Amid the hurdles posed by COVID-19, there happens to be one positive movement. People have time to reassess their purchasing habits, and some even show interest in upcycled fashion. Along with the prolonged pandemic, upcycling in order to conserve resources and protect the environment is in vogue.
119REO, which stands for 119 combined with the acronym of “Rescue Each Other,” reincarnates used fireproof suits into sustainable fashion products such as bags, pouches, and key rings. It donates 50 percent of the sales to cancer- stricken firefighters. It was founded in August 2018, aiming to convey the story of firefighters who are exposed to various toxic substances while putting out fire in deleterious environments.
Lee Seung-woo, CEO of 119REO, reminisced that it all started from ENACTUS, a university club which solves social problems through business. He stated that he first got interested in the social problems of firefighters through the club. He realized it is difficult for cancer-stricken firefighters to be admitted as official injuries which are able to receive compensation. Since cancer can have various causes, it is difficult for an individual to prove the specific cause. Some even took legal action against the National Pension Service (NPS), demanding compensation.
With the idea of saving the cancer- stricken firefighters with the same fireproof suits that save them from danger, Lee and his club members chose funding as a method to help.
After successfully concluding the funding, the club members debated on what their next step was. They were aware of the fact that donation itself would not solve the fundamental issue of improving the treatment of firefighters.
“I heard the news that the firefighter whom we delivered the donation to passed away after a long fight with cancer,” Lee said. “That was the time when I was convinced to develop 119REO into a social enterprise to help the public remember cancer-stricken firefighters for a long time.”
Lee elaborated the numerous difficulties he faced with his first experience with fashion.
“Majoring architecture in Konkuk University, I did not know much about product design,” Lee said. “On one occasion, when I was looking for subsidiary materials for the upcycled bags, I had no idea how to address the proper words, so I wandered in front of the marketplace for hours.”
Lee commented that even though the process was challenging for him at first, he realized that it would be easier for him to approach fashion if he just asked himself what he would want if he was a consumer.
When asked what he values most in the process of upcycling, Lee emphasized creating something worthwhile and useful is the key point of the whole reproduction.
119REO started out with upcycling fireproof suits and is currently endeavoring to upcycle various safety equipment such as fire hoses and mobilesuits. Lee emphasized that 119REO will continuously look for valuable materials used for safety and gradually expand the business.
On April 1st 2020, 47 years since the enactment of the Local Fire-fighting Officials Act, firefighters, originally composed of national and local positions, were fully converted to national positions. Lee pointed out that this is good news, since national positions receive better treatment than local positions. However, he added that it is just the beginning of guaranteeing the rights of firefighters. There is still no major change in the disapproval issue of injury due to public services, but there is hope that the problem will be resolved.
Lee is focusing on making 119REO a household name through collaborations with various brands. He expressed his hope to continuously design projects to publicize the plight of the cancer- stricken firefighters.