Four years ago, when a product manager at PrimaLoft asked in the midst of a research and design meeting whether they could make a jacket that would break down if buried in the backyard, people laughed. But that's exactly with PrimaLoft did. In fall 2020, PrimaLoft's yet-to-be-named partner brands will roll out a new insulation made entirely from recycled fibers and designed to biodegrade in landfills and oceans.
As sustainability works its way through product designs, what was once laughably impossible is trending toward mainstream as more and more consumers demand products that are earth friendly. Supply chains have absorbed an increasing number of sustainable materials, like bison wool and oyster shells, and are finding new uses for classics like organic cotton and hemp.
PrimaLoft's latest venture takes direct aim at textile waste and microfiber pollution. Microplastics are now found in waterways, oceans, and alas, even tap water, and half a million tons of it are released into oceans annually. Rather than study where and how microplastic was getting into the oceans or talk to consumers about changing their washing practices, the company worked where it could make a difference, focusing its effort on the material itself.
"It's going to be impossible to police the world, but what we can do is affect the fiber's properties so it becomes harmless," says Mike Joyce, president and CEO of PrimaLoft.
Its new biodegradable insulation, called PrimaLoft Bio, is made from 100-percent recycled synthetic insulation. Normal polyester breaks down over lifetimes; PrimaLoft Bio accelerates this process by engineering the fibers to attract microbes that consume polyester. PrimaLoft's current testing process shows 80.3 percent biodegradation after 394 days into water, methane, carbon dioxide, and biomass. A standard polyester garment would show negligible deterioration under the same conditions. With more time, Joyce says, more of the garment will biodegrade, though 100 percent isn't physically possible. Anything that breaks down leaves some remnant behind—think the compost left from a pile of banana peels and leaves.
Of course, it's just the insulations that's been re-engineered this way, so Joyce says PrimaLoft Bio is likely to launch with brands that use natural materials for liners and shells. Those brands will likely be announced at the January show, and Joyce expects products with the new fill to be ready for fall 2020.
Sustainability is part of every research and design conversation, he says. When the brand released post-consumer recycled fabric, no one wanted to pay the increased price so PrimaLoft absorbed it into the margin, he adds. But even for a company with that history, this innovation feels like a win. "You don't have a lot of opportunities to really make a difference," he says, "and this was one."
A new use for "useless" wool
The search for sustainable insulation has also seen brands exploring new natural products. United By Blue dipped a toe in bison wool with a new sock line. The brand has since gone all in on the all-natural fiber, using it in all their insulated jackets and vests. Bison wool's outer layer was too course for yarn, says Brian Linton, founder and CEO of United By Blue, but as sheets of batting insulation for jackets and blankets, it stays warm when wet and is naturally antimicrobial. It even allows for different design choices, like vertical baffles instead of the horizontal ones used to keep feather down from sinking to the jacket hems.
"Our goal is to pioneer this new source," Linton says.
To that end, United By Blue is shepherding the fiber from when it is sheared from the bison on a partner ranch to when it's sewn into jackets.
Ortovox has similarly utilized courser, so-called "second-shear" sheep's wool as jacket insulation. The company boasts wool's hydrophobic properties first—it can absorb 30 percent of its weight in water and still feel dry—as well as odor-neutralizing properties. This courser grade of wool wouldn't work well in garments and was even burned as useless, but that rougher quality helps it maintain loft between a shell and liner. Swisswool has been in use since 2011, but this year will see a newer, lighter iteration from the brand.
Trash to textiles
Mountain Khakis turned no to the peaks but to the sea for its latest new material source. It is rolling out jackets and flannels made with post-consumer recycled polyfill or pot-consumer recycled PET bottles blended with crushed oyster shells, called SeaWool. The blended insulation or yarn boasts anti-static, odor-blocking, and quick-dry properties, as well as offering low thermal conductivity and a superior warmth-to-weight ratio.
"it does have a great sustainability story, but also, the performance of it is really great, so it competes with other insulation companies and even surpasses them in some cases for value for weight," says Ned Hutchinson, senior product manager with Mountain Khakis.
The Pearl Street Flannel shirt and Triple Direct Jacket—named in honor of the backcountry ski line near Jackson where SeaWool was first tested—debut these materials.
"The apparel industry is a very dirty business, whether it be chemicals used in dyed stuff, or treating materials for performance, or effluents in processing fabrics," he says. "We know, as apparel manufacturers, how dirty it is, and the more we can clean that up, the better off we are in general, and we feel a responsibility to do that."
For those familiar with the transition to natural fibers as a less impactful option, requiring fewer pesticides, chemical treatments, and fossil fuels, the love story with hemp and organic cotton only seems to be deepening. The two materials are more often relegated to warmer seasons, but those uses are diversifying.
"Hemp is hollow, so it's wicking, breathable, and thermal-regulating, and so it's able to pull moisture away from your body and still dry really quickly," says Ciara Cates, Toad&Co's materials manager. The company has expanded hemp to a line of tops and pants, and sees using the materials as a chance to give a few of those high-performance qualities to lifestyle wear. Hemp also goes to use in a new fall line from prAna, paired with a recycled poly and Lenzing Tencel lyocell to combine the strength of hemp, the optics of poly, and the drape of lyocell.
Nau is releasing a brushed, 100-percent organic cotton fleece. The brand has deeply integrated sustainability into its product lines, with 71 percent of its collection containing 100 percent sustainable materials and six styles completely biodegradable.
The biggest challenge, says David Marsala, Nau's vice president of sales and marketing, has been maintaining relevance for the price point, but as more brands move toward sustainable choices, that may shift.
"The more we can get critical mass behind this," he says, "the more it will open up new categories, new ideas, and new innovations."
This article was originally published in Day 1 of The Daily (Winter Market 2018).