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How Under Armour Supplier Drives ‘Radical Change’ in Fashion Manufacturing

If life begins at 40, then Alpine Group is just getting started.

The supplier for brands such as American Eagle Outfitters, Gap Inc., The North Face and Under Armour toasted its milestone birthday this month by becoming the first fashion manufacturer to take on the Future-Fit Business benchmark, a science-based strategic management tool that helps companies measure, address and improve their sustainability performance in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“A lot of businesses out there talk of being sustainable, putting out lofty goals of what they’re looking to achieve, but our question is always well, how do they know that they are meeting their targets? And how are they measuring against their commitments?” Clare Woodford, global director of marketing and impact at Alpine Group, told Sourcing Journal. “And that’s really where we chose to undertake the benchmark because it gives you a science-based destination to aim for.”

Founded by brothers Ashok and Lalu Mahtani in 1982, Alpine Group made its debut in Taiwan under the name Paradise Textiles, a firm that traded in yarns and fabrics. Four decades later, the company is a sprawling end-to-end operation with hubs across the globe, including Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Singapore and Vietnam. Paradise Textiles now serves as the group’s material science and innovation nerve center.

Alongside the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, Alpine Group is tackling what it describes as a comprehensive sustainability strategy, dubbed Threading the Future. It’s through this initiative that the manufacturer will be addressing several “holistic” areas of impact, including materials and innovation, people development and community and environmental action.

One of the areas Lewis Shuler, head of innovation at Paradise Textiles, is most excited to tackle is the company’s work with man-made cellulosic fibers, which are predominantly made from wood pulp.

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Alpine Group obtains all of its inputs from producers that forestry nonprofit Canopy has designated as ”green shirts,” meaning they’re at low risk of deforesting ancient and endangered ecosystems. But it also wants to pivot 75 percent of its supply to tree-free sources, including agricultural waste and bacterial cellulose, by 2030.

“I feel like in a few years from now, we’re going to be like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we cutting trees for this?” Shuler said. “And so there’s a lot of emerging technologies that we’re supporting the R&D on to get commercialized.”

That includes Australian biotech firm Nanollose, whose Nullarbor fiber is derived in part from the by-products of the Indonesian coconut industry. Beginning next month, Paradise Textiles and Nanollose will be teaming up to develop and then ultimately commercialize yarns and textiles incorporating Nullarbor.

“What we’re doing is partnering with them, spinning and checking out the yarn properties to make sure that, from a raw material perspective, it’s hitting the testing specs,” Shuler said. “And then beyond that, we’ll look at how you can apply different chemistries and colorants to the fiber. So, we’re doing a lot of R&D work there and then we’ll bring in brand partners into the equation.”

Alpine Group is also eyeing viable alternatives to fossil-fuel-based synthetics like polyester and nylon, though it isn’t able to go cold turkey just yet. By next year, the manufacturer aims to source more than 60 percent of its polyester from recycled bottles or textile waste. Paradise Textiles, a signatory of Textile Exchange’s rPET challenge, has also committed to more than 45 percent rPET use by 2025.

Despite its current ubiquity in the fashion world, polyester, at least in the form it takes today, is likely on its way out, Shuler said. Paradise Textiles is exploring everything from algae-based cellulose to compostable biosynthetics as possible replacements.

“I think that most brands have a desire to reduce the amount of polyester that they’re using because of big concerns around fiber shedding,” he said. “That’s the long-term goal for us.”

Meanwhile, Paradise Textiles is working on making polyester less harmful. Its Greenfuze Circle platform, for instance, is one of the few true textile-to-textile pathways for recycling the fiber. The Global Recycled Standard-certified process turns castoff workwear and textile factory offcuts into purified materials that can then be spun into new yarns. The trick is using a special cocktail of chemicals to break everything down to the monomer level and then repolymerizing the components.

“When you do it that way you’re able to recreate a polymer that has the same properties as what you get from virgin,” Shuler said. The only catch is that any blends have to be more than 90 percent polyester, which is why Paradise Textiles sticks to recycling uniforms and other 100 percent polyester products. “We’re able to get this commercialized quicker because we have strict control over what the inputs are and we don’t have to focus so much on blend separation,” he added.

Until the industry moves completely away from polyester, schemes like Greenfuze Circle can ease the reliance on post-consumer plastic bottles, which bottling companies are fighting to keep in their own closed loop, Shuler said. A “U.S.-based household brand,” he hinted, has adopted the technology and plans to bring it to market this summer.

Alpine Group has other things in store. By 2025, 100 percent of Alpine Group’s cotton will hail from sustainable sources as defined by Textile Exchange’s Sustainable Cotton Challenge. (Paradise Textiles is also a signatory of the agreement.) The same year, at least one-quarter of garments will be produced using solution-dyed materials that curb water consumption. Equally important, the manufacturer will be setting a Science-Based Target to reduce its Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals.

There is a social component to its strategy, too. Over the next five years, Alpine Group hopes to support a minimum of 250,000 women, on top of the existing 50,000 per year, through a program that uses textile waste to create “dignity kits” that alleviate period poverty. For its apparel workforce in Egypt, it will roll out a HERfinance partnership with BSR’s HERproject to digitize wages and improve financial literacy.

“By creating and executing this strategy and working with Future-Fit, we’re looking at how we can create real, credible change for the industry,” Woodford said. “Because we know that the system is broken and needs to change. So that’s what we looked at: what does our sustainability journey look like for the next 40 years and beyond? And how do we create radical change for the industry because that’s what needs to happen.”