Meet R Designer, Ruth Weerasinghe. Her waste stream of grimey industrial waste, like car airbags, tuk tuk covers and tyre waste, is at complete odds with this sweet, softly-spoken and ever-smiling Sri Lankan award-winning sustainable designer. As comfortable in an industrial tip as she is behind her sewing machine, we speak to the woman who is passionate about reducing waste whilst powering artisanal communities.
You love industrial waste. How did you get such a tricky range of waste into corporate products for UBS?
I’ve always been fascinated by industrial waste. Whereas many people might turn a blind eye to these seemingly grimey, low-value materials, I see the opposite! Waste is a raw material that once labeled as waste, its value drops. I believe we should start looking at waste as a raw material - “unwasted waste”. I pass by various industrial zones near my home town and it struck me what an abundant source of interesting materials I have on my doorstep. When The R Collective invited me to create corporate products for UBS, which to me is the epitome of quality and luxury, I jumped at the chance to rescue industrial materials. Our resulting backpack takes us one small step closer to achieving The R Collective’s vision - a world without waste.
What were your biggest challenges?
The project was extremely challenging in many ways, mainly because of the unique waste we rescued for reuse. I found car airbags, tuk tuk covers, strap and tyre waste, alongside rescued deadstock and written off textile waste.
My biggest challenge, which bordered on being a bit of a nightmare if I’m honest, were the air bags, which required so much cleaning and cutting and preparation. Most of the air bag waste came from failed car services, discarded during replacements or they had been activated in minor car incidents, and they had been stored in filthy containers without any care. So my greatest challenge was revamping them. Airbags are a good example of how to look at waste differently. Airbags are robust materials that could be used for many other purposes as a high quality and durable fabric after it’s been used in vehicles.
We managed, of course! The results are one-of-a-kind bags that carry irregularities and authentic markings that represent the waste materials’ previous life. We like to think of the markings as subtle signs of victory in giving waste a second life!
Ruth’s industrial-waste backpacks. Discover more of our responsible corporate products here.
You’re also passionate about your local community. Tell us more.
I work with my local communities in Sri Lanka artisans. The economy has been very challenging in Sri Lanka and there are many skilled artisans who have so much to offer in terms of skills to provide circular solutions - and who really need jobs. Their empty sewing machines and drained bank balances are a real worry to me. So getting this UBS project and powering the skills and sewing machines up was a real pleasure for me, as these jobs create immediate social and economic benefits to my local community. So I loved the opportunity to empower Sri Lanka artisans to value and trust their skill and craftsmanship.
Tell us about your own brand, SO4
I have my own industrial sustainable streetwear upcycling brand SO4, which rescues durable industrial waste to create unique clothing and accessories to build awareness on industrial waste pollution.
With the rise of global resource scarcity, we will have to start reusing what we already have by rescuing, reusing, recycling and recrafting. Industrial waste is produced in scale and most of these materials are of high raw material value and quality but are being discarded too early; some even without being used at all. SO4 works with locals within Sri Lanka to rescue these materials and recraft them into products of high value and durability. The nature of the material decides the aesthetic of the product which visually speaks of its past and reflects its cause by spreading awareness on industrial pollution while reminding people the ‘true value’ of waste.
How did the Redress Design Award sustainable fashion design competition influence you?
Winning the Runner-up prize in 2020 gave me ‘hope’! This achievement infused me with a renewed sense of optimism and served as a testament that there is a receptive audience appreciative of such products and the underlying ideation and that the work and effort I put behind my concept is valued! At first when I started upcycling industrial waste, I encountered skepticism due to the unconventional nature of repurposing materials originally intended for different purposes and not for clothing. However, I firmly believe that the perception of a material is often confined to how we label them. Tyres are for wheels but it's also a rubber, so why are they not for shoes, bags, accessories?
The entire Redress Design Award experience helped me broaden my scope in upcycling as a practice. I got the chance to see how other designers across the world have explored various methods of upcycling and also how well established brands operating at a global scale are adopting this practice, which has been limited to individual designers. It was an amazing learning and networking experience for me.