A common scene plays out at every retail shop across the country whenever a shipment arrives: Boxes are sliced open, products are unearthed—and before long, a crinkly mountain of polybags grows in their wake.
When GoLite launched its retailer “listening tour” last spring, the goal was to understand how the brand could best address retail concerns and eliminate potential pain points before they shipped a single item. What they learned is likely no surprise to any retailer, large or small, that’s ever faced a massive mound of plastic waste after unboxing a shipment: traditional polybags have to go. Of course, offering a platform for retailers’ concerns is one thing; transforming those concerns into action is a whole different level of commitment.
Considering that GoLite, which was relaunched to the industry in May 2018, was designed with sustainability as a guiding principle, addressing packaging waste felt like a natural step in the brand’s evolution.
“If we're going to make claims around how many plastic bottles we've kept from a landfill with a shirt and then put that shirt in a bag that probably uses just as much plastic as what we just recycled, it really contradicts the effort we're trying to make to improve an environmental issue,” says GoLite’s Design Director, Caroline MacMillan. “It’s a zero sum game sometimes if you’re not making improvement.”
MacMillan and her GoLite teammates knew that it was imperative that they find an alternative to landfill-clogging plastic polybags. What they discovered during their extensive search is that although it requires time, elbow grease, and a commitment to engaging with your supply chain, there is a better option—and it’s one that is available to every brand willing to put in the effort.
Patience and persistence reveals a better polybag
What the lean GoLite crew lacks in numbers, they make up for in passion and tenacity. After receiving the plastic reduction plea from retailers, they began brainstorming possible solutions to the polybag problem.
It became apparent that they’d need to investigate existing options; their status as a small startup meant that resources were limited as far as creating something from scratch. They also considered skipping bags altogether, but found that this carried the potential for damaging their products, an issue that would create unnecessary waste—something they were trying to avoid.
And then the thought occurred: What about compostable bags? Considering they already exist as options for disposing food and yard waste, why not see if that same technology was being used anywhere in the apparel industry? The brand reached out to their supply partners in Asia, asking them to try sourcing a compostable bag locally, since that would be the most economical option for their factories. Initially, their partners came up empty-handed; unwilling to give up, GoLite kept pressing them to dig deeper.
It took several months of prodding and patience, but eventually they located a viable option, made from a biodegradable cellulose-based resin. The bags are designed to break down fully in three months under the right conditions at a commercial composting facility (clear instructions for the process will be printed on the brand’s website and on the bags themselves). Despite the initial hassles, GoLite had finally found a better alternative than traditional polybags.
Of course, as the popular maxim goes, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.
Down the polybag rabbit hole
Once they sourced the material for the compostable bags, the GoLite team almost immediately began encountering obstacles.
First, they had to negotiate down the supplier’s minimum order requirement; as a smaller company, they simply didn’t need the same number of bags as a larger brand. When that issue was resolved, they had to contend with the fact that the bags came in a single size, which would require new folding practices to maximize space. Once again, they adapted.
But that wasn’t all; the very nature of the compostable material means it has a much shorter shelf life than a traditional plastic—anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
“It becomes a commodity that you have to manage differently,” explains MacMillan. “It’s almost like perishable goods; you can't just buy a whole bunch of them and sit them on the shelf indefinitely.”
She acknowledges that this is probably the biggest reason why most brands haven’t yet adopted these bags—the fear of wasted materials and wasted money if all of the bags aren’t used in time. GoLite plans to address these concerns by conducting regular audits with their factories to ensure that bags are ordered and used most efficiently.
Their biggest challenge, however, arrived upon realizing that if they were using compostable material in the bags, anything printed or affixed to them—say, UPC stickers or important instructions on how to properly dispose of the bags—had to be compostable, as well.
As they’d been doing for months, the team pushed on and eventually sourced not only biodegradable ink, but also fully compostable stickers. The catch? They didn’t find any options available in Asia, so the stickers are shipped from the United States to factories in Asia, then back to the U.S. on the finished products.
“Our hope is that as demand for sustainable packaging grows, so will the sourcing options in Asia, so we can further reduce our footprint,” says MacMillan.
“It’s just little things like that, that you don’t think about,” says Brand Manager Josh Clifford. “Then when you kind of dive down the rabbit hole, you’re like okay—this is why it’s hard to do this, because the supply chain isn’t really set up to support this yet.”
Forward movement in sustainability
Their search for a sustainable shipping bag hasn’t been easy, but for the team at GoLite, it’s been worth it. “There’s always more challenge when sourcing these types of options, but the team was determined,” says Clifford. “For the extra challenge, it pays dividends environmentally.”
Beyond the impact on customers and retailers—and of course, the positive effect of reduced plastic use on the environment—GoLite also hopes that they can be part of a larger industry-wide movement.
GoLite would love to see other brands adopt compostable bags. To encourage this, the brand will be transparent about their suppliers and are open to helping other brands connect with these sources.
“I don’t think that we’re doing anything that other people haven’t done or other brands haven’t dabbled in,” says Clifford. “I just think that the more brands that commit, the easier it’s going to be for everyone.”
He concedes that it will require brands to initially “jump through some extra hoops” just as GoLite did, but the result will be an increased number of vendors offering compostable bags at a more affordable price with lower ordering minimums, just like what has happened with sustainable fibers and other eco-friendly materials over the years. And of course, the greatest result? A cleaner environment.
“We’re all in this industry because we love and respect the outdoors and want them to stay clean,” says Clifford. "Every extra effort to achieve that is worth it. That’s what this is, a little extra step towards finding the best sustainable packaging solutions, and we’ll continue to search for more options.”
Brands interested in learning more can reach out to Clifford at firstname.lastname@example.org.