This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Early last year, WWD proclaimed “The End of the ‘It’ Bag Era.” Rather than a monolithic status symbol, bags have become a more personal statement about style, identity, and belonging, according to the article.
But what if your bag could make an even more personal statement about what’s important to you or the causes you believe in?
That’s where People for Urban Progress (PUP) comes in. The Indianapolis-based nonprofit believes in good design, better cities, and a healthier planet — values that are embodied in their lineup of handmade totes, backpacks, messenger bags, and more.
If it’s hard to see the connection, read on.
No Such Thing as “Unusable”
Let’s start with PUP’s origin story. Back in 2008, with the Indianapolis Colts slated to move to a new football stadium, their old facility was slated for demolition. That facility, the RCA/Hoosier Dome, was known for its distinctive white roof containing more than 13 acres of Teflon-coated fiberglass.
Suffice it to say, Teflon is one of the last things you want to relegate to landfills, because it’s made of a long-chain chemical that can’t be broken down (organically or otherwise).
Thirteen acres of the stuff is especially problematic, which is why PUP cofounders Michael Bricker and Maryanne O’Malley approached local officials with a proposal to divert about 90% of the total roof area from an Indianapolis landfill.
It’s not the only structure they’ve repurposed, but the RCA Dome kickstarted PUP as a social enterprise before Bricker and O’Malley even knew that’s what they were doing.
Twelve years later, material from that salvage is still being used to bags and wallets that are fashion-forward, mission-based, and totally one-of-a-kind. As of this writing there are 144 distinct products in the RCA Dome Collection.
“We still have approximately 200,000 square feet from that,” says Turae Dabney, executive director at PUP. Asked if she knows how that translates into pounds or tons, she laughs. “I just know it’s a lot.”
Turae stepped into the executive role at PUP in 2019 with a desire to uphold the ethos of civic responsibility and stewardship that guided its co-founders to the RCA Dome salvage in 2008.
“One of the things Michael has always said that sticks with me is that we need to see ourselves as citizens and not consumers,” Turae says.
Another founding principle still guiding the organization to this day is that there’s no “away” in throwaway. In other words, almost no material that’s destined for the dumpster just decomposes on the spot and disappears.
That’s why, from the beginning, PUP has embraced the word “unusable” as a challenge — a designation they have a responsibility to creatively thwart. That stadium roof was just the beginning. More recent challenges have included thousands of seatbelts from old train cars or five miles of banners from Super Bowl XLVI.
All that “unusable” material finds its way into unique, handmade bags for stylish shoppers, and those consumer sales, in turn, help to fund ambitious reuse projects on a city-wide scale.
Backpacks, Bus Stops, and Beyond
From installations along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail to reinvigorating the abandoned City Hall, Turae says PUP approaches its public projects with the question: “How can we be creative, as humans, at looking at the idea of repurposing?”
The question often steers them toward ideas designed to meet the needs of the way people interact with urban space right in Indianapolis.
When it comes to public transit, for instance, Turae points out that, “Oftentimes, there are no places for people to sit and wait for the bus.” So, in 2012, when the old Minor League ballpark was being converted into apartments, PUP was able to salvage some 9,000 seats and find new homes for them, with many going to bus stops throughout the city.
As proud as they are of their Indianapolis roots, PUP’s national recognition means they’re sometimes invited to redeem and revamp “throwaway” materials from far outside the city.
A prime example of that is their partnership with Amtrak that began in 2018.
When Amtrak decided to update the Acela Express trains serving the high-traffic corridor between Boston and Washington, DC, they approached PUP for help in repurposing some 6,000 seats. Thus was born PUP’s Amtrak collection — a variety of adventure-ready bags and cases handcrafted in Amtrak’s signature blue leather.
Miles of banners, acres of material, thousands of seats — PUP doesn’t back away from big challenges, but they don’t see their work ending there. They also see it as their responsibility to make the design space at-large not just more diverse, but truly inclusive.
“Diversity says I’m going to invite you to the dance. Inclusion says I’m going to invite you to dance,” Turae says. “We need to make sure everybody who is underrepresented in the design world has a seat at the table and can use PUP’s platform to be able to advance good design.”
That thinking was the basis for PUP’s Ignitor line of limited edition backpacks and tee shirts designed by a local artist. A portion of all Ignitor sales will fund a new fellowship aimed at supporting inclusive design in Indianapolis, with a focus on minority communities.
The application of PUP’s twofold approach of good design with existing resources continues to evolve. And their commitment to initiating even more people in the Jedi art of civic-minded reuse makes it feel like the biggest and best is yet to come from this team of Hoosiers who are always up for a good salvage project.
Spend for good: Head over to PUP’s website to shop all collections, each loaded with unique, functional, and sharp products, with all sales powering their people and projects in Indianapolis and beyond. Cause Consumer readers save 15% with discount code CAUSE15, and all U.S. orders over $150 ship free!
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