Let’s get ready to rrrrrumble! It’s time for a brand-level sustainability showdown! Recycled synthetic fabrics are exploding in the market and all the major outdoor brands are pouncing to push their eco lines, but which brands offer the most comprehensive selection of recycled goods?
Before diving into the countdown, let’s do a quick rundown of recycled synthetic fabrics. Nylon and polyester are made by spinnerets, which are, uh, kind of like a pasta maker or spiralizer. Petroleum-based plastics are pushed in and spit out in long strands, called filaments. Filaments are either kept long (to make slick polyester fabrics) or cut into shorter pieces called staples (for cotton-y feeling material) and then spun together to make yarn.
Recycled polyester (also known as rPET) started production in the mid-1990s. It’s actually much more likely to be recycled plastic like soda bottles than recycled pieces of fabric (but that’s totally possible, too). Originally, production was predominately in polar fleece, over the years, the process has been refined to the point where rPET can be used to create a variety of weights and textures. It looks, feels, and performs just as well as virgin polyester (yes, that’s the technical term. Yet another case where virginity provides no more or no less value). Over the course of the next decade, expect to see polyester adoption from all sorts of brands – active wear, formal wear, luxury brands, and bargain brands. It uses less energy and less water than virgin polyester and will eventually move close to cost parity. (Current upcharges are predominately driven by the fact that demand outpaces production capacity in recycling facilities.
Nylon’s a different story, since the polymer chemistry is more complex. It was considered non-recyclable until the past 5 years, when the technology was “unlocked” with results that met customer expectations. Most of the inputs are already fabric, but a few innovating companies are figuring out how to make it work with nylon fishing nets. The process is expensive. Not only is the chemistry complicated, but nylon melts at low temperatures where contaminates and bacteria aren’t destroyed in the process. Everything that gets recycled has to be meticulously cleaned before going through the process.
If you’re wondering why it matters (besides, you know, our potential extinction), by 2020, Gen Z will account for 40% of consumers. Gen Z responds to brands that take a stand on issues that are relevant to their industry, and 94% believe environmental issues are a corporate responsibility. Growth in consumer products is being largely driven with by products with marketable sustainable features, and recommerce like Patagonia Worn Wear or Poshmark are far outpacing the growth of traditional retail. It’s imperative that outdoor brands are pivoting alongside customer sentiment.
Also, before we get into the brand rankings, it’s important to note that you should recycle your clothes (synthetic or otherwise)! Goodwill recycles unsellable donations. The North Face and Levi’s both have recycling collections in their store (for any brand), and H&M does them one better by giving customers who recycle a 15% off coupon. Some towns accept fabric goods at their transfer stations, and a few even offer curbside pickup (shoutout to Raleigh, NC).
But all of the green fabric initiatives in the world won’t correct for overconsumption. We produce 8 times as many garments per year now than we did in the 70’s and buy about 70 pieces per year. Do your research on what you need (or hit me up, I love this shit), wear it to death, donate or re-sell if you don’t, and buy used when you can. Read your care labels and take good care of pieces to extend the lifespan of your garments.
Alright, on to the rankings for trashiest synthetics:
- Patagonia – This is a no-brainer. They literally invented polyester recycling in the 90s in their fleece. And they’re the pioneers in nylon recycling; Patagonia has a subsidiary called Tin Shed Ventures LLC that’s a venture capital fund for sustainable business. Those fishing nets getting turned into consumer-grade nylon? They’re recycled into skateboards and sunglasses by a company called Bureo that’s funded by Tin Shed. Almost their entire synthetic assortment is at least 40% recycled fibers, with the exception of a mesh bike chamois or two, their hose down series, and a few pairs of pants. Other signs they’re extra committed? Here’s an example of their Pluma jacket, a recycled nylon Gore Pro piece for $549. Peer garments like the Arcteryx Beta LT, Marmot Alpinist, and Black Diamond Sharp End range in MSRP from $525 to $625, meaning that they’re likely funding all the complexities of nylon recycling with a margin hit instead of passing along the upcharge to the customer.
- Norrona – If you thought Patagonia was the only major player in eco-friendly outdoor gear, you’re missing this leader in the industry from Norway. They’ve been in the recycled fabric game for over a decade, and the thing I like most about them is their transparency. 71% of their polyester was recycled in 2018, and their goal is to be at 100% by 2020. Recycled yardage was used for 6% of their nylon in 2016, and by 2018, it had been increased to 64%. And they walk the walk as employees, even sharing the percentage of employees who commute in sustainable ways and what percentage of their office waste went to landfill.
- The North Face – TNF has recycled material as one of their top priorities for production improvements, and they’re doing it in a strategic way: targeting high volume styles first and focusing on their polyester pieces first. Their recycled assortment is up to over 500 items, and they accept recycled clothing and footwear in all of their stores.
- Marmot – Marmot was a surprise to me. They’re lower price point and owned by Newell Brands, who have made a lot of money over the years pumping plastic out to consumers in a plethora of forms. But they’ve built a solid selection of recycled material goods, currently around 10-15% of their total item count. They made their first foray into recycled nylon with their strong-selling Precip rainwear line, and their website has a nice filter for recycled materials, so you can target your search with more sustainable construction and expand from there if needed.
- Mountain Hardwear – MHW’s dabbled in recycled materials, with about 33 items across both genders/5% of selection (approximately, a few items aren’t rendering as such in search, but have the details on their item page). Their strategy seems rather disjointed. Last year, they launched the Exposure/2 touting their use of recycled nylon in their Gore Pro pieced. Their pledge to support environmentally responsible fabric production is still up on the collection’s landing page, which is a little awkward since this year’s model is back to virgin nylon (and no, they don’t pass any of the savings along to you). They went sustainable with the Compressor line, which is mysteriously missing for women this season, even though it shares construction with the Patagonia Nanopuff, one of the bestselling jackets in the market. Their Lamina Eco AF line is also… interesting. A – if less than 10% of your goods are made with recycled materials, you don’t get the right to call anything you do “eco AF.” B – why not put a strategy in place to get to 50% recycled materials instead of eco-hacking 2 pieces to the point they’re unsellable (there are no reviews anywhere on the web for either temperature rating).
- Rab Equipment – Rab falls surprisingly low on the list, given that they’re an EU brand, which tends to be further ahead on sustainable movements, and they’re working in higher price points where there should be room for R&D. A search for recycled materials on their site only yields 10 items, all of which are jackets, where performance has been known and trusted for years. Adoption of recycled goods is part of their broader goal to reduce their carbon footprint by 25%. I have high hopes for improvement and admire their willingness to publicly disclose their goals and put hard data behind it. So yeah, it’s a little strange that food composting and encouraging bike commuting are on their list of things to start doing, I see potential with Rab.
- Columbia – Columbia has a few apparel recycling initiatives. Like North Face, their ReThreads program accepts clothes and footwear for recycling, and they launched their OutDry Extreme Eco line in Spring 2017. The problem is that no progress has been made since the launch – their total sustainable selection is only 9 pieces. Like the MHW Lamina Eco line, they use dye-less fabric, so eco items look sad and drab, and is out of touch with customer preferences, where there’s more support for closed loop dye processes and all-natural dyes. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are slow sales on the Eco, and if those have slowed adoption in the rest of Columbia’s line. They’re still pretty vocal about their use of recycled fabrics (it’s #1 on their list of accomplishments in the green space , but with such a small, stagnant assortment, it feels performative and like greenwashing. Why don’t they get more credit for ReThreads? The majority of clothes recycling ends up in things like insulation for houses. “Downcycling” is better than not being recycled at all, but that only delays how quickly materials end up in landfills. Upcycling, like fabric recycling, closes the loop on material use and is quickly becoming the industry standard. At the opening price point where Columbia predominately plays, the vast majority of their assortment is polyester, which means it’s all low hanging fruit for recycled fabric adoption. What are they waiting for?
- Arc’teryx – The only thing worse than being unengaged in the move to closed loop fabric production is actively fighting against it. Arc’teryx has spoken out in the past against the use of recycled fabrics, stating that they don’t perform as well and that they consume more resources than virgin fabric (the latter built on the notion that recycled fabrics are wholly coming from used garments in another country and being shipped back and forth, not that they’re coming from plastic waste that spans the globe). Both of these statements are largely false. Not only does this mean that all Arc’teryx products have an unnecessarily high carbon footprint, they’re also eroding customer trust in brands that are doing the work to find greener solutions for outdoor use. It does make sense that they’re somewhat late to adoption considering their line does heavily skew into nylon since it’s stronger than polyester and can help shave ounces for weight-conscious athletes, but their stance that they can’t be bothered to even test fabrications on the market because everything is built for “extreme alpine conditions” rings hollow. Start with this probably-not-technical-nor-wildly-critical-on-adventure trucker hat. Or your probably-never-going-to-the-mountains dress. Combing the site revealed at least one item that has any sort of recycled components, but it’s impossible to find the full collection through browse or search, and same if you’re looking through a search engine. Do they realize that it’s something to be proud of and showcase? Note that Arc’teryx is engaged in several other sustainable initiatives; closed loop fabric production is not an overall indicator of sustainability. But from this facet, they’re far behind.
- Outdoor Research – OR’s not the easiest site to navigate when it comes to recycled fabrics, and I’ve found a few in their assortment and need to update accordingly. OR comes to the table with literally nothing. Even product made with Primaloft Eco has been sold through and replaced with virgin polyester. Even Walmart started sourcing recycled fibers in 2016 – where are these guys? Their entire corporate values page is 172 words long (3.5 Tweets if you’re under 35). 0% of it is fact based (like either explaining the initiatives being pursued or stats, numbers, and the like). There’s nothing on Diversity & Inclusion, no information about how they guarantee acceptable labor standards in their factories, and no information about reducing their energy footprint in their offices, distribution network, and store. Something tells me the page hasn’t been updated since 2008 and their strategies haven’t either.