWSTION Circle, where we cover the things that matter to us: from innovations in sustainability to the music our designers are listening to, because maybe that’s inspiring for people too.

What are the biggest challenges QWSTION has faced?

The things that work economically are very often the opposite of the things that work ecologically: that results in a system which punishes companies that work sustainably, and rewards those that really don’t. The system needs to change.

Things should be sold for their real price, because at the moment they really aren’t. For example, if you go and buy a nylon backpack for €40, that might seem a bargain compared to an organic cotton backpack. But it’s not really, because at some point we’re going to have to dig it out of a landfill or fish it out of the ocean, and the whole of society will pay. So politicians need to enact policies like carbon taxing, to show consumers what’s really cheap: and what really isn’t.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in ecommerce?

I think it’s really important to make sure the product makes a meaningful contribution to society. If you get that right, everything else will follow.