Passion for the Planet
Two Eco Evangelists Spread the Word on Sustainable Advances & Textile Trends.
We recently caught up with a couple of eco experts who are doing important work in developing new ways to improve textile recycling and the problem of waste along with identifying new material alternatives that are better for the environment. Wesley Baker is the founder of Debrand, a Vancouver-based firm specializing in reverse logistics and textile recycling for apparel brands in North America. Amy Marks-McGee is the founder of Trendincite LLC, a creative service consultancy designed to provide fragrance and flavor clients with trend information. Here’s what they had to say:
Wesley Baker, Debrand
Tell me about how and why you founded Debrand.
“Debrand co-founder Amelia Eleiter and I once worked for a marketing agency doing event activations for running races and concerts. Tents, banners, signs were all created for that specific event and when it was over, items were effectively garbage (yet because of brand logos, you could not throw them out). They required special handling and ‘debranding,’ a service that really wasn’t available before 2005.”
What is “reverse logistics?”
“Reverse logistics are goods that come back from consumers. With ecommerce, there are more returns because consumers can’t try things on. Consumers ‘bracket’ purchase goods by ordering a size 6, 8, and 10. After try-on, leftovers get returned. From brand new to well-worn and/or defective, this influx of inbound goods creates challenges and opportunities. Debrand is focusing on developing processes, infrastructure, software, and partnerships that enable the highest value allocation for every good that comes back.”
Some fabrics are harder to recycle than others. What are some of the solutions you are working on for this?
“Recycling capability varies a lot by material. We’re building the processes that enable us to get materials to the best channel. The best recycler of polyester today may not be the best recycler of polyester tomorrow. Or perhaps there are two polyester recyclers with different specification requirements — one able to use polyester with Lycra and one who cannot. We can tune our sorting algorithms to meet these specs, ensuring that the material is going to the highest value channel possible.”
Tell me about brand security and the process of recycling sensitive pieces, like uniforms.
“From airline pilots to parcel couriers, uniformed employees have special privileges afforded to them with their jobs. Also, if a retailer recalls products for a quality or health and safety issue, it’s in the public’s best interest to keep those goods out of the supply chain. It may not be distinguishable to the naked eye (dyes could not meet a specific standard), and therefore there’s a risk that such goods could end up back in the supply chain if not managed in a secure manner. They need to be securely destroyed and or recycled.”
What is our industry struggling with the most when it comes to recycling and waste?
“Mixed materials are a huge challenge. If it takes more energy to recycle an item and the end result is a product that is inferior, the system just doesn’t work. Most materials are blends of various fiber types which can be hard to separate. The other conundrum is that brands and manufacturers are constantly developing new products and materials. Recyclers are therefore always playing a reactionary game of catch up. One could spend millions of dollars developing a system to recycle a material type only to have the industry shift. For example, the trend towards making all of our clothing stretchy (adding Lycra) means they don’t ‘pull’ well when put through a costly fiber opening line.”
Amy Marks-Mcgee, Trendincite
Tell me about trends you are seeing in leather alternatives, especially in sneakers.
“There are a dizzying number of plant-based consumer products that are better-for-you and better-for the-planet. I’m intrigued by the different upcycled fruit and vegetable materials such as apple and pineapple being used for leather alternatives, popular in sneakers. MoEa is an interesting brand that uses apple, pineapple, corn, cactus, and grape to create vegan sneakers. There are five different colored sneakers, and each corresponds to the plant-based leather that was used to craft them. Other interesting plant-based materials are mango and citrus. Fruitleather Rotterdam creates a mango material that is used as a leather-like textile while Orange Fiber produces sustainable fabrics from citrus fruit by-products.”
There has been some pushback with the term “vegan leather” in certain circles due to plastic polymers. What is your viewpoint?
“From a marketing perspective, I think the term ‘pleather,’ which is a portmanteau of plastic and leather, is receiving pushback because of the plastic polymers associated with its development. Newer leather alternatives are said to be eco-friendlier. The terms ‘vegan,’ ‘plant-based,’ and ‘alternative’ are trending and particularly popular in the food, beverage and beauty space. These buzzwords are being applied to non-animal derived leather such as ‘vegan leather,’ ‘plant-based leather,’ ‘leather alternative,’ ‘faux leather,’ and ‘leather-free.’”
What else is on your radar as far as eco innovation in footwear and/or apparel?
“Mycelium, which is the fast-growing root structure of mushrooms, is appearing in sustainable packaging design and is being used as an alternative meat substitute. It’s now emerging as a vegan leather alternative. Sugarcane is a frequently used sustainable ingredient for beverage bottles. It’s now popping up in fashion. UGG’s Fluff Sugar shoes from the brand’s Plant Power collection feature SugarSole foam made with renewable sugarcane and plant-based Tencel branded Lyocell fibers. Another example is the new brand Kindly, which makes a line of sugarcane-based undergarments sold exclusively at Walmart.”
How about compostable materials?
“As mentioned in my recent trend article, Public School’s backyard compostable sneaker made from a leather substitute grown using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) is an exciting material. I foresee more exploration of SCOBY-based materials for sustainable fashion. There is also activity in sustainable synthetic silk.”
Do you feel like brands are doing enough to innovate in the eco space today?
“Technology has advanced and consumers’ growing demand for planet-friendly products is driving brands to innovate. It seems that plant-based products across all markets including fashion and design are a hotbed of innovation. It’s an exciting time for consumers and brands.”