By Michael Frank
You’re probably selling recycled fleece product and may not even know it. Huge brands, from Patagonia to The North Face to Under Armour are largely responsible for this. And although there are many suppliers of recycled polyester yarn, the undoubted leader in the field is Polartec – thanks to a request from Patagonia more than a quarter-century ago.
Not that it worked so well back in the day. Early recycled polyester was expensive to produce and scratchy against the skin; but one supplier, North Carolina-based Unifi, stuck with the effort to make recycled poly more comfortable and eventually created a better yarn called Repreve.
What changed wasn’t just that the yarn got better, but manufacturing became far more sophisticated. Brands today take a multi-material approach to construction, where recycled yarns are only used in parts that make sense, rather than an entire garment.
Ironically, recycled yarn is now cheaper to use than “virgin” synthetics. Once you make a bottle, the energy cost to convert that into fabric is far lower than the cost it first took to produce it, thanks in part to more widespread recycling.
Testing has also advanced. Patagonia has very strict standards for examining the efficiency of recycled fabrics, from how tough the garment is to UV ratings. Rigorous testing norms are the reason the company blends yarn where it makes the most sense.
And they’re hardly alone. Repreve is used by a wide range of brands including: 66ºNorth, Quiksilver, Kitsbow, Dynafit, Salewa, Millet, Eider, Adidas, Reigning Champ, Wings and Horns, Westcomb, QOR, Mammut, Cabela’s, Brooks Range, Black Diamond, Armada, Athleta, Rab, Houdini, Simms, Roots, Reebok, Giro, Outdoor Research, LLBean, Land’s End and Arc’teryx.
If you noticed more than a few “micro labels” in that mix, you’re spotting at least a niche trend in recycled synthetics. That is, a tiny handful are able to produce their wares domestically while using the also domestic-made Repreve.
For instance, for the coming Fall/Winter 2015/16 line, Vancouver-based Westcomb re-engineered their Apoc Parka in partnership with Polartec. It gets NeoShell, which you probably think of as a waterproof-breathable rival to GoreTex Active Shell, only with better breathability. You might not think of NeoShell, or any shell piece, as having recycled materials incorporated into its construction – but that’s possible with Repreve yarn, even as this latest version of NeoShell gets a softer, quieter hand. The new NeoShell also has no Perfluorooctanoic Acid, which had been used in the production of waterproof breathable materials and is a known carcinogen.
Another small brand using Repreve yarn is Pelatuma, CA-based Kitsbow. Their Polartec Power Wool Base Layer is a classic example of how Repreve fabric works best. Merino sits as the next-to-skin layer, with the tougher, more wind-resistant recycled-polyester as the face fabric. Power Wool also gets a DWR finish, which makes it ideal for wearing as a primary layer.
QOR’s Baselayer Half Zip is a more running-focused piece that uses Power Wool next to skin and Power Dry on the exterior for even more evaporation. However, QOR and most brands that use Repreve fabric embody the tougher reality of Repreve and of the American cut-and-sew industry. Yes, Polartec yarn is made in the U.S.A., but that doesn’t mean the garment is.
The more complicated, harder story to tell customers is that although North Americans produce the waste, and Unifi has done great to recycle more than a billion bottles since its program began, the bulk of cut-and-sew production even for small labels is being outsourced away from the U.S. and Canada.
There are, of course, counter-examples. Reigning Champ, a more lifestyle-focused fitness brand, is based in Vancouver and manufactures there. Some of its garments use Repreve, just like Kitsbow and Westcomb, but it’s important to account for scale in relation to domestic manufacturing capabilities. If you don’t make too much of something, it’s easier to base production within the U.S. or Canada. Become a Patagonia or The North Face and that’s a seemingly un-meetable challenge.
Another challenge to sourcing recycled fabric domestically is making it from old gear. Clearly North America has a treasure trove of neglected, used gear, stored in closets and attics. And some recycling of pre-made material does already happen. A large percentage of Repreve is produced from factory scrap in Asia. Whether making a fleece or a base layer, there’s scrap, and that’s gathered from global factories, brought back to North America, and made into yarn that’s again turned into fresh, new apparel. It’s more difficult, however, to deconstruct an old backpack and turn that into clothing.
Patagonia’s Truth to Materials project is an effort to keep old clothing out of landfills. It takes back discarded Patagonia products that customer’s no longer want and re-sells in its Portland retail store. If clothing is no longer salvageable, Patagonia takes returns (even pays for shipping), then sorts used wool, cotton and synthetics, and via projects in China, Malaysia, Italy and Alabama, deconstructs the fibers and re-births the materials. This creates new products in Patagonia’s reclaimed lines. The web is intricate, but reusability, recycling and waste reduction is at the forefront of the venture. And yes, reclaimed lines will most likely become niche products, but like Repreve, which started small, this approach could become a much more powerful force.
Today Repreve is hardly a niche. It’s in nearly every gear store in the world and has proven to be a massive success. Plus, it’s an American-made material. And while it may be more complicated to tell your customers that the material is made in America, but the coat isn’t, it’s also great to be able to explain that by recycling this way, nobody had to frack to make that fleece. It came from a billion bottles of Dasani and Diet Coke that didn’t end up in a landfill. And that’s a message most outdoor-loving consumers can get behind.