As many have discovered, the deeper you attempt to go back into a supply chain, the murkier it gets. For a product-based company like Nau, Inc. that holds a deep committment to the sustainable roots of its offering, that creates all kinds of challenges. Or, if you’re Jamie Bainbridge, you could choose to see opportunity. Opportunity to prove that well-designed, high-performing apparel and outerwear can also be sustainably made and cycled back into the system once they’ve been worn through. In this edition of the Green Line Series, Jamie takes us through the solutions Nau has discovered in its journey as a sustainable business.
GoGreen Conference: Let’s start broad. What was the inspiration behind creating a sustainable, responsible line of active wear? Was it market demand or some sort of entrepreneurial vision?
Jamie Bainbridge: I would say it’s a combination of the two. We were definitely inspired by experiences that many of us had, but it also felt like the time was right concerning the marketplace—people were listening and ready.
GG: Were you at Nau from the very beginning? A founding mother, so-to-speak?
JB: Oh yes. I’m a survivor.
GG: What was that moment in time like? What kind of feeling did you have when you started this venture?
JB: It seems like it was a very different time—before 2008. A bunch of us had come together from companies that were making small strides into the area of sustainability and were trying to incorporate those concepts into product lines, but everywhere we worked, the view being taken wasn’t purist. There were always escape valves built in. There was always a next time.
When we started Nau, we felt there were many ideas coming together and that we could form a company around them. If we formed this kind of company that was responsible and had a responsibility beyond the bottom line, we felt the world was ready for that. We could build product for that and avoid always saying that we’d do something next season. And if you start out with that standard, there’s no place to go. You have to stay true to it.
That, of course, was also the interesting challenge of it, because there weren’t materials available to build product like that. A lot of the things we were trying hadn’t been tried.
GG: If all the companies the Nau founders came from weren’t able to make these ideas a reality, how were you able to accomplish the feat?
JB: That’s what we said we were about. Three things: Beauty, Performance and Sustainability. Those have been our pillars since day one and they still are. That hasn’t changed in all the time we’ve been in business, even with a bankruptcy mixed in and starting up a second time. We had to figure out a way to make it work.
It’s somewhat difficult to speak to, because there are two eras of our company. The before and after of bankruptcy. And they’re very different times in terms of business models, but the product itself and the ideals are the same.
If you look at the materials that were out there when we started and the business model we needed to institute to create the product, we had to work backwards and build the model around what we were going to do. Yes, it involves some extra cost, but we haven’t found that the extra cost is a barrier to our product. Logistics are the main stumbling block. We’re working through a supply chain that is still very constrained and not terribly healthy in terms of building apparel product.
GG: Is scale an issue? So many things seem to hinge on that component. Can you get the quality of items you want at the quantities you need?
JB: It’s definitely an issue. And it’s one of the reasons we felt strongly about being open source with what we were doing. We needed people to come along with us. If other brands want to know where we’re buying a sustainable material, we’re happy to tell them. We need other people in this space to help strengthen the supply chain—especially companies that can add substantial volume to the demand for the materials. That’s the only way for the segment to grow and the product to become less special and more everyday.
GG: How has Nau been able to navigate those supply channels with success? Is it conditional on relationships?
JB: Yes, it’s very relationship-based. When I hear companies say it’s really hard to get into their supply chain, usually it’s because they haven’t asked. They haven’t dug down to the origins of their product. That’s been one of the undertakings we’ve committed to that is a very different approach from the one most apparel companies take.
We can tell you where most everything that is natural fiber is grown. We can tell you where the polymer is sourced. We can tell you who does every single step of the process. And we’ve formed relationships with all of those parties. That’s how you learn. That’s how you clean things up. That’s how you get what you say you’re going to get.
GG: What about your take-back program. I love that I can return my Nau jacket at the end of its useful life for me and know it’s getting cycled out responsibly. How do you make that program work?
JB: That’s one of the big challenges with this endeavor. So the jackets you’re talking about, with the tags indicating they can be returned, are made by a company that makes polyester through a chemical recycling system. They can take that jacket and completely recycle it into a new jacket, of the same fiber and intrinsic value held by the original fiber. It’s a very unusual example of a product that can be totally recycled and not down-cycled.
But that is a very limited supply chain. We have to limit it to our outerwear. We hope you will use it to the end of its useful life and then pass it on to another person to use even further until it’s got a big ol’ hole it in, and then it would be brought back to us. Logistically that’s still very hard to make happen.
GG: Are other companies moving towards having options like this available?
JB: It’s still fairly rare. It’s not easy to do and the recycling systems are not in place to take a lot of the consumer products we have back into some mostly pure recycling chain. We’re working with a lot of other businesses in the outdoor industry to build more recycling systems that can take a wider variety product and recycle it into something with as high of use as possible.
GG: How does your team approach talking about these things responsibly without greenwashing? Does it require educating your audience?
JB: It definitely requires educating your audience. It’s a very fine line to educate people and not sound like your greenwashing or actually be greenwashing them. We have always been of the mind that it is better to err on the side of being conservative in how we talk about things. We don’t claim that we’re the best at anything or that we’ve got it all figured out. We know sustainability is an ever-evolving endeavor. We’re learning as we go and every year we find ways where we can do better. It is something that we are always conscious of how we communicate.
It’s also very easy for companies talking about the sustainability of their product to sound preachy to their customers—and we don’t ever want to sound that way either. We hope that you buy our product because of ALL three pillars—beauty, performance and sustainability—not just because it’s sustainable. You’re probably not going to buy something unless it’s beautiful to you. You won’t buy it if it doesn’t work. And if you have a value system that puts sustainability up there too, you can hit all three areas with us.
GG: You mentioned that there is always more to do. What are some of the things on your to-do list?
JB: One thing we’re always after is more transparency. We have one wool supply chain that we are very transparent about and know exactly where it goes back to. And then we have other wool supply chains that we can’t do the same for, because of the type of product they are and the untraceability beyond where we’re at right now (at least so far). I would love to have the volume to pull the wool for those products from a supply chain we can better control.
We’re also on a quest—one that we’ve been on for a long time—to get the harmful chemistry out of water-repellent goods. There is one product on the market right now that does that, but it doesn’t give the consumer the kind of performance they’re used to. You’re stuck with a trade-off. You can either have jacket with good chemistry that repels water—but not for very long—or you can have a jacket with harmful chemistry and water repellency that never wears out. Those are the kinds of things we come up against.
GG: The outerwear industry is fiercely competitive. How do you balance being transparent and open source, with maintaining an edge on your technology?
JB: We just don’t really play that game. We’re more than glad to talk about where our technology comes from. We take a different approach, because we need other people to come along with us to be successful in our mission. Design becomes our competitive edge in the marketplace. We’re marketing into the classic outdoor industry, but we’re also marketing into the fashion industry. That’s an entirely different realm to play in. They have different priorities around the technical aspects of the product.
Jamie Bainbridge is the Director of Textile Development + Sustainability at Nau, Inc. She is also a board member of the Outdoor Eco-Index and a speaker at GoGreen Seattle 2011, leading our session on that subject. You can see Jamie and over 50 additional leaders in green business live in Seattle Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Register at: http://seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration.