Graduates Designing for Sustainability

Christina Johnson with upcycled banner products
Christina Johnson with upcycled banner products

Old blue and gold banners around the UC Davis campus are getting new life thanks to Christina Johnson (B.A., design, ‘14) of Upcycle It NowThe company owned by Johnson and her mother Liz Bordessa recently started transforming the banners into bags and wallets.

“UC Davis reached out several years ago and kept reaching out to make it work,” said Johnson, who lives and works in Long Beach. “We’ve had lots of people getting excited about it and some sales are starting.”

Johnson’s family has long been in the apparel design and tailoring business in Long Beach. Once Johnson came to UC Davis and learned how much the Department of Design emphasized sustainability, she knew she was at the right place.

“I found out that not only could I do design, I could make things that aren’t meant to be thrown away,” said Johnson. “My ultimate goal is getting people to think about how they consume. We don’t have to deprive ourselves, but we can take the resources we have and create goods that are durable.”

This isn’t the first time the company has upcycled banners. They’ve done similar projects with Disney, Long Beach Museum of Art, and the Aquarium of the Pacific. Upcycle It Now's biggest project is turning old rain jackets into small bags for outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Johnson and Bordessa launched Upcycle It Now in 2011 during the recession in part to create new streams of work for long-time employees in the family business.

At UC Davis, Johnson took a wide range of classes in the humanities, social sciences and science. After graduating, she spent six months in India working with groups turning plastic bags and inner tubes into useful products.

“Each and every piece added to my knowledge about things, like how do you start a business, how do you work abroad?” she said.

All that gives her insight into the larger challenges of sustainability. The most difficult thing about working in upcycling is overcoming a system that makes sending products to the landfill an acceptable and cheap practice, she said.

“The biggest uphill battle is we have to make recycling more convenient than throwing things away,” Johnson said.

Sustainable Wool for a Warm Head

Another design graduate Carol Shu (B.A. ’07, MFA ’12) has been doing her part for the environment as senior sustainability coordinator at The North Face.

Her most recent project there is the Cali Wool Beanie, made from the wool of sheep raised using carbon farming practices in Northern California.

“We started exploring what we at The North Face might be able to do to support carbon farming with a USA-made product,” Shu said. “The ranch that we worked with, Bare Ranch, is expected to offset six to nine times the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their wool production each year by following specific grazing and soil maintenance practices.”

Shu was originally a psychology major, but was always interested in clothing design. “I took two design courses one summer to test it out and loved the content and my professors,” she said. “After that, I knew design was the right path for me. The department’s focus on both creative and interdisciplinary research-based studies were very important to me. I’m still grateful to the school and Davis community for fostering such strong social and environmental awareness.”

After graduation, she worked for a small sustainable design firm for a few years before returning to UC Davis for graduate work.

Shu retained psychology as a minor. “The concepts you learn in psychology are really relevant and valuable to design,” she said.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science