As soon as we stepped off the plane in Zurich, Switzerland, we could tell we were in a country that accords the highest value to precise, functional design. My husband, an architect, ran his hands over the smooth concrete pillars in the terminal. “Touch it! Wow. Look at the corners,” he said, leaning in to look at the sharp 90-degree angle in a material that is usually so humble, and had somehow been coaxed into a luxurious, beautiful state of being. The Swiss don’t do anything halfway.
I had come to Zurich on invitation* from the sustainable, unisex Swiss backpack brand QWSTION, who was celebrating their 10th anniversary last week. They wanted me to see for myself the new eco-friendly material that they had spent the past three years researching, developing and testing, that they were debuting at the party.
A Sustainable, Beautiful, Versatile Bag
When I first discovered QWSTION, I was drawn to the fact that their core mission is to prove that you don’t need to make a backpack with synthetic, petroleum-based materials. Instead, they make beautiful, long-lasting, sustainable bags made with renewable materials.
Their bags can be used in every situation – on a bike or for a high-level meeting. They achieve that by putting a clever strap system onto every bag, so that you can turn duffel into a large backpack, or a small backpack into a briefcase or shoulder bag. Everything is designed in Zurich, and manufactured in a Chinese factory that they’ve had a relationship with since 2010, and that is audited by BSCI (Business and Social Compliance Initiative), an EU initiative with the goal to implement European standards in Non-EU countries.
QWSTION put us up a socially- and environmentally-conscious pension called Kalkbreite right across from their Zurich store in the heart of the trendiest neighborhood of Zurich. It’s a cooperative run by the long-term residents, who all contribute their labor, so we were checked in by a resident, and worked on our laptops alongside residents in the kitchen and dining area downstairs. I know what you’re thinking when you hear “cooperative,” but it looks like a trendy SoHo hotel, all glass and concrete, with a wide staircase cutting diagonally from the organic high-end Lebanese cafe downstairs into a second-floor open garden courtyard, and then up to a rooftop with a view of Zurich. When we walked down the stairs, we passed the Zurich office of Greenpeace, with a large paper maché polar bear in their window. This cutting-edge design combined with sustainability would be a theme of our trip.
We crossed the street and walked into the QWSTION store, which features not only their bags, but a selection of other conscious and well-designed products, from fairly-made Sri Lankan jewelry, to organic men’s and women’s fashion, and even furniture. They were already starting to dismantle everything to get ready for the big party and debut of their new fabric the next night.
Up until last week, the majority of their material used was all-organic cotton canvas, a fact they are quite proud of. They also used vegetable-tanned leather for the handles, rayon for belts and straps, and aluminum or steel buckles, zippers, and other fasteners. They use PFC-free water-repellent coatings.
But, being Swiss, they’re never fully satisfied with their work, always tinkering around to figure out how to make it better. Or the best, even.
So they invited me upstairs to their design office to see what they had been working on.
From Tea Bags to Backpacks
QWSTION‘s bag manufacturer knew that they were interested in an alternative to organic cotton, and in 2015 linked them to a yarn specialist who was experimenting with banana fiber, otherwise known as Manila hemp, or abacá. It’s made from the leaves of a palm that is in the banana family. Sturdy and self-sufficient, it’s cultivated in a natural ecosystem of mixed agriculture and forestry, and requires no pesticides or extra water to grow. It has been a boon to the Philippines, contributing to the reforestation of areas damaged by palm plantations while economically helping farmers.
The largest user of abaca right now is actually a paper manufacturer, who supplies paper for tea bags. They were very open and helpful to the QWSTION team, but you can imagine how much development had to go into taking a material currently used for thin vellum-like paper and turning it into a sturdy canvas.
The final process they came up with goes like this: The palms are grown in the Philippine highlands, then cut down at the farm. The raw plant fiber is stripped out, then the fiber manufacture turns it into a pulp that is pressed into a paper. The paper is sliced into a very thin, long strips, which is then twisted into a white thread. That is woven into a sleek canvas that looks a lot like cotton canvas, but is smoother, stronger and lighter. Finally, they coat the inside with beeswax and spray the outside with a non-toxic, water-based repellent to seal it as waterproof.
They’re calling the sustainable technical textile Bananatex, and making it available to any other brands who may want to use it.
At the party the next night, they showed the following video, which shows the whole process from beginning to end, including their visit to the Philippine farms, and the textile and sewing factories.
Fair Trade, Sustainable, Zero-Waste, Closed-Loop, Capsule Wardrobe-Ready
Upstairs, co-founder and industrial designer Christian Kaegi showed me the design process for the bags. Because the fiber is pricier than cotton, they came up with a design that is close to zero-waste (1% of the textile is left as cuttings) for the Roll Pack, crafted a prototype, and then gave it to the team to use for months at a time, to see how it held up and what needed to be adjusted. They tested several different iterations of the straps and handles. They showed me one prototype that is a year old – it’s a little bit dingy with one seam coming undone, which of course they fixed in the final design.
The final two products are the Roll Pack and the Hip Pouch, in two colors: Natural White, the original color of the abacá fiber, and All Black. At the end of the bags’ lifecycles, their fabric is 100% biodegradable, and their buckles and zippers can be recycled.
True to its Swiss design, the Roll Pack is versatile, well-crafted, and beautiful. It has a flexible roll top closure that can be closed several different ways. The large, expandable main body contains multiple inner compartments, including a sleeve made of German merino wool which fits a 15″ MacBook Pro. The YKK metal zipper has cotton fabric instead of the usual plastic tape, and allows you to reach directly in the main compartment from the side, instead of unrolling the top, if you need to quickly grab your wallet or phone from the small interior pockets. For these models, the rayon straps were replaced with Bananatex handles, and the top handle is vegetable-tanned leather, which is more comfortable to carry and long-lasting.
I chose the hip pouch for myself. Because the straps can be switched from the side to the bottom, I can carry it around my waist, across my body, or as a regular small purse with a shoulder strap, or even as a clutch or toiletry bag. It’s super versatile and lightweight, with a small interior pocket for cards or money, and just what I was looking for for my travels!
You can purchase them at QWSTION flagship stores in Zurich, Vienna, Copenhagen and Lausanne, at retail partners around the world, and online at qwstion.com. For my U.S. readers, they don’t currently sell in a store in the U.S., but they do ship there. (They say their biggest U.S. market is L.A.)
By the time I left Zurich, I was so impressed with QWSTION. Sustainable yet pragmatic, super high quality yet down-to-earth, fair trade yet modern. They have a new fan for life in me.
*QWSTION paid for our plane tickets to Zurich, our train tickets out, our accommodation for two days and a couple of meals. As always, I only partner with brands who I think are truly making the world a better place, and the article above reflects my true thoughts and feelings.