Recycled fabrics, and the road to Sustainability

Have you decorated
your house with Christmas yet?

On the eve of our first recycled fabrics release, sustainability consultant Teslin Doud paid us a visit. With her smart, straight-talking ways she challenged Bellroy co-founder and CEO, Andy Fallshaw, to go deep on the topic. Read on for the transcript of that conversation. It's the most candid (and lengthy-but-worth-it) conversation about our approach to sustainability that we’ve ever published. But it's clear that these two really know their stuff, and we weren't going to stop them talking before they were ready…


Teslin: Tell me about your recycled materials. 

Andy: The properties we can get out of the PET family are now more than sufficient for the life of an everyday bag. There are particular cases, say in high-intensity (adventure) travel, where the product is getting bashed around a lot more, where we need to move into the polyamide family (nylons). Unfortunately, the recycling loops aren’t as established there, so we’re starting with a mix of virgin and recycled nylons, to make sure we can truly live up to the performance expectations. 

Is that why it has taken you a bit to get into recycled materials – because you wanted to ensure the properties of the materials are right before you use them? 

Yeah, absolutely. We’re so inspired by cradle-to-cradle philosophies. And the end state of that, for any technical nutrient (such as a petroleum-derived plastic), is where the loop goes on forever. But one of the challenges is that the technology hasn’t really been there…

Our Story

“We’re not there yet, but covering your eyes and waiting until we have a spaceship to Mars isn’t going to do anything." – Teslin

In apparel, somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent of the energy and impact happens before the product gets to the consumer. And then they start washing, laundering, often tumble drying and there’s a lot more energy expended there. But with the products we make, you never put them through a washing machine, so it’s more like 90 to 95 per cent of the impact occurs before the customer receives the product. So we’ve said, making products that are used and loved for as long as possible is the biggest impact we can make in this space. And we will continue prioritizing product that will have a long and valuable life.

As the technology is catching up, as we’re getting better recycling tech to clean out impurities and make sure we can test and maintain the integrity of the polymer, even on its second time around, we now feel like we can produce product that can have a life beyond 1000 days. And that’s something we’ve talked about as a benefit of being a carry brand and not an apparel brand. One of the critiques of recycled polyester – or polyester in general – is the issue of microfibers and chemicals next to your skin. So it’s a more appropriate fabric for accessories. But, to back up for a second. You mentioned petroleum. I’m not sure people actually realize the feedstock (raw material) for polyester. Recycled polyester gets a lot of talk about where the feedstock comes from, because we’re all excited it comes from recycled water bottles. But, can you talk about the bigger issues around virgin polyester, and how recycled polyester alleviates some of those issues?

One of the problems with things you dig out of the ground is that you often get something cheaper than it should be.

Like petroleum.

Exactly. You dig a well, and suddenly you’re pumping this thing that has been millions of years in the making. When you dig that out of the ground, you don’t have to pay for the carbon that will be released through its use; you don’t have to pay for the downstream effects – not currently priced into any major economic model in the world – it’s artificially cheap. And one of the problems with artificially cheap things, is those who get access can make too much money from them. When you track what happens with many of the economic models around petroleum, you see that a few people make a huge amount of money. They’re not properly paying for the consequences of that, and it’s distorting economies. We can see a lot of foreign policies for preserving access to these incredibly energy-dense materials like petroleum. So you get war, conflict, distorted cross-border politics. To preserve access to oil. There’s baggage that comes with harvesting a material that got too cheap. So, when we can get back to materials that are justified in their price, we’ll end up with more honest economics and more honest behavior around those materials.

You’re right. Those externalities, their contribution to climate change and their destruction of the environment, are not included in the price of those materials. And actually, when we look at polyester in its life cycle assessment, it’s considered a 'free' material. So it often gets promoted as a more sustainable option than natural fibers because you don’t need water to grow it… you’re exactly right that it’s not the entire story.

So, that brings me to a tough question for you. A bit of a moral quandary. Recycled materials are all well and good. It’s great to be using something made from waste, instead of having to dig it out of the ground. But isn’t it just a band-aid solution? By creating a demand for recycled fabrics, you’re essentially creating a demand for plastic water bottles. You’re not exactly turning the tap off at the faucet.  

How do you feel about the fact that you’re still using plastic – whether the feedstock comes from oil extraction or from plastic bottles? Would you be happy to see your feedstock not exist one day?

It’s an excellent question. One of the things we really try and do is balance practical and theoretical. When we look at where we want to get to in the future, it would be excellent if there was regenerative agriculture building new nutrients in the soil, capturing carbon and doing other great things. And I think there are particular areas of product where that makes more sense. As you described earlier, certain product categories that are against your skin, that need to absorb moisture, that need to be permeable to evaporation or sweat… they need to do certain things that will mean you’re happy to pay extra to have them. The long-term vision is to be working in the biological nutrient stream, where we’re replenishing soils and doing those sorts of things. But if we actually look at the problems in the world right now, there are millions of tonnes of plastics still being generated, still polluting ecosystems. So, I don’t think there’s a single solution. Many people want to simplify problems and say it’s just one thing...

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Yeah, exactly. We need to be working on many solutions. One of those solutions is cleaning up and repurposing the things that are already in the system. There are so many single-use plastics being generated, and they will continue to be generated for many years. One of our goals is to find a second or third time around the loop for those things. And eventually, maybe, a permanent loop. Then, on the other side, there are some pretty terrible farming practices in the conventional cotton industry, it’s water intensive and needs enormous amounts of pesticides. So, we want to start pushing on several areas, where each solves a different problem. To progress us towards a future of genuine flourishing – more than just sustaining, but actually improving. That was a long way to say, I think we need several solutions. Because there are currently many problems we want to make progress on.

You’re actually creating a new industry driven by the demand from consumers.

And sustainability is inherently a business imperative. You can’t be in business if you’re not sustaining yourself. So much of this sustainability movement we’re all a part of, is efficiency. And that is great for business. So, just as you’re saying, it’s about taking baby steps forward. Recycled materials is one of those baby steps – it’s not the solution, I think we both agree. But one of the many steps to get us to this circular future.

You have pretty bold goals for the next couple of years. What are you trying to signal to the rest of the industry?

Ah. One of the challenges of how Bellroy communicates to the world, is that we’ve always wanted to be the kind of people who underpromise and overdeliver. We haven’t previously talked about our future goals as much, because we wanted to do the work and make those goals believable – to ourselves and to everyone else – when we started to talk about them. So, we started with various timeframes. The first timeframe was October this year to have 30% of our new woven products (bags and pouches) released to be made from recycled content. We’re well ahead of that. We’d already developed many unique materials – to create products that would have a long life and stay desirable. And, we’ve learned how to move recycled yarn streams into those fabrics. So we’re going through and updating our existing fabrics. We’ve committed to 90% of the new products launched next year to be made from recycled fabrics. We’re having a rapid onboarding of these recycled polymers – polyesters to start with, because the technology and feedstream is more developed, so we can basically sub out every polyester fabric we make for this. "Our products are not right for everyone. But gosh, when we find the person who recognizes the amount of care and love that has gone into them, it brings a lot of joy." – Andy Nylons are harder, it’s beginning, but if we jump 100% into recycled nylons right now, we can’t guarantee that the bag will be thriving by day 1000. And from there, we’re also working very hard on developing some biological materials that can move into many of our other product categories as well as bags. 

A lot is happening on that. We’re hoping to share our journey, so smaller brands out there can find out where these are coming from and how achievable it might be. We’re also working really hard to learn from the bigger brands – brands like Patagonia – who have helped pioneer this space and develop it to a point where a brand of our size can draw on the research. I mean, you make it sound pretty easy. Just 30% to 90% the following year, you’re just going to swap out all of your materials… it’s quite a lofty goal compared to some of the sustainability targets that we see other companies put out, where they have a 10 year plan to get to 25%. Here you are, saying, ‘next year, 90%’. [Laughs] Yeah, and that’s evidence that we didn’t start working on this yesterday. The teams here have done a lot of work in understanding how a material ages and degrades, what we need to test for… It’s been many years in the making, and now that it’s at the right point, we can accelerate it. And we’re so aware of everything we’re not yet doing. There are still so many parts to each bag, each product, that we want to work on. We believe we still need to use virgin nylon thread, because it’s such a common failure point on bags when people take shortcuts on thread. We’re working on new foams for bringing structure to the back of a bag, or a shoulder strap. We’re trying to make sure some of the recycled component zippers can live up to the performance expectations we believe are required. You mentioned that you have been working on this for several years and here we are now, finally able to talk about it. 

What have been the biggest challenges? 

What have you really had to overcome to get to this point? Any time there’s something new moving into the global economies, it generally starts with a few pioneers. That means it’s generally only available in the sorts of materials that are mainstream, rather than niche materials. When you feel a Bellroy fabric, you will feel that it’s woven in a very different way to most fabrics. Many of the things we’re doing to create a unique Bellroy look and feel are not in the mainstream palette of colors or yarn sizes or traditional source stock. So we’ve had to work hard to find the things that can speak well to Bellroy’s DNA and not just be a generic PET woven into a flat 210 denier. You’re not just walking into the shop and picking something off the shelf. Exactly. It needs to have our identity in it. And the reason we value that, is because our identity has been formed so much by the desire to have people use and love the product for as long as possible. We know that, even if we make the most sustainable product and people get sick of it after six weeks, that’s a failure. The embodied energy in making these products is only justified if they can live a long, vibrant life... And stop people buying other things to replace it.

 “It’s great to be using something made from waste, instead of having to dig it out of the ground. But isn’t it just a band-aid solution?" – Teslin