A Shelburne Entrepreneur Takes Some of the Waste Out of Gift Giving | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Shelburne Entrepreneur Takes Some of the Waste Out of Gift Giving

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Published December 8, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 8, 2021 at 10:16 a.m.


Meagan Downey - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Meagan Downey

A sheet of Shiki Wrap feels like high-tech workout gear. It's smooth and silky, with ample stretch. But it's designed for giving gifts, not scaling cliffs.

Made mostly from recycled plastic fibers, Shiki Wrap is the eco-minded giver's answer to nonrecyclable paper and ribbon. The square sheets of fabric come in various sizes and are reusable and reversible, with vivid prints on both sides.

The giver wraps a sheet snugly around a gift, tying opposite corners to create a festive knot. When the recipient unties the knot, the wrap springs back to its original shape, ready for repeat use.

Meagan Downey, the inventor of Shiki Wrap, launched her company with an online shop in February. The product emerged from her search for a non-disposable way to adorn gifts that was both neat and attractive.

"This is like a mission to me," Downey said during a recent interview from Shiki Wrap headquarters in the basement of her Shelburne home. "Basically, eco-conscious gift givers right now are in kind of a frustrating love triangle, torn between their desire to give a beautifully wrapped gift to the recipient and their love for the planet."

She hopes they can use Shiki Wrap to resolve that problem. Not only does the product help keep plastic waste out of landfills but it also reduces the production, consumption and disposal of wrapping paper.

How big a waste problem is gift wrap? U.S. households generate 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve than they do the rest of the year, according to research from consultant Robert Lilienfeld. While those data are about a quarter-century old, Lilienfeld wrote in a recent email that he believes the figure is valid today, if not even higher.

Stanford University cites Lilienfeld's figures on the website of its waste-reduction initiative, Peninsula Sanitary Service/Stanford Recycling, and adds, "If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields."

Chittenden Solid Waste District doesn't track the quantity of wrapping and tissue paper it receives for recycling, only mixed paper as a whole, spokesperson Alise Certa wrote by email. On its website, the district advises gift givers to recycle any wrap that contains no glitter, foil, metallic print, Mylar, cellophane or coating. For ribbons and bows, the best option is reuse — the same principle that underlies Downey's business.

Shiki Wrap comes in three sizes: 18-, 28- or 36-inch square sheets. Prices range from $14 for a small sheet to $74 for six sheets of various sizes and colors. Downey has also offered Shiki Wrap gift bags.

The wrap comes in solid red and brightly colored floral and geometric prints. A holiday design has holly on a teal background on one side and gold branches on a red background on the other.

Downey works with four print designers, all but one of whom are people of color, she said. In the spring, she hopes to release an ocean conservation line of Shiki Wrap adorned with whales and other sea animals.

"People want more sizes, more variety, more designs," she said.

Last week, Downey stood among stacks of empty eco-friendly boxes made from recycled cardboard and stamped with the Shiki Wrap logo, ready to pack and ship orders. Each shipment includes a card with instructions for wrapping.

"It's super quick," Downey said, tying the wrap around an item from her desk. "It's quiet. It's easy. There's no waste."

Downey grew up and lived in the Midwest before moving to Vermont with her husband 10 years ago to give their daughter, who is now 14, a better quality of life, she said. She started Shiki Wrap after a 25-year career in a different aspect of gift giving — as a fundraising expert for nonprofits.

In 2019, Downey helped the parent-teacher organization at her daughter's school with its annual holiday fundraiser by selling gift wrap and other seasonal items. She hoped to include locally made and sustainable offerings in the catalog, but she found only a few — and no options for reusable gift wrap.

During her research, she stumbled on furoshiki, the Japanese tradition of wrapping goods in reusable cloth. Downey pays homage to that practice in both her concept and her company name, though she's careful to distinguish cultural appreciation from appropriation. For example, she avoids mimicking Japanese imagery in Shiki Wrap designs.

A package of Shiki Wrap - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • A package of Shiki Wrap

She also consulted the book Gift Wrapping With Textiles: Stylish Ideas From Japan and reached out to the author, Chizuko Morita, who leads a study group of elders in Japan who want to preserve the furoshiki tradition. The group agreed to review Shiki Wrap and "sent me a report with their endorsements," Downey noted.

Downey has also collaborated with local experts in Japanese culture such as Megumi Esselstrom, who demonstrates furoshiki wrapping in a video on the Shiki Wrap website.

Furoshiki captured Downey's vision, but the available fabrics failed to match the characteristics she wanted. She realized that she had to design and commission the wrap herself.

"I knew nothing," she said. "I don't even sew. I'm not crafty. But I do have a marketing mind, and I believed that there was a market for this."

Downey insisted on U.S. manufacturing, which is more costly than overseas production but creates a lower carbon footprint. She wouldn't budge on material made from recycled plastic, though Shiki Wrap also contains a tiny amount of non-recycled, or virgin, material.

"I believe that this is a critical part of building a circular economy — that you create demand for recycled plastic," Downey said. "We've created so much plastic. We need to figure out what to do with it, and most plastic cannot be recycled over and over again, so you need to find a use that will be reusable. This is just one solution to that, my little piece."

She contacted a Vermont textile manufacturer, she said, offering to sell her idea and oversee production. That company turned her down.

A friend with connections in the garment industry directed Downey to two U.S. factories that produce fabric from recycled plastic under the North Carolina-based brand Repreve. In spring 2020, Downey received samples. "When I touched this, I was in love," she said.

One of the manufacturers agreed to cut and dye the fabric and make a prototype of her first design — a light-blue background sprinkled with snowflakes. For the 2020 holiday season, she ordered a trial run of Shiki Wrap and sold out, mostly to family and friends and through social media.

Shiki Wrap's sweet spot is the stretch, which is key to creating clean lines around a gift, Downey said.

"When you wrap [a gift], it doesn't really bunch. It just fits," said Jen Cairns, a friend of Downey's and fellow member of the school PTO.

Cairns has bought at least 20 pieces of Shiki Wrap and counting, she said, not only to support her friend but also because "It is really nice to not have to cut your paper and get the tape out and make it fit. You just lay this out and use it, and it's done."

Earlier this year, Downey participated in business accelerator programs at Generator, Burlington's maker space, and LaunchVT, which pairs budding entrepreneurs with mentors. She worked with Jim Feinson, the former president and CEO of Gardener's Supply, who praised her solid concept and social mission as an ideal fit for the Vermont business landscape.

"It's not just about selling stuff to make money," Feinson said. "It's about trying to make a difference in the world."

He believes that Downey has demonstrated the "resilience and flexibility and persistence" to grow the business and make it successful. "She has identified a need in the market," Feinson said, "and she's addressing it and solving it in some unique ways."

Downey launched Shiki Wrap with about $30,000 of her own funds, including help from family. Over the summer, she gathered another $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.

Next month, she hopes to secure a round of private investment for expanded production. Retailers have contacted her seeking wholesale accounts to sell Shiki Wrap, but she can't manage that kind of growth with her current profit margin, she said.

So far, Shiki Wrap's revenues have at least covered its production costs, "but on a small scale," Downey said, noting that she's ready to take the next leap. "I honestly believe this is inevitable. This is what people are going to be wrapping their gifts with. It all comes down to what brand is going to penetrate the market [and] provide the best designs, the best value."

The original print version of this article was headlined "It's a Wrap"