Flowfold may be a minimalist outdoor gear company, but its potential positive impact is great. In fact, they say a tower of Flowfold wallets made from the fabric they recycled in 2017 would be taller than Mount Everest itself. And they have recycled even more this year. The Maine-based company began in 2010 with a revamp of the wallet—thin, light, and strong made out of upcycled sailcloth, one of the world’s most durable fabrics made for elite sailors. Since then, the company has expanded its offerings while staying true to its values of sustainability, community, and living the lifestyle for which their products are made.
We caught up with Flowfold COO James Morin about how this company set sail to revolutionize everyday outdoor adventures.
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Making the wallet sexy again… where did that dream all begin?
James Morin: You can’t talk about the history of Flowfold without talking about the sailcloth wallet. That wallet IS our history. It’s the foundation on which we built the company.But to be honest, when people call us “a wallet company”, my competitive side takes it a little as a dig because we are far from just a wallet company these days. We want to be much bigger than that. We want to make some of the best gear on the planet.
When you think back to our history and to our roots, it absolutely 100 percent was the wallet… and I am super proud of that.
So where did the inspiration come from to build this product from sailcloth?
James Morin: In 2005, well over a decade ago, our co-founder Charley Friedman was working in a sail loft. He was on an island in Maine. Every single day he’d go from boats to bikes to cars. He grew up sailing, kitesurfing, windsurfing, surfing—in fact, most of us at the company did.
One day his leather wallet fell apart. He was weeding through the trash can at the sail loft and pulled out some scrap materials that would have otherwise gone into a landfill when he thought to himself, “I think I can do this better. I think I can make a better wallet.”
That was the inspiration, the catalyst, for the first Flowfold wallet. From there on he continued to tinker and refine the design. I still have the first wallet he showed me framed in my office. For a while it was a hobby—we sold wallets for beer money. It was your quintessential “broke and stoked” story. But we talked to hundreds, if not thousands of people, and we learned very on that simplicity and sustainability resonated with people. Looking back, should we have chosen the wallet to disrupt back in 2005? No. It probably should have been cabs or hotels. Maybe then we could have made Airbnb and Uber.
But here we are, we disrupted the wallet. And you know what, that’s ok. Every single wallet back then was exactly the same—either nylon with cheap-looking velcro or a big, heavy, leather wallet that people have been rocking since my grandfather was around..
So you made the wallet cool again?
James Morin: We made the wallet cool again, and we did it in a way that puts the planet first. We still recycle as much material as we can—10,000 yards last year, even way more this year.
Here’s the best example I could give. If I travel anywhere in the US and I pull out my wallet in a line (coffee shop, airport, movie theater, etc) and someone around me has a Flowfold wallet too, they take it out and hold it above their head. They see my wallet and notice it right away. They have no idea I’m one of the owners of the company, and it doesn’t matter. We have this weird sort of kinship moment of mutual respect for using a wallet made from recycled material. And it all starts because the Flowfold wallet looks different. It looks different because it IS different. . I can’t imagine that there’s another wallet company that could say this sort of thing happens with them.
What can you share about the technology that goes into manufacturing with recycled sailcloth, and particularly how it has evolved from scraps in the trash?
James Morin: We are making so many wallets now we can’t simply do it with the scraps we take out of the trash can but the bigger we get, the bigger our efforts.
The tech that is used to make this composite material for racing cloth is intellectual property, and it is for the world’s elite in sailboat racing and windsurfers. It’s a laminate, with multiple layers, and the inside layer is build up of carbon fiber or kevlar. For whatever reason, if there is a strand out of place or a color is a little bit off, they will take 500 to 1,000 yards of this stuff and throw it away… and remember this is some of the most durable and long-lasting material, UV protected, DWR finish… and this stuff is going sit in the ocean or a landfill forever.
We’ll take that material that doesn’t meet the need of the windsurfing or sail racing elite, and we’ll make thousands of wallets from it. We’ve actually begun working with them to go a step further and to actually make the original material from recycled polyester and other green products.
Your team has product tested your gear in ways others might find extreme – such as climbing Kilimanjaro. Why go the extra mile?
James Morin: We really try to make the most durable, most sustainable, and most functional gear on the planet. We’ve made products that are purposefully multi-purposed, but this was our first true product test that pushed the limits.
When we landed in Kilimanjaro, we had barely had any sleep. We were hungry. I just remember thinking how incredible it was that I was in this situation with eight friends who came halfway around the world knowing that there’s a 40 percent chance of failure. Mathematically for our team of nine, three or four of was us weren’t going to make it to the top. But we went anyway because that’s part of the process. Failure is part of life and part of product development. And we went tere for both.
A year ago, I would have never imagined that Flowfold would be in a position where we were going to be making the products we are today and that I would be attempting to summit one of the Seven Summits. It was a powerful moment in that regard.
We didn’t need to go to Kilimanjaro to test our products. Anywhere in the U.S. would do. But going that extra mile, that really exemplifies how we approach our development—reiterate, retest, and redesign until we have a product that we are extremely proud of and extremely confident in for our customers.
What does it mean to create a product for such an adventure-driven community?
James Morin: We have a lifetime guarantee on our wallets, and a lot of people will send them back after they have worn them to pieces. They’ll write a note, “I’ve used this thing for five years, I’ve gone everywhere with it.”
A customer reached out and told us his everyday adventure, and it really resonated. Even when he is in downtown Boston going to his sales meeting, when he takes that wallet out to buy an overpriced latte, that wallet represents kitesurfing and the windsurfing. His everyday adventure is that simple reminder of what Flowfold stands for.
At the end of the day, starting a business is hard. Entrepreneurship is hard. Building a brand is hard. Retail is hard. That right there from the customers is what keeps us coming back every day. That’s what keeps us working our asses off, and the customer always comes first. If it wasn’t for them, there wouldn’t be any fulfillment in what we do.
Now tell us about Maine. How important is this state to the Flowfold story?
James Morin: Maine is the perfect place to own and operate an outdoor company. Having Flowfold founded here, beyond the whole heritage of craftsmanship—which is great to be a part of and to carry on that torch, it is pretty rare to have access to four beautiful seasons that we can use to test our products. There is so much diversity in what you can do in the outdoors, and that is perfect for our products which are supposed to be equally diverse in what our customers can do with them.
To me there is something really romantic about being able to dip your toes in the Atlantic Ocean and then be 5,000 feet up in the same day.