Green Style for the Wild Blue Yonder: Nau Interviewed
Early this year we alluded to the arrival in 2007 of a new line of green outdoor apparel. Details were thin on the ground, but tantalising nevertheless. Now their website is finally live and has a sneak peek of the upcoming clothing range. Plus, they've launched a blog, tagged the Thought Kitchen, and a repository of inspiring stories known as the Collective to interact with customers. Their site also includes a vid of Nau designers describing their raison d'Ãªtre for focusing on beauty, performance, sustainability. Boy, have they set themselves an impressive challenge; "The Nau mission is to combine the generosity of the human spirit and the power of technology with business innovation to increase shareholder equity, protect the environment, enhance social justice and provide humanitarian relief worldwide." And, as Nau's CEO puts it, "Along the way, we're hoping to sell some really cool outdoor clothing." With all these lofty aspirations we wanted to dig a little deeper. Their press kit says, "We seek every opportunity to educate, inspire, influence and disrupt. Once we find the opportunity, we aim to present our case thoughtfully and genuinely. If you want someone to listen, whisper." So we decided to ask a few quiet questions of Ian Yolles, VP of Marketing for Nau.But Ian said he couldn't help us ... well, not before first chatting with his mates on the Nau team, Jil Zilligen (VP, Sustainable Business Practices), Mark Galbraith (VP, Product Design), Jamie Bainbridge (Director, Materials Research) and Eric Brody (Sustainability Manager). Their collaborative effort form the first installment of that interview, focusing on the products themselves:
TH: What has been the easier, 'low hanging fruit' in establishing Nau as a green and ethical company? What have been the more demanding hurdles to leap over? And where do the remaining challenges lie?
Nau: In general, we have not taken a "low hanging fruit" approach to developing Nau because we have had the luxury of applying the principles of sustainability and corporate responsibility from the absolute beginning. In other words, we've been able to imagine and design the company from the seed stage, before there was ever any fruit to pick. This means we've been able to build everything — our product, our practices and our partnerships — from the ground up without having to retrofit after the fact.Â
With product, for example, we've taken a life cycle approach and have applied sustainability criteria to each and every stage including design, materials, production, distribution, customer care and end of life. In the case of materials, as a specific example, we could have used commodity-oriented organic cotton, but we have instead used the finer yarn counts and higher gauge knits and wovens that are more unique and challenging to develop. We think that the performance and luxurious feel of the higher gauge knits and finer woven fabrics differentiate us in the market place and will exceed customer expectations of what a sustainable product should be like.
One of the biggest challenges that we've managed to overcome, working in conjunction with Malden Mills and Deer Creek, has been the design, development and commercialization of leading-edge PLA fabric construction for base layer product.
The other significant challenge we've overcome is the design, development and commercialization of 3 layer waterproof breathable fabrics made from recycled polyester. These fabrications will be introduced to the line in late summer and early fall.
We view sustainability as a dynamic process in which we constantly examine where we are within a continuum. While we have achieved the results we want in some areas, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester, we continue to have aspirations in other areas. Specific examples include:
• current efforts to remove solvents from the lamination process in 2 and 3 layer garments. To that end we're conducting trials involving water-based and thermal-based adhesives that don't use traditional solvents. To date, we haven't found anything that meets our durability and hand requirements.
• work on DWR's (durable water repellents). All the best contain fluorocarbons while anything currently available that is fluorocarbon free doesn't meet the performance expectations of our customers. We're testing and evaluating other options and working with suppliers to solve the issue.
• lightweight meshes that function as free hanging liners in a two-layer waterproof shell that are not made from recycled content. The barrier to using recycled content in liners isn't technology, it's volume. As soon as our volume meets the minimums, we'll be in a position to incorporate recycled content.
• super lightweight tricot linings that are used in three layer constructions that are not yet made from recycled material. This is a technology issue and a volume issue. Currently there aren't finer denier size yearns available in recycled content.
Regarding the four examples above, we will continue to seek solutions that meet the technical performance requirements that our customers expect in product and meet the sustainability characteristics that are important to us and the future of the industry.
Another question we think is worth drawing your attention to relates to the use of wool.
Wool is a natural fiber with good performance characteristics and relatively low environmental impact when grown and processed responsibly. We are pursuing wool growers who utilize sustainable farming and ranching techniques.
In addition, we are sourcing wool that is processed using a closed-loop, anti-shrink chlorine process to descale the fibers. The result is reduced shrinkage and improved durability and long term wear and care. We decided to go this way not because we want to use chlorine but because doing so results in a more durable, soft product and the closed-loop process ensures that the chemicals are managed properly and reused, thereby preventing them from being released into the environment.
We will continue to evaluate other options but at the moment none of them produce the end product without shrinkage and pilling.
Are you using off-the-shelf materials, or have some been developed especially for Nau?
Nau: Over 90% of the finished fabrics that we are using have been developed for Nau in conjunction with leading textile mills. The other 10% of the fabrics came from some of the best environmental textile and material suppliers.
TH: Is the corn starch fibre (PLA), used in some garments, derived from non-genetically modified organism (GMO) sources?
Nau: We are taking part in a program to purchase a volume of GMO-free corn equal to the amount used to produce our fabrics.Â Due to the way PLA is manufactured, we cannot know if this GMO-free corn ends up in our product, [see earlier TH discussion] but we do know that the equivalent amount of GMO-free raw material needed to produce our garments goes into the system. This ensures that we offset the use of any genetically engineered corn that was sent to the dextrose processing plant with GMO-free corn equal to our utilization.
Compared to the use of petroleum-based polymers we see the use of renewable resources, such as corn and other starches to make PLA, as a step in the right direction.Â While biopolymers like PLA were specifically designed to decrease the environmental problems caused by the use of petroleum-based polymers, we recognize that there are a range of environmental impacts associated with growing corn and other crops.Â These impacts include land clearing, land degradation and the use of biocides.Â
Currently, the majority of biopolymers are derived from corn, but ultimately could be made from any starch, including agricultural waste. Nau is actively pursuing the development of a raw material made from agricultural waste or sustainably-grown agricultural products.
TH: Some of the other garments in the initial range are made with recycled polyester garments. Is this polyester Post Consumer content recycled?
Nau: We prefer post-consumer materials and there are some products that we have specified to be 100% post-consumer.Â The reality of the supply chain and technology is that some of our products have a blend of post-industrial and post-consumer materials in order to meet the performance characteristics that consumer's expect.
In selecting recycled polyester over nylon, what conclusions did Nau come to regarding the controversial production catalyst, antimony, found in polyester?
Nau: Our long-term strategy is to be antimony free in all our polyester.Â The suppliers of antimony free polyester have commercialized the commodity size yarns in antimony free versions but they haven't retooled for micro deniers. Â It is something the suppliers are actively pursuing and we will be sourcing it as soon as there is a viable source. We will have another fiber size developed in the antimony free polyester in the very near future. Currently 75 denier is antimony free and our supplier is in the R & D phase of developing 50 dernier that is antimony free. When that is accomplished well over 50% of our styles that use recycled polyester will be antimony free.
TH: Anything special about the components selected to match the fabrics? Nickel free zippers and snap fasteners maybe?
Nau: Yes, all the components are nickel free. In general, it is difficult to source zippers, cord locks, buckles and other molded plastic that meet the quality and performance specification that we and our customers expect.Â Generally speaking we have leaned towards metal components because most metals use a percentage of recycled content as standard practice and the metal is much more durable.Â
Nau: We have made cradle-to-cradle considerations, starting with the materials we source and how the garments are constructed through the end of life scenarios for the product.Â We narrowed our material selection and product design to those that have positive end of life scenarios.Â For example, nylon is a very traditional workhorse material in the outdoor industry; however, we are not using it because there is currently no commercially viable recycled content nylon or garment recycling programs for nylon.Â For now we are focusing on materials like polyester, cotton and biopolymers because commercially viable options exist or are being developed that provide alternatives to landfill or incineration.Â
As you know keeping a product (whether it's a piece of clothing, computer, chair, cup, etc.) in its intended use as long as possible is the key to minimizing environmental impacts.Â Our design and development teams at Nau have created products that are built to last from performance, aesthetic and quality perspectives.Â When the time comes that the product is no longer right for our customers but is still wearable, we ask that they donate it to a charity or thrift store, or to someone in their community who could use the product.Â
We understand that at some point (most likely a long way into the future) our product may wear out.Â At that point, we will invite our customers to send Nau products back to us or drop them off at our stores and we will make sure they do not end up in the landfill or incinerator.Â Throughout the design and development stages of creating our products we've put a great deal of work into ensuring our products are compatible with recycling or composting systems.Â As a small start-up company producing durable, high quality items in limited numbers we project that a very small number of products will come back to us in the first few years. We plan to hold onto those products until we have a significant enough volume to put into a recycling or composting program.Â In the meantime, we are partnering with vendors and others to develop recycling and composting systems for our products.
TH: Will Nau be offering any co-mingled material products, such as say organic cotton (or corn-based Â PLA), blended with recycled polyester, where the garment can neither be effectively composted, nor industrially recycled at the end of its useful life?
Nau: We agree that a viable market exists for apparel after the initial purchaser is done with it. Throughout the design and development stages of creating our products, we've put a great deal of work into ensuring our products are compatible with recycling or composting systems. We consider end of life in all of our products starting with the initial conceptualization and design.Â Our synthetics do not have any natural fibers so that they will be compatible with recycling systems. An example of our single polymer design is a jacket that utilizes recycled content polyester for the face fabric, liner and waterproof membrane. With our natural fibers, we are keeping the percentage of synthetic fiber content very low so that we can pursue positive end of life scenarios. For instance, our lycra percentages are below 10% in most cases.
TH: If the greatest environmental burden of apparel actually occurs in the 'use' phase, particularly the laundering of clothing, how is Nau addressing this issue?
Nau: We agree with your assessment. Â The amount of water and energy used during the consumer care stage of a garment's life cycle is equal to or greater than any other stage. Â With that in mind we have worked to develop as many products as possible that can be cared for with the lowest impact as possible (e.g. no dry cleaning, etc.). Â
We will be actively communicating tips for our customers to reduce their impact. They include:
• Wash in cold water
• Wait for a full load to do laundry
• Use non-toxic, environmentally friendly detergents
• Hang to dry
• Don't dry clean
• Avoid fabric softeners
TH: The chemicals used for dyeing, waterproof membranes/coatings, water repellent finishes, stain resistance, and even wicking performance can often be the Achilles heel in trying to green a textile product. What attention has Nau given to these issues?
Nau has developed a Restricted Substance List (RSL) and protocol to ensure that our products are safe for our workers at the factories, safe for our customers to wear, and that Nau meets the strictest legislation globally. Â The substances included on the list are either restricted by legislation or voluntarily selected for elimination by Nau. Â Nau requires our suppliers to comply with our RSL and our products are tested to be sure they do not contain any of the compounds on the list.
Also, we have chosen not to use anti-microbials. In terms of DWRs [durable water repellents], laminates and adhesives there are still issues that we are working to solve with the supply chain. Right now an alternative does not exist that provides the durability and performance that our customers expect. Where these chemicals are used we are working in high-end facilities that manage and control the chemicals used in the process very rigorously.
TH: Has the focus on sustainable and ethically production added cost to the product, compared to your less green competitors? If so, how do you expect your customer base will accommodate this pricing difference?
Nau: We have developed high performance and top quality materials with socially and environmentally sustainable attributes.Â The cost is associated with the level of quality, performance and durability of the products.Â We are building durable products with classic styles intended to have a long life.Â The idea is that you won't have to replace them as often, which is better for the environment and saves you money over the long run.
On average sustainable materials are more expensive than non-sustainable materials and fabric costs accounts for 70% of the total product cost.Â In order to promote sustainability we have made the commitment to share these new materials with other apparel companies.Â Our hope is that as these materials become more widely used in the industry the price will come down.
Given we're operating as a retail direct business, we have inherent margin advantages versus the traditional wholesale model. That enables us to invest in the product, particularly from a sustainability perspective, while at the same time ensuring that the cost of the product remains competitive. Our product pricing will be competitive with all of the upper end outdoor brands.
TH: Is the materials supply and the production side of the rag trade becoming more or less responsive to requests for greener materials, and more ethical work practices.
Nau: In general they are becoming more responsive because there is increasing demand in the market from low price big box stores to higher end fashions for sustainable and ethically produced materials and products. Â Â
Specifically for us, many of our employees brought with them to Nau long-term relationships with key suppliers. This has enabled us to develop key partnerships with suppliers and push the envelope in sustainable material and product development.
It's also worth noting that many of our suppliers have chosen to take significant risk hand in hand with us. They recognize the market opportunity and, in spite of the fact that out of the gate we won't meet their minimum volume requirements, they've chosen to engage with us based on their view of the longer term potential.
More interview will follow soon.