- Buyer's Guide
QWSTION BioLight Collection: Sustainability Without Sacrifice
Ten years after their founding, the Zurich-based carry brand QWSTION achieved an important milestone in their quest to produce full life cycle sustainable products – the release of their Minimal Collection utilizing their breakthrough fabric, Bananatex. Now, less than two years later, they are back with their latest effort, the BioLight Collection. To me, it represents two things: the culmination of QWSTION’s singular focus for the past decade and one of the most important carry releases this year. Allow me to explain.
If you take the time to think about how we typically discuss bags, there is very little consideration to sustainability or the full life cycle of the bag. The industrialized world operates on a very linear level; there’s the production of the product, then at the end of life, it ends up in landfills. The term product life cycle gets thrown around but this is not a closed loop system in the slightest. The focus has always been the best performance, at the cheapest price. Let’s break down each of the two components and consider thinking about them in a different way.
Thinking About Performance and Cost in a Different Way
When you speak about the performance or capabilities of a product or material, it’s important to think about appropriateness. As Christian Paul Kaegi, co-founder and Creative Director at QWSTION, explained it doesn’t make much sense to drive a large truck (for example) if you’re just transporting yourself because you are using a 6,000 lb vehicle to move a 150 lb person. Taking that concept and applying it to bags:
“When you speak of sustainability it is absolutely crucial. It doesn’t make sense to create a bag that can carry 600 pounds which Cordura basically can do. The strength to the materials is at a point where it has really high tear resistance and really high tensile strength but it’s overshooting the goal.”Christian Paul Kaegi
If we are truly being honest with ourselves, how much bag do we need? When will we ever utilize the 2000 lb capacity of a Cobra buckle? How important is waterproofness if we live in an area with very little rainfall? How important is colorfastness? With such advancements in materials (particularly plastic-based), consumers are spoiled by the performance they are able to achieve. These abilities, which are often relegated to specification sheets for bragging rights, are rarely needed by most users. Shouldn’t buying a bag that can do everything you need (plus a reasonable margin for extra breathing room) be sufficient?
Moving on, how much would such a bag cost? Unfortunately, due to the unfettered nylon and polyester industry, our expectations and ideals for cost are completely out of touch with the realities of a product’s total cost. And by total cost, I mean the price that’s paid for both the materials and production but also after the item is discarded. Currently, about 9% of plastics are recycled while 11% are incinerated, which releases CO2 into the environment. The rest end up in landfills where they stay for 30-400 years. The cost of climate change is paid by everyone but because it’s harder to measure or see the effects of it on an individual basis, it’s really hard to really understand what this cost is. Additionally, the effects of climate change are spread across all citizens on the planet, which acts to minimize the costs.
With those two things in mind, let’s take a look at QWSTION’s latest offering, the BioLight Collection. It consists of three bucket bags (in Mini, Small, and Medium sizes), each in three colorways – Heron, Raven, and Robin. While the Minimal Collection bags were the first to use Bananatex, their focus (as their namesake suggests) was on simplicity and minimalism. This means: minimal waste, minimal use of materials, and maximum sustainability. The Roll Pack, for example, is made from 30 parts, compared to the industry standard of over 100 pieces to make a pack. In contrast, the BioLight collection is focused on organic original materials and lightness.
Who It Suits
On a broad level, the BioLight collection is for someone who is concerned about the total life cycle of a product. The user is someone who is interested in how far organic/plant-based solutions have advanced and their performance. On a practical level, the collection with its three sizes is ideal for anyone carrying small to medium-sized loads to and from the office and school and for weekend trips exploring the city, or even evenings out on the town.
Who It Doesn’t
The nature of the materials and construction means the BioLight collection is quite rugged and robust but it would not be ideal for the most extreme situations or conditions. It would not be ideal for situations where inclement weather was expected. It is not designed to be resistant against extremes whether that’s rain, abrasion, puncturing, etc. It’s perfectly performing what it’s meant for – a bag you can carry with you daily.
The BioLight collection comes in three sizes (Mini, Small, Medium) but besides capacity differences, each one has a unique design as well. First, the common traits, which will be covered in other sections, have to do with the overall build and construction philosophy. They are broadly based around an organic cotton shell, Bananatex structure and straps, a simple drawstring enclosure, and flexible carry options.
The Mini Bucket is the smallest of the trio and holds 3L and weights 0.14 kg. There’s a single large YKK zipper on the front with a key hook inside. The main compartment is a single cavity with drawcord closure. The bag is entirely recyclable due to the build and materials: cotton, Bananatex and lightweight aluminum.
The Small Bucket is the middle child, weighing a little less than half a kilogram but able to hold a respectable 18L. Here, you can see the trapezoidal shape that is unmistakable in the BioLight design language. Like the Mini, the single outside pocket features a key hook. But here, the extra volume allows for more features and flexibility. For example, an EVA-protective sleeve is included that can hold up to a 13″ MacBook Pro. It also has an additional small inside pocket. Lastly, the straps allow for multiple carry options: backpack, shopper, or shoulder bag. Swapping between the modes is seamless with a clever to carry handle that is slotted to allow for the backpack straps to pass through. Sliding this handle transforms the Small Bucket.
The largest bag of the bunch is actually named Medium Bucket. It’s slightly larger with a 20L capacity and weighs exactly 0.5 kg. It’s very similar to the Small Bucket except for two key differences: first, the sleeve holds a 16″ MacBook Pro and the design of the straps is unique. There are permanent tote straps that can be secured with a strap closure. This means that it’s both in tote and backpack mode permanently.
Both the Small and Medium Bucket have an interesting draw closure that takes a quick demonstration to figure out but once you see it, it’s simple to use. You need to grip the small QWSTION loop with your fingers and tug on the metal bar to close it. To open the bag, grab onto the loop again but this time pull it away while gripping the opposite side of the bag.
As mentioned earlier, QWSTION is all about distilling bags to their purest forms. That means for their Roll Pack the pattern consists of just 30 pieces instead of the over 100 required for a typical pack. That theme continues with the BioLight collection. The team worked closely with their production partners in Huizhou, China to produce simple forms that could be easily constructed.
What they ended up achieving is a build that is very simple but not lacking. The quality of the construction is stellar, with no frayed edge or stitch undone. The shapes and panels are quite simple but for the intended use case, there is no need for added complexity.
The Bananatex is really the glue that holds the BioLight bags together. As mentioned, it adds structure and strength and provides the handles and straps. The material is quite light for the strength it provides and is even doubled up at stress points.
The star here is of course the Bananatex fiber that QWSTION developed after several years of R&D, partnering with farmers and growers in the jungles of the Philippines. QWSTION actually started out the brand by developing their own organic cotton, which took a few years. Then they started investigating bamboo before they saw the potential of banana fibers. There are around 40 different types of banana plants and the one they chose is not used for the fruit because it’s not very good to eat. Locals have been using the fibers to make ropes but QWSTION came in and figured out a way to develop a technical fiber from it.
The plants grow completely naturally and it turns out you can extract the fiber from the plant in its natural life cycle. It has a one-year growth phase until it bears fruit, then it naturally dies and then replenishes.
“A crucial difference versus cotton, you know, the cotton fibers can be manipulated in ways to make strong textiles, but it always comes with added weight and using a strong fiber as a starting point allowed us to ultimately create a lightweight strong material.“Christian Paul Kaegi
Despite being a monoculture crop, cotton still has advantages and makes up a large portion of the bags. The super-lightweight shell is made from Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified cotton with a natural wax coating for water resistance. The Bananatex pulls double duty forming the structure and backpack straps. All the metal hardware including the YKK zipper(s), buckles and key hook are made from aluminum which allows them to be recycled completely. The only aspect of the BioLight bags that cannot be recycled are the EVA-foam laptop pockets found in the Small and Medium Bucket. However, these are detachable and can be re-purposed as standalone sleeves or even a seat cushion.
With QWSTION’s last major release, the Minimal Collection, the focus was minimal use of materials with maximum sustainability. They redesigned patterns from the ground up and instead of starting with the design, they started with the materials and figured out the best way to build a bag.
With BioLight, QWSTION took all their learnings (pattern creation and material use) and focused on lightness. The main aim is to combine lightness with organic origin materials. Traditionally if these were your end goals, you would not look at organic materials. Plastics dominate this field due to their incredible performance characteristics and low prices. With Bananatex, lending strength and structure, the brand is proving that it is possible to create a bag that meets the needs of most users but is also responsible.
When I listened to QWSTION’s founder Christian speak about their journey to this point, I couldn’t help but think about how much it mimicked other sustainability ventures – hybrid/electric vehicles, solar panels, rechargeable batteries. The tale starts the same way – a few companies try to offer an alternative that is better for the environment, less wasteful, and more sustainable. It gains traction slowly and only the most ardent supporters are willing to pay the price premium for admittedly less performance. But eventually with enough dedication and commitment, there’s a tipping point. This is when the product is good enough, or even exceeds consumer requirements, and the price sacrifice is not nearly as high. I think this is the goal of all sustainable companies and their founders: when their customers are ordinary people who are willing to support the environment by making sound purchasing decisions and not those who would be considered rebels or risk-takers. QWSTION has accomplished this with Bananatex, their organic cotton, and the BioLight collection and with their plans to license and share the textile with other makers and brands, they will prove to be a major driving force behind conscious consumerism.