Where the runway meets the street

Going green isn’t easy. In a world where expertise is spread globally, ensuring the best product with the least impact still requires considerable travel and research. New green technologies, particularly those that hinge on recycled materials, have great potential both in the sustainability and warmth stakes. Nau, based in Portland, Oregon, takes great strides to harness the best green and sustainable material and manufacturing. Their product takes cues from performance outerwear, and is counts within a select niche of technical brands catering to of more urban based clientele. Additionally, they generously give to charities related to global change in several sectors.

We chatted with Nau’s General Manager Mark Galbraith about the challenges of sustainable fabric sourcing.

I want to begin by talking about wool. Where do you source the wool you use?

Obviously, wool is probably one of the best renewable resources that has the performance factor to it for outwear. The majority of our wool is merino wool, which comes largely from New Zealand. Most merino wool in the world comes from New Zealand or Australia.

All the wool we use for our base-layers and hoodies comes from a couple sources in New Zealand. The way we’ve gone about the sourcing of it, and looking into all the details of it, is we’ve hooked up with a group called Zque. Zque is an independent body based in New Zealand and they look at the whole process of getting wool. There are three areas they look at – animal treatment issues, land use issues, and the actual processing of the wool and textile. They look at all three of those things, and essentially the real top line is that they really look into the animal treatment issues. Do the animals have shelter? Are they treated well? Do they use aggressive dogs or herd with helicopters? All these types of things. Our wool is also museling free. I don’t know if you are aware of what that is… but basically it is a process used regularly in raising sheep. The skin is cut from around their butt, so that fecal matter doesn’t’ get stuck in their wool and infection isn’t spread. The process, however, is incredibly painful and the issue can be managed in other ways. One of our things is that all of the wool we use is museling free, as it relates to treatment issues. Grazing issues are just keeping the sheep from over grazing an area and reducing erosion. There is all the process stuff to be considered as well, ensuring the handling so it is best for the environment.

It’s interesting to hear that, and your statement about animal treatment, given your code of conduct for production in general. I think the tenants are pretty clear, but how important is it for you to be upfront about the base requirements for the people you work with?

Well, we tend to look at sustainability in the broadest possible sense, which obviously includes environmental concern, but also social and humanitarian issues. That goes into everything from animal treatment to how people are treated in sewing factories and beyond. You really can’t separate them and say “well, this is organic cotton so its all good.” The environment the things are produced in is also important. We are holistic in our view of what sustainability is and do our best to look into all the issues. Also, as I mentioned we use Zque to certify the wool and we use a similar body, Verite, who goes and verifies the factory code of conduct. That covers all the basics of age, work week, and health and safety. Access to medical care as well, a whole range of things. Really, its looking at all of that and not just separating out the environmental issues while avoiding the social. You can’t solve one without the other. Having third party verification and providing full documentation is a really important part of doing it. Then you can back up and check what you do.

Another thing in regards to sustainability is obviously the shipping of the product. An important point you make on your website is that often the fabrics and technologies you are drawn to, especially in recycled technologies, are produced in Asia and therefore its important to produce the garments there as well. I want to talk about the challenges of discovering new technologies and then ensuring that you then have the best and closest factory to those fabrics.

That’s one of the big challenges. You sit down and say, “here’s the sustainability level – recycled, organic, traceable” all the criteria, and then there are two more things to focus on. One is clearly the aesthetic of the product. Hand, grade, color, fineness of knit, and those things. The other is performance, suitability to task. Even in a basic cotton piece you are looking for something that maintains its shape through torque and all other crazy stuff that happens when worn and cared for. So, given that you really cut the supply chain down. If things need to be recycled and certified organic, you are really done to just a few players globally. Usually, as a result of that, and layering on top of that beautiful aesthetics and high performance, you’re line of supply gets much smaller. There are very few people working on these things, and the challenge has been finding them and often putting pieces of the supply chain together. We may know a great supplier for organic cotton yarn, but finding a good knitter or weaver or someone who can laminate it into a waterproof membrane shell fabric out of it is difficult. Our biggest challenge is connecting the pieces, we may have to introduce supplier x to fabricator y to put the product together.

As your initial question included, when you do that you find yourself in the places it really happens. The best quality recycled polyester is coming from Japan, so once you’ve got a fabric from Japan – much of our waterproofs and breathables – you may need unique glueing and melting processes to construct a jacket. For the most part, those are in China. It helps you link up where the best fabric is coming from and the closest places where it can be made up. Once they get past the audits, it becomes a distinct way you have to work and it does limit the decisions. It makes us prioritize where the best products are, for instance the best surface finish fleece fabrics are made by Malden Mills in New England. We use the fabric from there, and sew those products in America. You really look at supply chain and aesthetics, performance and sustainability and try to limit the complication of shipping. You’re much better to keep it tight. On all of our shipping of finished products and corporate travel we also pay a carbon offset.

Specifically, could you tell me a little about the technologies and fabrics, sustainable obviously, that are exciting to you at the moment? Or, are pushing where you can go with Nau?

I think they come in a couple areas. The newness isn’t found in cotton or wool. Those have been around since the beginning of time, and arguably wool is the first textile anyone ever used. While there is evolution in how knitting and making wool product exists, its more about aesthetic and constructed. What we find most exciting and rewarding are discoveries in more high-tech performance areas. For us, we focus almost exclusively on polyester. The main reason, and outside of some small patches kept minimally, we focus on poly is because there is a ton of post industrial and post consumer plaster out there. You are really not requiring any new stuff. Secondly, unlike nylon where you can get can recycle it once, polyester can be continually recycled into new textiles. You can do that perpetual. We like that about polyester. Polyester probably is the most sustainable fabric, given the overall spectrum and how much raw energy is required to produce the product.

When you look at, and part of the perspective of the impact of the product over its life, a full third of of the impact is consumer care. The heat and energy required to care for a product. Cottons and wools take longer to dry, and take more energy. Polyesters care impact is pretty minimal. And, the end life. Ultimately, when cotton and wool is worn out there can be some down cycling that can be done. It can go into a less quality product, like a cleaning rag. Ultimately, it can only be done once or twice. Polyester can be recycled again and again. When you look at that whole thing, the lead of technology and infinite recycling is exciting at the moment.

On the performance side, that we can be at the leading edge of insulation and water-proofing and basically make anything with polyester. We are excited about that, and the unique fabrics that are available and you don’t have to give up anything from a performance standpoint.

This is obviously a time based discussion, because two and three years ago almost none of this was possible.

Have you, or will you enact, a product recycling program?

Yes. We have and if you look at any of our polyester garments there is a label that explains the eco-circle and our recycling program. It gives the information about how you can return a garment after its, hopefully, long life. We have had a few garments back, generally after an accident or something, and we view recycling as something to do when the garment is to far gone for practical use. As new of a brand as we are, we haven’t collected enough to recycle, when we get to a realistic container size we will ship it back for recycling. We are at the front end process, but our partners do it all the time.

I want to finish by mentioning Grant for Change. I love the process of the voting and the consumer interaction with the program.

It’s a pretty exciting program for us. The whole idea is that we have partners for change, where we select a finite number of programs and our 2% goes to them. But, we also wanted to look at something with greater reach. Funding smaller individuals, where $10,000 would actually make the difference in pulling something off or not. It’s a great feeling to have a meaningful impact on a smaller or local level. When you look at monies or grants, they also tend to be available to larger companies, and it is great to be able to nurture fledgling groups or ideas. It’s also great for engaging our customer base and using them to discover people who are doing wonderful and important work. It’s been one of most rewarding things and most encouraging and motivating experiences to see all the people who are working hard and putting it all on the line for a particular goal.

Moving forward we are looking to increase Grant for Change, and perhaps give it to a couple of people in different areas. We want to keep it rolling.

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