“Pandemic-level scary.” That’s how Untuckit CEO Aaron Sanandres describes the ocean-plastic crisis growing worse by the day—and fashion’s mounting contribution to the world’s waste-clogged waters.
By 2050, ocean-dwelling fish will be outnumbered by the 3.5 quadrillion microfibers that American and Canadian home washing machines belch into waterways each year, Ocean Wise estimated in 2019. Microplastics and microfibers, much of which shed from petroleum-based performance clothing when it’s washed, now sully the globe’s farthest reaches, from the Arctic Ocean to the Antarctic and everything in between.
Last year’s lockdowns sent Sanandres deep into the “underbelly of sock manufacturing” after he burned through six pairs while pacing on the phone during just the first two weeks of sheltering in place. “Every time I would throw them away, I was guilt-ridden because I knew where they would go,” Sanandres said. “Frankly, there’s no secondhand market for gently worn socks.” And he isn’t yet sold o textile recycling’s ability to transform the mountain of product
Consumed with the twin problems of athletic socks’ generally unsustainable makeup and the textile waste and pollution crisis, the apparel veteran set out to “make a better mousetrap,” partly as an “upbeat” distraction from the grind of slogging through the virus outbreak’s sudden-onset disruption to a store-heavy business like the shirting brand he helped birth several years prior.
Socks, Sanandres soon discovered, are a tough nut to sustainably crack when sacrificing performance isn’t an option. Many popular sustainable fibers aren’t designed to withstand rigorous wear and tear—and abrasion-testing results back that up, he said On the other end of the spectrum, the planet pays a steep price for fossil-fuel performance fibers like poly and nylon that hang around for “hundreds of years.”
Discovering CiClo was the “lightbulb” moment for Sanandres, who wonders why more companies haven’t adopted the textile technology game-changer he describes as the “missing link in sustainability” and the bedrock for Definite Articles—the zero-waste performance apparel brand he launched last month. By contrast, one established brand believes garment recycling offers the right—or “right now”—end-of-life solution for the performance products it’s already pumping out.
The CiClo secret
Three years ago, Parkdale wielded its status as the Western hemisphere’s largest spun yarn manufacturer to help CiClo scale up out of experimentation. The 50-50 joint venture it formed with Silicon Valley’s Intrinsic Textiles Group—dubbed Intrinsic Advanced Materials—has since refined and perfected CiClo for commercial applications, according to Cheryl Smyre, director advanced materials for North Carolina’s Parkdale Mills Inc. The additive pellets—resembling the tiny Perler Beads commonly found in children’s toy stores, according to Sanandres—give synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon the biodegradability bona fides of natural rivals such as cotton and wool.
CiClo can help brands move the needle on their environmental impact, Smyre said, by giving consumers the performance they expect without the planetary impact. “We are 100 percent on board with recycling and circularity of textiles, but we all know that we’re not there yet,” she added. “There’s a lot of infrastructure that has to be built to really manage the amount of textiles we could potentially recycle.”
Just 2 percent of the CiCLO additive is mixed into the slurry during the extrusion phase of manufacturing staple fiber or filament yarn so it “doesn’t really change the underlying properties,” Smyre said.
Switching to a CiCLO-infused input lets apparel makers assure consumers that their purchase isn’t further harming the planet. Not only can CiClo be mechanically and chemically recycled, but it will also break down in the presence of microbes, Smyre noted.
So far, denim has taken a “real interest” in CiClo, Smyre said, noting adopters including Jag Jeans, Liverpool and Silver Jeans, while swimwear brands like Billabong have also gotten on board. Research is underway on faux fur. Home textiles offers a “really great development market,” she added, and the core denier filament yarns found in knit sneakers are similarly ripe for an overhaul, though polyurethane foam—a footwear favorite—remains an enigma for now.
“That’s probably on the docket for development in a year or two,” Smyre said. “But our goal is to truly become a platform for all textile materials.”
Crunching the numbers could entice more brands to make the CiClo switch. Smyre pegs the additive’s cost differential at 5 percent to 8 percent above virgin, a “reasonable” premium compared to recycled’s 30 percent to 40 percent upcharge.
In the year to come, Smyre expects a raft of new brands will come out of the woodwork with their CiClo partnerships. “Once they approve CiClo as an additive chemistry from an environmental standpoint, they want to put it in everything,” she said.
Smartwool’s circularity first stop: socks-turned-canine cushions
Though textile recycling has attracted more than its fair share of devotees and detractors, this method of giving used fashion articles new life away from the landfill recently spurred Smartwool’s National Sock Day launch last week.
As the first product created through the Second Cuts Project the VF outdoor brand conceived in April to design for products’ end of life, the K9 Camp Cushion turns shredded socks from Smartwool and other brands into filling for dog beds available in small ($120), medium ($150) and large ($180). But the Dec. 4 launch merely marks “step one” on the path to full circularity by 2030, Maggie Meisinger, Smartwool PR and strategic communications manager, told Sourcing Journal.
“Our hope for the future is to turn those recycled socks into yarn and spin those into new products, perhaps [starting] with accessories,” she said, and eventually building toward a “main product” like the base layers that are part of the Colorado brand’s bread and butter. Ideally, Smartwool aims to reach an “innovation point where we can turn those old socks back into new socks” for true one-to-one, circular production, Meisinger added.
Despite the challenges of sourcing textile recycling facilities that aren’t outside U.S. borders, Smartwool forged an “amazing partnership” with Material Return, the North Carolina recycler that intakes the brand’s socks, “sort[s] through them, recycle[s] them, and grind[s] them up into the shoddy material that’s inside our dog beds,” Meisinger said.
Incubated within The Industrial Commons, which also operates the Opportunity Threads cut-and-sew business, Material Return leveraged its location in one of America’s last remaining textile hotbeds, tapping nearby North Carolina State University’s Gaston College Textile Technology Center and the Manufacturing Solutions Center to draw up an “asset map” of area producers in need of textile recycling, Molly Hemstreet, co-executive director of the 501c3 nonprofit parent, told Sourcing Journal.
The recycler started off by “partnering with brands that were doing production here so we could have a combination of post-consumer and post-production [waste] because that will help us to get scale,” Hemstreet said. “We can go directly to the source of their production and be able to pull post-production scrap off of their machines,” which offers “specificity” around quality.
Material Return’s 60,000-square-foot facility collects and separates Smartwool’s post-consumer socks and post-production scraps at nearly a dozen sortation stations. And though shredding socks into dog-bed-destined fiberfill represents a “downcycle” for now, “we want to move beyond that,” Hemstreet said.
“We’re able to get and sort their postconsumer [product] because they have pretty standard contents of wool and elastane in their socks,” she said. “We know the content that’s coming in from their socks that’s hand sorted.”
Working with a brand like Smartwool from the beginning of the production process might be a “different way of going about circularity,” Hemstreet added, but “we’re really trying to customize it so that people do have that purity of their way stream identified.”
The recycler is continuously refining its process to yield the best output. “What we try to do is target the Smartwool plant that has the highest production so that we know that’s the purest content,” Hemstreet said. “So it’s not a perfect science. But it is how we’re trying to control that factor, which we knew is the huge factor in all of this. And again, we’re able to do it because of our proximity to so many of the producers and the concentration that’s still left in the Carolinas.”
Though the region was more than decimated by fashion’s last-century exodus to overseas sourcing, “one in five people in our community” still works in nearby textile or garment factories—which “cannot hire folks fast enough,” Hemstreet said.
“I think some of us are cheering on the supply-chain breakdown because clogging up that Suez Canal will force people to think about not only circularity,” but how to “engineer” the waste stream brands already have, she added. “We can do waste fiber aggregation, sorting [and] grind entirely back to the mills within 75 miles, which is pretty extraordinary.”
The company’s hard work over the past 36 months has paid off, yielding five R&D contracts with a variety of brands. “We have to produce products out there that perform and are not just a good story,” Hemstreet said, noting relationships with the area’s soft goods and furniture makers in addition to apparel. “These are performance fibers on cushions, on outdoor seating and they have to hold up. So that’s why it’s taken us three years to get to this point, mainly because we’re working on the performance of the fiber and the cost of it so it can stay on the market long term.”
Hemstreet believes Smartwool’s puppy products will serve as a litmus test for the brand’s future production. “Let’s use this dog bed just to see the appetite for their consumer demand and for us to develop our working relationship,” she said, “and to have an easier win and also understand their metrics around the level of the consumer opting back in.”
“Hundreds of bags of socks” arrive at the recycling center every day because Smartwool has generated “such a good buy-in at the point of sale,” Hemstreet said, adding that the partnership serves as a useful pilot of newer waste-collection models. What’s more, carbon footprint lifecycle analysis on post-production and post-consumer yarns offers additional learnings as well.
Meanwhile, as Smartwool navigates end-of-life recycling for its wool-based socks, Sanandres jumped at the chance to reimagine a performance sock by designing waste and pollution out from the get-go, even tapping Manifest Commerce, the e-commerce fulfillment startup that ShipBob co-founder George Wojciechowski launched this year, to sustainably manage the logistics side of the equation with picking, packing and shipping fully plastic-free. Definite Articles socks ship out of Manifest’s Austin, Texas warehouse in orange 75 percent recycled mailers designed to biodegrade into soil and biogas, underscoring the commitment to nipping waste in the bud.
Conscious of the product’s carbon footprint, Sanandres looked for onshore partners like Parkdale, eventually selecting a Colombian sock manufacturer that checked all the right boxes. After speaking with some stateside producers, “none of them had experience with CiClo,” he said, “so the development time was going to be extraordinary.”
Though Sanandres would “love to manufacture in the U.S. at some point,” Definite Articles’ current partner makes a “phenomenal sock.”
“I’ve never been more excited about socks in my life,” he said. “I’m the most boring person at a dinner party now.”
Despite or perhaps because of its small size, “the sock is the most complex garment to make,” Sanandres said. “There’s an almost infinite number of variables from needle size to denier. There’s so many different inputs that determine the stretchability, the recovery, the tension. To do it right, you need to work with a mill that has the capacity to help you on the development.”
Sanandres tested a “minimum of 10 iterations” for “well over a year,” trialing different material mixtures before settling on a blend of 40 percent CiClo nylon supplied by Nilit, 30 percent poly, 30 percent cotton and a touch of spandex for recovery.
The founder is already mulling ways to make Definite Articles’ next product drop even more sustainable—but doing so will almost inevitably come at a cost. “We’re looking at replacing spandex with Sorona,” DuPont’s “not great, but better” bio-based alternative, Sanandres said. “But when I raised that with our factory, they haven’t worked with Sorona before and they said, ‘we need time.’ You can already see the clock start because they need to get it in, they need to test it, they need to make sure that it doesn’t mess up the machine or clog or do whatever.” It’s that “unknown” factor that often prevents brands from deviating from the status quo, he added.
Dual-gender crew, ankle and no-show socks are just the jumping off point for Definite Articles, which is already talking with its factory about producing a broader activewear line of leggings, yoga pants, running shorts, hoodies and joggers for spring/summer on the road to becoming a “truly zero-waste performance brand,” Sanandres said.
And he hopes the athleticwear industry sits up and notices what the startup is trying to accomplish. Definite Articles, he added, is challenging “every performance wear brand out there to think a little bit differently and to make their products differently.”
“Ultimately, we’re not going to solve the world’s plastic problems by ourselves,” he said. “We’re not looking to have proprietary tech that no one else can use. We want people to use CiClo or other alternatives out there. I’m sure [there will] be more every year—we want companies to do that. Because from our vantage point, that is the best answer that’s on the table right now. Innovation changes, we are malleable, we will change with innovation. The goal, though, is to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment while providing a kick-ass product that that rivals the Lululemons and the Athletas of the world.”