Meet the recycled backpacks makers promoting cultural sharing and sustainability

Taaluma Totes backpacks. Credit: Brittany Timney/GYV

Taaluma Totes backpacks. Credit: Brittany Timney/GYV

Global citizens are beginning to understand the meaning of interconnectivity, and businesses are trying to keep up. Many companies are trying to find new ways to interact with the world and the lives of global citizens, and sustainable business practices are a main priority.

Sustainability, when incorporated into the different aspects of a business, can improve the lives of many global citizens. Throughout the past decade, youth companies like Taaluma Totes have infused sustainable methods and ideas into the missions and products of their companies, and have started to see their impact within the world.

Alley Heffern and Jack DuFour created Taaluma Totes, an organization that has set an example in changing the business culture towards sustainability within the U.S. The company’s focus on economic and environmental sustainability came through a simple idea, a backpack.  

Taaluma Totes creates backpacks using recycled burlap sacks, and decorates them with traditional fabrics that represent countries around the globe. Taaluma is a non-profit, and 20 percent of the money made from each backpack is loaned to farmers and small business owners in the country the fabric came from. Taaluma even means “culture” in Swahili, and every backpack has a different experience woven into it.

The inspiration for Taaluma Totes came during an engineering trip to Uganda while the couple was attending Virginia Tech. According to Jack, “It was our first trip to Africa, and all we knew to expect was the Africa that we saw portrayed on TV.” While exploring Uganda, Alley and Jack expected to see the daily obstacles that many locals face, like famine, clean water shortages, irrigation issues, and corrupt governments, but “were struck by the beauty of the country.” Jack continued to explain, “The people, the scenery, and of course the fabrics, had such beauty, brightness, and happiness.” When they returned home, they founded Taaluma Totes as their way of helping these communities.

“We wanted to share that side of Uganda with people back home. The bright, wild fabrics of Uganda embodied this experience there, so that was how we shared a piece of Uganda with people back home.” Once Alley and Jack realized the true impact their backpacks could have throughout the world, Jack explained, “We've been adding countries ever since.”

Though each bag is unique, they undergo the same process. Once Alley and Jack find the perfect fabric from a country, environmental sustainability begins. The fabric is shipped back to the U.S. where these beautiful patterns are combined with reused coffee bags to create a unique product. Every Taaluma Tote represents less pollution for the environment and a story that is being told with every thought and process is goes through.

Every day, coffee is shipped in a burlap bag. Once the coffee is roasted and processed, the bags are usually thrown out. Since burlap bags can hold heavy loads of coffee (and other goods), they make the perfect lining for a Taaluma Tote, which can hold up to four laptops at once.

But Taaluma Totes focuses on inclusivity as well as environmental awareness. Each backpack is hand-stitched by disabled adults in the U.S. According to Jack and Alley, their assembling team is amazing and have changed the message of Taaluma Totes.

After the backpack is purchased, Alley and Jack loan 20 percent of their earnings to people in the country represented by that specific tote. When they are able, the loan recipients return the money. With the loan paid back, Alley and Jack take off to find another inspirational fabric and continue the cycle. Although global citizens throughout the world are buying Taaluma totes in support of the company’s mission, the company uses the hashtag “carry a country” and through Instagram and Twitter, followers can show their support virtually.

In short, Jack has expressed that the “goal [of the company] is to connect cultures, and share with people back home the awesomeness of the developing world.”

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV