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LONDON – The outdoor industry has often been at the forefront of sustainability initiatives, setting an example for other industries, including the fashion sector. There are several reasons for this ranging from environmental values, customer expectations and the unique relationship between outdoor enthusiasts and the environment. When it comes to testing new sustainable technology, the outdoor sector has the edge here too. With garments sometimes making the difference between life and death they have to perform. Outdoor enthusiasts get out in the harshest of environments, providing the perfect testing ground.  It’s no surprise then that a lot of outdoor brands, both fabric and end-user, provide protective clothing to the workwear and military sectors too.

Outdoor brands – both ingredient and end-consumer – have been pioneers in developing and using sustainable technologies. Many advances have come from collaborations where a brand sees a need, and the supplier helps to meet that need. It wasn’t long after Polartec invented fleece in the 80s that outdoor brand Patagonia went to the fabric manufacturer with a brief for a more sustainable fleece fabric. The result was recycled fleece. That was back in 1993.

It took ten more years – mid-2010s – for fashion brands to begin to incorporate recycled polyester, often derived from post-consumer plastic bottles, into their clothing lines. This period marked a growing awareness of the environmental impact of fashion and a commitment to more sustainable practices.

“Polartec goes way back regarding sustainability and over the past 30 years the cumulative supply of recycled fleece has allowed us, along with our partner brands, to upcycle over two billion post-consumer plastic bottles and turn them into great looking fabrics and garments.  Sustainability is a process, a walk, and you build on it,” says Karen Beattie, director of product management, at Polartec (pictured below).

Looking past recycling, the outdoor industry has many more sustainable practices up its sleeve. Polartec has just launched its plant-based membrane, eliminating the need for PFAS and providing users with a more sustainable way of keeping dry. Beattie says: “Our new technology mixes 50 per cent of Biolon plant-based nylon with fossil fuel sourced nylon. However, we are actively in research and development to pump up that volume, with an end goal of 100 per cent replacement of extractive fossil fuel resources, and go all plant-based.”

Comfort and versatility are also important factors and criteria that fashion historically hasn’t prioritised. If durability and longevity are the ultimate goals then clothing needs to be comfortable and versatile.

Enter the circular economy. One outdoor brand leading the way in circularity is Houdini Sportswear. 20 years ago, Swedish owner and sustainability protagonist, Eva Karlsson, approached Polartec with the goal of making the perfect technical mid-layer. Today that mid-layer – the Power Houdi – is an iconic staple in the Houdini range and boasts an average reported length of time worn by its owners exceeding 10 years.

Houdini's NEW shell with new Power Shield with Biolon launched at ISPO winter 23
Houdini’s NEW shell with new Power Shield with Biolon launched at ISPO winter 23

“It’s important that we design products that inspire people to use them in different ways,” says Jesper Danielsson, chief product officer at Houdini Sportswear. “We asked our end users how often they used their Power Houdi and it came out at 1287 times. That’s not the case when you look at the majority of garments in the textile world, but that’s really how product design can inspire another way of living. Designing versatile garments to enable adventures.”

“The importance of longevity, acting more responsibly and sustainably is Polartec’s mission,” says Beattie. “By creating fabrics that perform, are comfortable and much loved, enabling brands to make primary pieces that are highly versatile and that people will use for many years to come is what our brand is all about”.

Clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years to 100 billion garments a year, yet the time we use those clothes has been cut in half. Consequently, almost three fifths of clothing end up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.

With clothes and shoes representing 8 per cent of all CO2 emissions – more than air and sea transport combined – reducing clothing manufacturing is the goal. Producing clothes that can do more and be repaired if needed, so they last longer.

Again the outdoor industry has stepped up here with brands like Patagonia, Rab and Alpkit operating repair services, helping their users extend the lifespan of their beloved clothing.  By designing timeless, versatile pieces that can be worn in various settings and seasons, fashion brands can promote a more sustainable wardrobe by reducing the frequency of clothing turnover.

The outdoor industry is a big collaborator when it comes to sustainability initiatives and adheres to industry-wide standards. This helps create a collective impact and ensures a more uniform approach to sustainability.

B Corp certification is a designation given to companies that meet certain social and environmental performance standards, accountability, and transparency. The outdoor industry has seen a notable presence of B Corp certified companies, reflecting a commitment to sustainable and responsible business practices. Examples of outdoor companies that are B Corp certified or expressed a strong commitment to sustainability as of 2022 include Patagonia, BUFF and NEMO Equipment.

Many fashion brands are starting to look to their textile manufacturers that supply outdoor brands, for inspiration and guidance. Sourcing from a textile company whose primary business is to supply the outdoor and sportswear industries is a good first step. Often, they will have earned accreditations and membership to leading sustainability institutions such as OEKO-TEX, bluesign, and Science Based Targets initiatives.

Beattie says: “At present we have over 200 styles and almost 66 per cent of our production is featuring more sustainable materials which range from recycled to bio based; to using less harmful chemistries and manufacturing processes. We have a really wide range of offerings for our customers. Polartec is also committed to achieving net zero, or carbon neutrality, by 2050 and we have approved science-based targets to guide us on that mission.”

Outdoor brands often emphasise transparency in their supply chains, providing consumers with information about the origin and production of their products. In the future this is going to become more and more important for fashion brands.

Millennials and Generation Z are often considered more environmentally conscious compared to older generations. The fashion industry is a significant area of interest for Gen Z.  This generation often seeks out unique and sustainable fashion choices, and many are active participants in online fashion communities, influencing trends and driving demand for fast fashion alternatives. 

Environmental education and advocacy are also areas where the outdoor sector sets a good example. It works to raise awareness about environmental issues – it’s often part of a brand’s DNA – encouraging responsible outdoor practices such as grant programmes to support regeneration and conservation, and schemes such as LifeStraw’s Give Back Program where the purchase of one product provides access to a year of safe water for a child in need. Fashion brands can play a role in educating consumers about the environmental impact of the fashion industry and promote sustainable consumer behaviour. By aligning with environmental causes, fashion companies can contribute to positive change.

By incorporating these lessons from the outdoor industry, the fashion industry can move towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, addressing the growing concerns about the impact of fashion on the planet. Working together we can stop clothing going into landfill and incinerators within a year of being produced. Wouldn’t it be great to eliminate those practices completely?

Stephanie Briggs is the founder and owner of Spring PR and works with many outdoor active and lifestyle brands on communications and marketing.

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