Circular designers – the Rag Pickers of tomorrow

When I was carrying out research for a seminar in circular packaging last year, this image of the Parisien Rag Pickers 1899-1901 caught my eye in Tom Szaky’s Book, The Future of Packaging. Later in the year, I was also looking for themes for our long project with the Brand Design International class and this seemed like a subject which could be deployed in many ways.

At this time the Industrial Revolution was gathering speed and new processes gave leftover waste a certain value, Ragpickers appeared in cities in large numbers, they worked for middlemen who were transforming these rags into new products. Today, we call this upcycling or circular design and the waste forms part of the circular economy. Then, it was the development of the cottage industries.

« The ragpicker (piqueur) fascinated his epoch. the eyes of the first investigators of pauperism were fixed on him with the mute question as to where the limit of human misery lay… “Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’.

According to the Musée Historique Environnement Urban (MHEU) ‘Piqueurs’ would have to save up in order to buy their place or beat The picqueur was at the bottom of the hierarchy of ragpickers: he would walk about day or night, armed with his hook, a lantern and a sack.

“…first there are those who were born into the ragpicking trade, the children of ragpickers who have never known anything else. Then there are many who, like me, in the winter of 1860-61, finding myself without work, became a ragpicker in the evenings to begin with, for I feared running into people who knew me. “ Extract from Notes d’un chiffonnier by Desmarquest, in Le Travail en France. Monographies professionnelles by J. Barberet

Master Rag Pickers eventually became rich themselves: they bought items collected by the piqueurs and the placiers, employed people to sort them, and sold them by the truckload to the textile industry; bones and metals too. It is estimated that there were 15,000 Rag Pickers in Paris and at least 100,000 in France in the middle of the 19th century. Ring any bells?

We now have many industries desperately trying to reinvent themselves in a sustainable way and show their customers that they are really taking environmental issues seriously and their strategies relates back to this epoch where waste was something of value.

In India, for example, the modern-day Rag Pickers have become indirect ‘shareholders’ in local waste management.

“Rag picking is probably one of the most dangerous and dehumanizing activities in India. Child rag pickers are working in filthy environments, surrounded by crows or dogs and have to search through hazardous waste without gloves or shoes. 

They often eat the filthy food remnants they find in the garbage bins or in the dumping ground. Children run the risk of finding needles, syringes, used condoms, saline bottles, soiled gloves and other hospital wastes as well as ample of plastic and iron items.” Studies on the Solid Waste Collection by Rag Pickers at Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, India

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Rag pickers collect recyclable material at a garbage dump in New Delhi. | Ahmad Masood/Reuters.

Ragpickers who are “informal” stakeholders in the waste management system are a vulnerable group in India. This unpaid and unrecognised group form an integral part of the waste management eco-system. The number of ragpickers in India is estimated to range between 1.5 million to 4 million. Ragpickers in India are dealing with dry waste such as such as plastic, hardware, electronic waste, paper, glass and metals.

Organisations like Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) and Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) are helping ‘waste pickers’ lead a dignified life by helping them fight for their rights

In Mexico, Rag Pickers work on average for 6 hours a day collecting waste. Their houses are often in very poor condition. They bring garbage back to the house to separate it, and there are often piles of non-recyclable waste dumped nearby.

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Credit. Carlos Eduardo Siqueira

RAGPICKERS, a London-based collective of students and recent graduates focus on the issues around labour and exploitation in the art world. Like a recent post on its FB page where it highlighted that students in China are working overnight to produce Amazon Alexa devices.

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“We are the ‘drop-outs’ and ‘outcasts’ of the art world who are constantly asked to practice unpaid and ungrateful jobs during our free time, and find money to sustain our living somewhere else.” One of its recent events was to highlight the ICA Gallery as being an organisation “using overqualified invigilators and traces of unpaid immaterial labour. Credit Ragpickers. Photo credit


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“We make too much and buy too much. But maybe there is a way not to waste too much. The ragpicker of Brooklyn has an idea.” Image Credit. Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Silverstein makes clothes for Rag & Bone and Donna Karan’s Urban Zen line. He works with pre-consumer, post-production waste, which is another way of saying he works with the fabrics that other designers and costume departments and factories would normally throw out. He makes mostly street wear: sweatshirts and pants and T-shirts,

So, as the fashion industry is coming to grips with its own culpability in the climate crisis, the concept of upcycling or circular design is becoming more and more important, whether remaking old clothes or re-engineering used fabric or just by using what would otherwise be tossed into landfill, these strategies have begun in force and will trickle down to many layers of the fashion world.


And so now to our project for the l’Ecole de Design’s International Brand Design Students who join the school mostly on Erasmus programs from all over the world. Last semester we received some very talented students from Europe to complement our French students who join this class to integrate eventually the Masters Program at the school.

We called the project, The Rag Pickers of Tomorrow, with the design brief focus being that there are many industries today producing large amounts of waste which have the potential to be upcycled or re-used as other things. The student’s task was to investigate the potential in these areas, find new opportunities, develop new products or services with the waste materials and find opportunities to develop new subsidiaries of existing organisations (brands) or independent activities to create circular systems and economies.

A good example of this is Elvis and Kresse who use old fireman’s hoses to make luxury bags (originally they found the hoses in landfill – now they have a direct supply from the Fire Fighters Charity and they donate 50 percent of their profits to the same association. .

Our students did some impressive research on waste such as single use cosmetic packaging, chicken feathers, plastic bags, animal bones, chewing gum, beer and coffee waste, lifejackets and tires, old car seats and swimming pool covers…

Here are some of their solutions:

You may have already seen this collaboration on LinkedIn developed by Hugo Maupetit and Vivian Fischer between #Mentos and #Vans to recuperate chewing gum from the streets and transform it into skateboard wheels – this project has already received a lot of press.

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Or this project imagined by Pauliina Heikkinen and Lelena Delaunay for #Repetto, using vegan leather made from chicken feathers to make a range called Plume of accessible ballet shoes for people of colour.

Plume, A new range of vegan leather ballet shoes designed for different skin colours for Repetto from the 3.1 million tons of waste chicken feathers discarded in the EU alone.
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Melinda Grothén and Elisa Robert imagined another collaboration between Oh My Cream and H&M to recuperate plastic bags from H&M and transform them into a new make-up range made from upcycled plastic called Oh Dolly!

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Chloé Chotard-Olivry and Emma Mattsson worked on a collaboration between Loveness Lee and Bones on a jewellery collection made from animal bone waste after finding out that 10 million tons of bone waste are thrown away or used for animal feed in Europe whilst historically, In medieval times, animal bones were used to make playing dice. In prehistoric times, bones were used in the design of finery but after the discovery of precious metals and stones, bones were no longer used in the manufacture of jewellery and tools.

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And finally, Valentin Joguet and Jeremy Traun developed Lessy, a cute toy made for refugee children. They wanted to develop an open-source product to encourage other designers to develop similar ideas from waste. They used discarded lifejackets by refugees in Lesbos in conjunction with Love Welcomes, an Association working for the rights of refugee women. The donor pays for Lessy, which in turn pays the wages for the refugee women who make these products who are supported financially by #LoveWelcomes – who were so interested in our project that they attended our Phase 3 presentation.

And so, product and brand designers – the next time you are specifying packaging or raw materials for your projects, think about the waste your client generates and identify and analyse if it can be upcycled, reused and revalued for your project. There’s plenty of waste around for everyone.

#circulareconomy #circulardesign #circularbranding #repetto #h&m #ohmycream #ragpickers #lovewelcomes #lessy #vans #mentos #lovenesslee #elvisandkresse #theragickerofbrooklyn #lecolededesignnantesatlantique

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