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The road to sustainablity

Published June 16, 2020
Cycling apparel brands look to catch up with outdoor industry in sustainable options. But marketing is tricky.

Editor's note: A version of this article ran in the June issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

HILDEBRAN, N.C. (BRAIN) — Shane Cooper, the founder of the DeFeet cycling sock company, was visiting with George W. Bush one day when the former president took him in to meet his mother.

"He said, 'Mom! This is Shane, he started a company that makes socks out of recycled plastic. Ain't that the world's best-kept secret?" according to Cooper's recollection.

Fwooosh-bang. Clatter-clatter. What was that? Drop something?

It was an epic namedrop by Cooper, a great storyteller, and we repeat it to make a point: Until recently, few cycling apparel brands used sustainable or recycled materials, and those who did, like DeFeet, didn't make a lot of noise about it. So even a former president (and avid mountain biker) could marvel at an apparent missed marketing opportunity.

But according to Cooper and others in the bike business, promoting the environmental bona fides of cycling gear has had little potential upside until very recently. And there is a potential downside: cyclists like to buy the highest performance gear they can afford and brands market to that desire. If sustainability suggests a performance compromise, it could hurt sales.

But very recently — just in the last one or two seasons — the tide has begun to change in cycling.

A few years back, the enormous fashion and apparel industry began to take sustainability seriously, and the outdoor sports industry even more so. Increasingly, there are sustainable textiles available that can stand toe-to-toe on performance with anything else on the market. Some recycled synthetic fibers used in performance textiles, for example, are said to be chemically identical to virgin fibers.

Still a challenge

Pearl Izumi has been increasing its use of recycled and natural materials, reducing packaging, and establishing a repair and used gear sales program to keep its product out of landfills. Instead of sprinkling sustainable materials here and there, Pearl has added recycled content to some of its best-selling products, like its longstanding Attack short, which is now made with 80% recycled nylon.

The Shimano-owned brand has the clout to drive the movement, but sustainable cycling clothing is still far from an easy sell, said Andrew Hammond, Pearl Izumi's global brand manager.

"I think that there is still a challenge anytime somebody hears about it," he told BRAIN. "When people hear that something is recycled they think they might be giving something up, because that had been the case a lot of times. Think about those park benches you used to see that were made of water bottles ... We are always going to make sure the stuff we make performs, and people are getting more open about it now, but it's still a challenge," he said.

Besides Pearl Izumi, most major cycling apparel brands are experimenting with using recycled materials.

Rapha has committed to examining all its processes for sustainability and added recycled materials to its Pro bibs and other products. The brand also has a repair program to keep its products out of landfills.

Giro is using significant amounts of recycled and sustainable materials in its apparel, including Econyl Lycra, which is made from reclaimed fishing nets and other ocean debris.

And as for DeFeet, the company has a variety of programs at its factory. As President Bush mentioned, the company uses Repreve yarn made from recycled water bottles in some of its socks. Fabric scraps from the factory — about 1,000 pounds a month — are recovered by a nearby company and turned into new products. And Cooper is proud that his socks have a long lifespan, with sponsored ultra-hiker Andrew Skurka claiming to use various models for hundreds or thousands of miles.

So what's sustainable?

Suppliers, retailers and consumers are increasingly presented with products that make vague claims to sustainability.

Did the product's production produce fewer climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions? Does it keep microplastics out of the oceans? What about water pollution, deforestation, animal welfare, child labor and workers' rights? Will it fall apart, fade, or lose its performance after a year's use? Can it be recycled, repaired or passed down to my grandchildren?

No single "sustainable" technology will check all the boxes, and so designers, retailers and consumers have to choose which attribute mean the most to them.

Here's a broad look at some material options:

Synthetics. Nylon and polyester are made from petrochemicals; nylon manufacturing, in particular, produces greenhouse gases, while polyester production can use large amounts of water. However, generally the highest performance fabrics are synthetic, and some, but not all, can be quite durable, requiring less frequent replacement. They are also light, reducing transport costs. Some can be recycled. Some coatings, for water resistance, microbial resistance or flame retardance can be toxic. When washed or disposed of, some synthetic coatings and fibers produce microplastics and microfibers that can affect oceans, wildlife and human health.

  • Cotton. Non-organic cotton requires large amounts of water and pesticides to grow. Organic cotton and recycled cotton are much better, but more expensive and often not optimal for high-performance use. With 100% cotton there are no microfiber concerns, although pesticides used to grow non-organic cotton can remain in garments. 100% cotton is biodegradable.
  • Wool. Surprisingly, producing wool fibers can have more climate change impact than producing virgin synthetic fibers, according to some accounts, such as the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry study by the Global Fashion Agenda. That's because of the methane sheep produce and the deforestation required to graze them. Transport costs, pesticide use and water use can also be significant. However, after losing ground on the initial fiber production, wool looks better over its lifespan: There are no microfiber concerns. Hydrophobic and anti-microbial coatings are generally unnecessary. Wool garments don't need to be washed as often as synthetics, reducing water use over the life of the item. Wool can be very durable, can be recycled, and naturally biodegrades. And, for decades, cyclists have found wool to be an ideal performance fabric in many applications.
  • Leather. Like wool, the initial climate impact is significant because of methane and deforestation, etc. But in the right applications (gloves, shoes, saddles), and when cared for, leather makes up for its initial environmental costs through performance and durability.
  • Other natural fibers. Hemp, bamboo and rayon (which is made from various cellulose fibers) have varying environmental concerns and advantages. But more importantly few manufacturers have learned to make durable, attractive performance clothing from them.

Are recycled synthetics ideal?

Recycling water bottles or used fabrics into new fibers eliminates some of the environmental costs of fiber production. Combined with the performance and other attributes of synthetics, that should make them nearly ideal.

However, major concerns remain: including microfibers and supply chain transparency.

Textile suppliers are working to develop synthetics that don't produce microfibers while retaining durability. For example, one new fiber contains a "food" that attracts microorganisms that eat the fiber before it can cause problems in the oceans or elsewhere.

Some brands suggest using a laundry bag like the "Guppyfriend Wash Bag," which captures microfibers in the wash. The idea is to keep the fibers out of the wastewater and perhaps extend the life of garments. However, even the maker of the bag suggests the larger goal is to provide "a daily reminder to change our buying habits and washing rituals."

It turns out that fiber production — the part of production that should be nearly eliminated by recycling — produces a relatively small part of the overall environmental impact from a piece of clothing.

A 2018 study by Quantis found fiber production takes less than half the resources of fabric dyeing and finishing, for example, and a bit more than half the resources as the yarn preparation process. So there is less to be gained by adopting recycled fibers than you might think. If other parts of production are less than optimal, any gains can be quickly overshadowed.

"Recycled content alone does not make a sustainable product, but saying you have recycled content can be a quick marketing fix for some people," said Tony Yeh, the managing director of Evertex Fabrinology, a Taiwan mill that has supplied several well-known cycling and outdoor brands.

"When we are in the business of making a sustainable product, we have to consider the whole life cycle, from raw material all the way to the consumer and the product's end of life."

Evertex runs an energy-efficient, low-water-use mill, Yeh said. He feels that his mill can produce even virgin materials at a lower overall impact than a recycled material made in a less efficient operation.

Evertex is committed to sustainability, he said, and has invested millions developing processes to dye recycled yarns efficiently. Since dyeing and finishing is the single biggest resource hog in a product's lifecycle, inefficiencies there have a lot of impact on an apparel's total sustainability.

It can be hard to dye recycled fibers to match colors customers demand, Yeh said. If a mill has to reject a percentage of output that doesn't match, that increases the use of water and energy. Yeh said Evertex can now match the color 94% of the time, a significant improvement over its previous rate.

So who's watching?

A variety of organizations monitor supply chains from end to end — offering more assurance that products are sustainable than a simple "recycled content" claim.

Bluesign is a respected certification, although suppliers say it's expensive and somewhat limited. Bluesign monitors the use hazardous chemicals and examines energy efficiency, water use, worker health and safety, and air and water emissions throughout the supply chain.

The Higgs Index, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, is a tool companies use to examine their processes for sustainability. Generally it's intended as an internal tool, not a certification, but REI is moving toward requiring vendors to use the index.

Several brands told BRAIN they rely on REI and MEC (Canada's outdoor co-op) to help keep them on track.

"MEC has become basically a mentor to us," DeFeet's Cooper said. "Anything we sell to them has to be Bluesign-approved and they won't take any smoke and mirrors; they want transparency. We really like that they challenge us."

REI, besides its use of the Higgs Index, has developed an in-house Restricted Substances List that is based on Bluesign's requirements. REI "prefers" and "encourages" its suppliers to attain Bluesign certification, but it's not required.

The elastane conundrum

Cycling clothes are wonderfully stretchy. That's certainly not the prime reason cycling apparel suppliers lag the outdoor industry in offering sustainable pieces, but it's part of the challenge. That's because elastane, the plastic that provides the stretchiness in spandex and Lycra, is not recyclable from post-consumer materials, according to most suppliers. Further, once blended into a material with other fibers, it's difficult to separate the elastane back out: so the stretchy stuff in your shorts is probably neither recycled nor recyclable.

Even Patagonia doesn't really know what to do about elastane.

"We have recently experimented with pre-consumer recycled versions (using scraps from spandex that has already been made) in our garments, but it will likely be one of our last materials to be completely converted to a non-virgin source," the company said. "We are actively looking for spandex alternatives that help provide function and are recyclable. We are investigating non-virgin sources for elastane, including recycled and bio-based versions, and we're exploring bio-based alternatives and new polymers that are less impactful."

Luckily for Patagonia, few of its products contain more than 8 or 9% elastane. But typical cycling short materials are 10% to 30% elastane (the Pearl Izumi Attack short, mentioned earlier, is 20% elastane, for example).

Apparel made with a blend of elastane, like jeans, can sometimes be recycled for industrial use or insulation. And while it's difficult to recycle elastane, several suppliers are developing stretchy textiles made from plant-based materials or other sources that are less dependent on virgin petroleum production, such as the Econyl Lycra that Giro and others are using.

The end.

Patagonia has been bold about encouraging customers to buy less stuff, including their stuff. It's an unusual take that hasn't seem to reduce company revenues one bit. But it has encouraged other brands to grapple with the problem of reducing climate change while selling recreational products.

One solution, brands say, is to consider the end of the product's life as much as its beginning. That means making durable products, with fashions and colorways that stand up for more than a season.

Patagonia repairs its clothes, takes used gear trade-ins, and has a used gear area on its website. Several cycling brands, including Pearl Izumi and Rapha, have moved in that direction by expanding their repair programs. Pearl Izumi is working with Renewal Workshop to process returned and repaired items and resell them on its used gear marketplace.

Rapha has increased the use of recycled materials in its apparel.

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