The New Natural: Finding Fabric Innovation in Food Waste and Farming
Meet a half dozen brands who are, quite literally, making gear from garbage
There’s been a long-held belief that the subtext of “sustainable” is “brace yourself for sub-par performance.”
But as brands throughout the outdoor industry experiment with food waste, bioplastics, and other non-traditional natural fibers, they’re quickly finding incredible performance qualities inherent to organic materials that consumers have always tossed. From oyster, coconut, and macadamia nut shells to coffee grounds and scraps of cotton literally rescued from the cutting room floor, the next generation of outdoor product innovation isn’t invention—it’s reuse.
Technical Textile Sourcing Has Become A Giant Shell Game
Take Australian brand Mountain Designs, for example. When the brand’s U.S-based SVP, Robert Yturri, meets with his Australian colleagues for lunch, he watches them pore over their plates for inspiration. Sustainability is innate for Australians, as they live on an island nation, he says. They’ve already found success in food waste twice, in oyster shells and coffee grounds, and they’re exploring macadamia nut shells and kelp.
From oyster, coconut, and macadamia nut shells to coffee grounds and scraps of cotton literally rescued from the cutting room floor, the next generation of outdoor product innovation isn’t invention—it’s reuse.
The brand uses ground-up, sun-bleached shells to add insulating properties to recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), salvaged from the ocean and spun into fabric for Mountain Designs’s flannels. Even in a thin flannel application, this “sea wool” fabric is so warm it can replace a 200- to 250-weight fleece as a midlayer, Yturri says. Mountain Designs also works with Taiwanese textile company S.Cafe to upcycle used coffee grounds into MD ECO Down Insulation, which it uses in its puffy jackets. In a fine powder form, coffee grounds add odor control and quick-dry properties when applied to recycled PET insulation blended with recycled duck down.
“We don’t make something new to make something new,” Yturri says. “There’s enough we can reuse.”
The next venture for Mountain Designs is in macadamia nut shells, which have heat retention, moisture-wicking, and odor-control properties. For a decade, Boulder-based textile company 37.5, formerly Cocona, has used activated carbon from pulverized coconut shells for a similar purpose.
Pre-Competitive Collaboration Will Yield Cost and Environmental Savings
It can indeed take a fair bit of trial and error to figure out natural substitutes in the supply chain. A few years ago, Boulder-based Zeal Optics tried making frames out of cotton and wood pulp, which would degrade in landfills within 18 months. But in hot, humid environments, the frames would blow out, says Mike Lewis, director of brand activation and digital strategy, and Zeal had to replace so many frames, it canceled out the environmental benefits.
Now, Zeal makes its sunglasses out of plastic resin made from castor oil rather than the more standard petroleum. Castor oil makes clearer lenses and lighter frames, and it is still price competitive.
“It’s interesting, when you hear of more eco-friendly materials, most consumers think there’s a trade-off [in quality],” Lewis says. “We definitely encourage other brands to use castor oil as well.”
Several other brands use bioplastics in sunglass frames—such as Native Eyewear, Costa, and Modo. Currently, though, Zeal doesn’t have the scale on its own to make its ski goggles out of castor oil. Because there aren’t any other manufacturers willing to do so and to share the cost, Zeal would have to make a cost-prohibitive investment. Lewis says Zeal is trying to find a way to do it, and he’s optimistic.
But for now, “we’re not at a point where we can dictate the supply chain,” he says.
That’s a call to action you’ll hear from a lot of the smaller companies innovating in bio materials right now: Essentially, “we need to band together,” and demand innovation on the part of raw materials suppliers. Lewis says he was surprised not to find anything new in the bioplastics space at Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in January.
“The real ground zero is with the raw materials suppliers for raw material vendors,” Yturri says, referring to the apparel textiles Mountain Designs uses in its products. “It’s not here, in the United States. We buy [yarn] with a blind eye. But we should be teaming up with the major suppliers and the major raw material vendors. A lot of the big ones have figured out that they need to be cleaner and greener, which is dynamite. If you’re a buyer, you need to demand they give you the green stuff and not just the cheap stuff.”
Make New Friends, But Keep The Old
Other brands are looking to forests and farms. Swedish startup reDEW hopes to take the denim industry by storm with a new “Zero Cotton” fabric made from aspen, pine, and birch trees, drastically reducing the amount of water that goes into making reDEW jeans.
“I get it, it is hard and it’s insanely expensive, but don’t we owe it” to the planet to innovate?
—Robert Yturri, Mountain Designs SVP, U.S.
Patagonia has turned to natural rubber as a neoprene alternative in wetsuits (see “Outdoor Industry Doubles Down On Climate, Saying ‘We Are Still In’”), and hemp as a more durable and less water-intensive crop than cotton. The brand has also been working to legalize industrial hemp to bring it back to the forefront of U.S. agriculture.
Matt Dwyer, materials innovation director for Patagonia, says he doesn’t see a future in which we stop using cotton all together. It’s too comfortable and too much of a textile bastion, and Patagonia is committed to it in the long run, though there is plenty of room for improvement in the cotton supply chain. But Dwyer does see potential growth in hemp, which has been shown to detoxify soil of heavy metal pollution. It’s also a hardy plant that requires less fertilizer, pesticide, and water than cotton.
“When you let the earth do the hard work for you, there’s less CO2 emission,” Dwyer says.
Textile company Recover has found a closed-loop solution to sourcing cotton: The brand salvages scraps literally from the cutting room floor in factories that make apparel for other brands and blend those short fibers with recycled PET for durability. The upcycled cotton they use is already dyed, so they run with the unique heathered colors to avoid wasting water on the dyeing process. Bill Johnston, president of Recover, says the process uses just a tenth of the water normally involved in dyeing apparel.
There Are Always Tradeoffs
Of course, it’s hard to say definitively what’s the most eco-friendly. Reducing the use of synthetic materials or certain chemicals in one part of production could increase water usage or contribute to deforestation elsewhere. Outdoor Industry Association has weighed the pros and cons of many fabrics and fibers in its Preferred Materials list.
“It starts with asking great questions,” Dwyer says. “We’re sometimes surprised by the depth of questions we get from our customers.”
The cotton question is a good one, for example. It’s a thirsty plant often grown with harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Still, it will biodegrade thousands of years faster than synthetic alternatives. Lucky Sheep, a North Carolina-based brand that makes wool-felt sleeping pads, backpacks out of organic cotton canvas and hemp, and sleeping bags from cotton and wool batting, would say it’s a no-brainer. Their gear isn’t the lightest on the market, but the brand has found a niche among consumers who want to eliminate plastic from their lives. “Why go in nature and wrap yourself in plastic?” the brand says in its marketing materials.
Buyers across the industry should be demanding information beyond one-sheeters, and they should be digging into the processes involved with making some of these “sustainable” materials, Yturri says. Look no further than rayon for greenwashing that has bamboozled customers to no end. Even rayon that starts out as organic bamboo retains none of the plant’s original qualities after it’s been transformed from a hard wood into a soft fiber with extremely harsh chemicals. To help in this effort, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition created the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), which assesses and scores 79 base materials, including cotton, rayon, silk and polyester, based on their impact. The MSI has become the main materials database for the outdoor industry and is an incredible tool for brands, retailers and suppliers to make informed sourcing decisions.
We can, and should, do better, Yturri says.
“I’ve worked for all of these [big] companies, and I get it, it is hard and it’s insanely expensive, but don’t we owe it” to the planet to innovate? Yturri says. “You want to play outside, so don’t you want to treat the outside well?”