Small brands, big reductions

These brands reduce, reuse, recycle for better outdoor products
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Three small companies work to reduce, reuse and recycle their way to better and more eco-friendly business.

Many of the big brands in the outdoor industry have crafted sustainability policies that see them trending toward environmentally-friendly practices for everything from chemistry to carbon pollution. But a few small companies have gone back to the three-Rs from elementary school’s Earth Day lesson plans: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle materials that otherwise would go to waste. The end products produced by these three companies are low on impact and high on quality.

Flowfold

Flowfold wallet production

Flowfold wallets are made from high-quality, recycled sail materials. // Photo: Courtesy of Flowfold

When Flowfold’s founders realized high-quality sailcloth was landing in the garbage because of slight imperfections, they decided to test that material—which is durable enough for the high seas, but thin and lightweight—for wallets.

“We saw that waste material, we saw it was non-biodegradable, and we wanted it to be put to better use,” says James Morin, COO and president of sales for Flowfold.

Since their launch in 2010, the company has reused more than 43,597 square feet of fabric, sparing landfills more than an acre’s worth of garbage. In 2016, the company salvaged 17,569 square feet of sailcloth, enough to produce 23,589 wallets. They’ve added backpacks, totes, and duffles to their line up and, through a partnership with their fellow Maine-based brand Sterling Rope Company, even dog leashes. Forty percent of the materials Flowfold used last year was reclaimed. Strapping, zippers and some thread is purchased new.

“The bigger we get, the more we’re going to put into this effort,” Morin says.

That’s just part of the company’s eco-friendly ethos. Employees recently celebrated an increased order by cleaning trash from a park near their office, and they’re all given two paid days a year to volunteer with any organization of their choice. The only request is that they come back and report to the rest of the team on how it went. That core ethos of “this is what our brand stands for” is what sells with millennials, Morin says—and they should know. The company's founders and co-owner are all 29 years old.

The Renewal Workshop

Renewal Project

The Renewal Workshop breathes new life into clothes from outdoor industry brands that would otherwise be tossed. // Photo: Courtesy of the Renewal Project

The Renewal Workshop replaces zippers and buttons, patches tears and holes, and professionally cleans previously unsellable clothing. This “renewed apparel” is then sold through their e-commerce site specifically for these upcycled goods. Anything that can’t be effectively restored is sent to textile recyclers to be turned back into fiber, yarn or new fabric that can then be sold into the supply chain to make new goods.

That notion of a circular economy was what sparked Nicole Bassett to co-found The Renewal Workshop.

“The way we work as an industry is we make things, use them, then throw them away— that’s ridiculous,” she says.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 85 percent of textiles (a stat that includes homegoods and carpet as well as clothing) end up in landfills. On average each year, it’s 80 pounds per American.

Big name brands, from lifestyle companies H&M, Eileen Fisher, and Levi-Strauss & Co. to outdoor brands The North Face, Patagonia, and Royal Robbins, run programs to collect worn garments to restore them or recycle the materials into new products. The Renewal Workshop provides that option for smaller brands. Core clients include Ibex, Mountain Khakis, prAna, and Toad&Co.

“We’ll take all of the products they don’t have a solution for—all their discarded clothes—and our job is to see how to use it at its highest value,” Bassett says. “A lot of products can just be cleaned and repaired and sold again.”

The company is also investing in research on recycling for those products that are beyond repair, and Bassett hopes to connect consciousness about those options to designers. Products made 100 percent from cotton or polyester can be recycled, but there isn’t yet technology to recycle ones made from blended materials. That’s something designers could and should keep in mind, Bassett says.

“If we were to wait around for the entire industry to build out this infrastructure and do this, we would be waiting another 10 years, so we came into being to help all these companies accelerate,” she says. “This is allowing them to evolve their sustainability and design platforms. We’re definitely helping the industry move faster toward sustainability, which totally excites me.”

Fairweather Ski Works

Fairweather Ski Works

Fairweather Ski Works skis and splitboards are largely made from trees that have fallen naturally. Photo: Courtesy of Fairweather Ski Works

The trees that came down in order to build a house, the windstorm that tumbled a stretch of trees like dominoes on a friend’s property, and even the occasional tree that toppled across a neighbor’s driveway have all provided some of the salvaged lumber that turns out to provide beautiful, high-quality wood for Fairweather Ski Works.

“I like the connection through the whole process of coming from raw lumber to the final product—it’s just kind of a cool lifecycle,” says Graham Kraft, co-founder of the Haines, Alaska-based ski company.

The work sees him hiking into the forest, using a chainsaw to cut already fallen trees into pieces he can carry, then loading up the back of his pickup truck until the engine nearly bottoms out. Bad weather makes for good skis; there’s a direct correlation between rainy weather in Haines, and skis emerging from Kraft’s workshop.

Salvaged lumber from Sitka spruce and paper birch goes into Fairweather skis and splitboards. By hand-selecting fallen trees, he can acquire old growth wood that’s of higher quality than what he might find at the local lumber store, Kraft says.

He also uses birch at just the right phase of rot, when a fungus stains the wood in black, orange and white. In the final product, a clear plastic topsheet covers the wood veneer, leaving visible the details of the tree’s knots and grain.

“We get a great response from customers—everybody thinks they’re beautiful,” he says.

While other companies might market their sustainability, he takes a more casual “it’s just what we do” approach.

“It’s just almost more practical for us to build skis with salvage lumber,” he says.

The project has also secured the seal of approval from a local forest conservation organization for minimizing habitat destruction and adding value to the local economy. That local wood turns into lightweight skis just right for touring the mountains in Glacier Bay, where Kraft spends his summers working on a fishing boat and testing out next season’s skis.

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