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Kathmandu Tackles Sustainability Through Fabric Recycling, End-of-Life Design

Kathmandu wants you to know New Zealanders travel farther than anyone else on the planet.

Kiwis, as they’re called, have a bit of a head start, hailing from a southern-hemisphere island nation that counts already remote Australia as its closest neighbor to the northwest. The “Lord of the Rings” film franchise catapulted New Zealand’s overabundance of geological wonders, stunning vistas and other-worldly landscapes firmly into the global imagination, driving up tourism by 50 percent in the wake of the movie phenomenon and earning the Pacific Ocean nation the designation of “world’s best country.”

Born as they are into an embarrassment of natural riches, New Zealanders love exploring their incomparable outdoors, a curiosity that has spurred an uptick in their travels abroad. Stats NZ says Kiwis took 3 million overseas adventures in the year ended October 2018, an increase of 1 million over the previous decade.

Kiwis have been bitten by the wanderlust bug and Kathmandu, New Zealand’s homegrown outdoor brand named for the famous Nepalese mountain trekking outpost, is here to supply their adventuring spirit—and yours, too.

Since its inception in 1987, Kathmandu has been making purpose-built clothing and gear for people who enjoy and respect the outdoors. Like any good outdoor-oriented brand, the Kiwi company makes sustainability central to its mission, caring for people and planet as a routine matter of business. Kathmandu’s factories and suppliers are sprinkled across Asia and beyond and share the brand’s values, though the company has had to make the hard decision to part ways with vendors that have failed to partner on remediation efforts.

Kathmandu’s competitive product prices belie the notion that doing the right thing comes at a higher cost. “The old-school approach of relying solely on the result of factory audits is expensive and less effective than people would think. We believe that if you have made good choices in vendor partnerships, then your money does not need to be spent on ‘looking for evidence’ and can be re-invested into improvement programs,” said Ben Ryan, Kathmandu’s general manager, product. “By placing an emphasis on shared values, we are able to invest in partnerships with factories that want to make a difference in their business.”

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Though factory workers are often pushed to meet grueling production deadlines that can change on a dime, Kathmandu’s responsible purchasing mantra eliminates unfairly burdening manufacturing partners.

“Responsible purchasing means that we put a heavy emphasis on understanding our supply chain and ensuring we are comfortable with the impact of our business on individual workers, as well as the environment,” Ryan explained. As a Fair Labor Association member, Kathmandu abides by processes that “ensure that nothing we do has the potential to put workers under duress,” he added. That means the brand doesn’t place orders with “unreasonable lead times” that would give the factory no choice but to force workers to clock significant hours of overtime.

“If sales are ahead of plan and you need to bring forward production, you should not simply say ‘can you do it’ but rather ‘what are the potential impacts of this to the workers,’” Ryan explained. “Fair Labor Association is a great way to create a culture in businesses that ensures we ask the right questions to make sure we are not inadvertently contributing to the issues of fair worker environment.”

Kathmandu has earned industry accolades for its preferred materials strategy, which it describes as “constantly evolving” and “based on a prioritized approach to where we can reduce our impact.” Ryan credits pre-competitive collaboration as the key factory in why outdoor brands have claimed a leadership stake in the eco-friendly materials space. “The reason outdoor companies have been able to achieve so much is through an aligned vision that makes it commercially viable for our suppliers,” he added.

Kathmandu’s tackling the apparel’s circularity imperative by using the HIGG Index to guide design and then “solving problems for ‘second use’ or what happens to the products after the purchaser has finished with it,” Ryan noted. “Making products last longer is a great first step, and by incorporating the HIGG into our design benchmarking it has allowed us to improve the ‘score’ of new products so that they are better than previous iterations.”

As it strives to incorporate the use of sustainable and recycled materials versus extending a product’s first life, Kathmandu has struck a balance between the two. “A good example of designing with sustainability in mind is to make sure that buckles are easily replaceable if broken,” said Ryan. “Making sure side-seams can either be opened and re-sewn easily, or making all parts of the buckle threadable, all lowers the chance of a small failure rendering the final product un-useable.”

And sometimes minding the environment means give new life to fabric scraps. The three-year-old Recycolor T-shirt program collects cutting-room fabric waste, which then are sorted into similar colors, re-combed and blended to create a new fabric—diverting these leftovers from the landfill. Kathmandu spent a year developing Recycolor, which uses a separate production process and sees the recaptured short-staple material blended with a percentage of Better Cotton Initiative fiber to ensure a “strong and durable” finished product, Ryan explained.

In addition to making mountain-ready gear, Kathmandu also caters to the routine mechanics of travel. The brand tapped Circuitex to provide the technology powering a collection of passport-protecting clothing and accessories. ‘RFID shielding is a unique technology we have developed which is a permanent textile-based solution to digital theft when traveling,” Ryan said, “As it is inherent in the fiber we are able to control it more than a traditional treatment finish that wears off relatively quickly.”

Other existing methods of RFID shielding tend to rely on lead-based coatings best suited for use in wallets and bags. The problem with this approach, Ryan explained, is that it potentially can leech onto the wearer’s skin, and its potency is reduced after a few washings. “Our technology is inherent in the yarn and construction used, so it is a far more durable and reliable solution to the growing issue of identity and digital theft,” he added.

When it acquired Montana-based footwear shoe brand Oboz last year, Kathmandu gained an invaluable foothold into North American market where it debuted an inaugural collection at 2018’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. Kathmandu’s pursuing a stateside wholesale strategy for the time being, in addition to its roughly 160 stores in New Zealand, Australia and the U.K.

Taking a cautious approach to a new market will help Kathmandu remain focused on its sustainability-first mission. As Ryan noted, “Sustainability is best viewed as a constantly moving path with no end-state. As long as we are progressing forward every season, then we are doing the right thing.”