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Ecotrek Makes Backpacks That Are Entirely Recyclable

ECOTREK, a startup backpack- and apparelmaker in Amherst, Mass., has almost everything going for it - a trendy concept, revolutionary technology, and early praise.

The founders' families and friends donated $150,000 to get it off the ground, but $1.2 million more is needed by year's end. Will this be enough to turn a profit by 1997 as planned?

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If the history of many startups is relevant, the answer is ''not necessarily.''

In its efforts to succeed, Ecotrek is marketing itself as different from the competition.

* It claims to be the first American producer of entirely recyclable, high-performance, affordable backpacks. After testing Ecotrek's Alpine Evolution, Dave Getchell, Backpacker magazine equipment editor, said: ''Ecotrek is making a serious pack worthy of the name.'' Backpacker chose Ecotrek products for its prestigious ''1995 Editor's Choice Award.''

Overland Equipment of Chico, Calif., makes a recyclable hemp and leather pack, but Mr. Getchell calls it a ''glorified bookbag.''

Many companies call themselves green, some when under 5 percent of their products are recyclable. But 90 percent of the material in Ecotrek packs is recycled soda and milk bottles, tires, shipping waste, foam scrap, wool sweaters, and aluminum cans. The packs are entirely recyclable.

''There has been a backlash [among consumers] against false claims,'' says Merrell Footwear Company's Stephen Gladstone. ''If you are going to do it, you have to do it right.''

''Industry analysts say whoever greens the industry first will have the same impact as the introduction of polar fleece and Gore-Tex,'' two popular materials used in outdoor clothing, says Ecotrek's Ajax Greene. ''We are leading a revolution. Mountainsmith [and other firms] will have to catch us, not we them.''

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* Ecotrek prices are competitive with those of similar products even though the recyclable items - made in New York and New England - cost more than 20 percent more to produce than virgin-stock products made by competition, often in low-wage countries.

To keep costs down, Ecotrek uses ''affinity marketing,'' teaming up with a nonprofit group to advertise on a flier in the group's newsletter. Twenty percent of the retail price of Ecotrek products is given to the group, and its logo appears on the item with Ecotrek's logo. A store, by comparison, may keep 42 to 50 percent of the retail price of shelf items.

Ecotrek also plans to advertise in magazines, catalogs, and on the Internet; sponsor events; and sell products to outdoor-skill educators for rental to students. Dewitt Anthony, a Northampton advertising firm, wanted to design Ecotrek's catalog so much it agreed to invest in the firm as partial payment for the job.

* Ecotrek's philosophy of social responsibility includes donating to nonprofit and environmental groups, helping the community, and managing the company in a nonhierarchical fashion. For many ecosensitive customers, this is a selling point.

The firm is assisting displaced Berkshire-area factory workers set up worker-owned cooperatives. Ecotrek may hire up to 20 workers to sew products. ''It's not just marketing the product, it's how to think like an ecosystem by looking at how you can address multiple problems,'' says John Fabel, Ecotrek's founder.

Employees offer customers free repairs and a 10 percent credit for returning used items. If a customer - an ''Ecotrekker'' - recommends the firm to a friend who buys, the company will give the Ecotrekker a certificate worth 10 percent of the sale price, 15 percent off on a purchase, or a 10 percent donation to a nonprofit.

Ecotrek is run by consensus. ''We leave our egos at the front door,'' says Mr. Greene, who made the first one-day ascent of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

* Several packs feature a unique technology that eliminates or lessens the need for shoulder straps - and, thus, extra bulk, weight, and constriction of arm movement. This comes in handy when skiing or participating in other sports.

Mr. Fabel's patent-pending technology is featured on three of four backpacks now available. Next to be introduced are a pullover top, money pouch, more backpacks, briefcases, and courier bags. Eventually, the company hopes to offer 70 to 100 packs and more outdoor clothing.

Fabel started Ecotrek in May 1994 with green-market researcher Gary Lewis and Greene, who ran athletic clubs. Today, Fabel leads research and development, while Lewis and Greene handle strategy and marketing-sales-service, respectively.

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