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In 2007, Michael Franti strolled into the Green Guru booth at Kansas’ Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival and beelined for a messenger bag. Astonished by its quality, the hip-hop artist told Green Guru founder Davidson Lewis that he couldn’t believe it was made of recyclables. But Franti got the bag and was still using it when Lewis ran into him a decade later.
Now a six-figure business based in Boulder, Green Guru converts discarded recyclables and outdoor gear into durable backpacks, panniers, and more. While upcycling isn’t unusual today, it was when Green Guru launched 15 years ago this month. “The idea that you could make top-line gear out of discarded items was unheard of then,” says Jay Getzel, who partnered with Green Guru when he was president of Golden’s Mountainsmith backpack company in the mid-2010s.
Like many visionaries, Lewis started young, rescuing old bike tubes at the bicycle shop he worked at—“I hated seeing them get tossed,” he says—and turning them into tie-down straps. Lewis later designed upcycled backpacks for his senior thesis project at Virginia Tech; the idea stuck with him after he moved to Boulder to design gear for Case Logic. “The disconnect between companies’ messaging about protecting the environment while working with petroleum-based materials that ultimately end up in dumps motivated me to try something different,” Lewis says.
So, he quit his job to launch Green Guru from his garage in 2005, at age 27. For the next five years, Lewis peddled his packs at every eco-festival and trade show he could find. Word of his sturdy bags spread until 2010, when REI began carrying Green Guru products and Patagonia contracted the company to make koozies from old wetsuits. “His success showed bigger brands that upcycling was possible,” says Getzel, now the director of sales for Nite Ize’s Outdoor Division.
Lewis no longer has to convince doubters. Patagonia and other retailers donate discarded gear to Green Guru, and companies like Big Agnes and New Belgium hire Lewis to turn their excess materials into gear for sale or marketing swag. Through these efforts, Green Guru has diverted more than one million pounds of garbage. That number stands to grow early next month, when REI debuts 3,000 toiletry kits made in partnership with Green Guru, available for $35 each. Each is constructed of salvaged sleeping pads, bike tubes, and climbing ropes—so they’ll feel right at home in your gear closet.