The Journal

Recycled fabrics, and the road to utopia

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…

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Teslin Doud, founder of sustainable fashion consultancy, The Threads, joined us at Bells Beach.

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…

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Used water bottles are chipped, melted and spun into a yarn which is then woven into the durable polyester fabric that we sew into bags.

“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.

“I see what you mean – get all the waste to the good guys and let the good guys do something good with it. At the end of the day, it’s still about economics and you can’t do these things if you’re not in business.” – Teslin

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So, at this point, the fabrics and linings are 100% recycled. But are they recyclable? That’s the circularity question in it all…

As we’re moving towards a truly circular system, if you can learn to make it go around one loop, rather than just a single journey that starts and ends, that’s progress. If you can get it to go around two loops, that’s more progress. If you can get it to go around indefinitely, that’s more progress again. So we want to start by acting as the second loop, for single-use plastics like water bottles. And then start thinking, how would we take back that product and learn to move it into the next loop?

It’s hard to expect every customer to know how to recycle each component. Depending on the area you live in, recycling programs will operate very differently. So, our goal is to look at a take-back system that lets us responsibly guide it into the highest value streams we can. But, it’s hard. We’re fighting to make progress in a couple of areas first, to learn, and then expand.

So, why not just let the water bottles be recycled back into water bottles? Why pull them into the materials space?

The biggest reason is that when you actually look at the companies producing water bottles, they’re not motivated, generally, to pay for the more sustainable system. They’re often massive corporations, very much beholden to their shareholders. They need to maximize return on investment and they are making decisions to cut costs everywhere they can. They’re unlikely to have enough value on a bottle – when they’re looking to make these bottles for cents, not dollars.

But by taking what was some plastic worth some cents, and moving it into a product worth many dollars, we’re adding value. It’s easier to absorb that in the price of a bag than in the price of a bottle.

I see what you mean – get all the waste to the good guys and let the good guys do something good with it. At the end of the day, it’s still about economics and you can’t do these things if you’re not in business, so you still need to be turning a profit.

If you can start to add value to the higher priced stuff, you can start to create demand downstream… so it might start to make the economics work out. If more people want a jacket made from recycled materials, or a bag made from recycled materials, we can pay people to process those single-use bottles and move them back into the value stream.

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Through the sales of our recycled fabric bags, we plan to save more than 7 million plastic water bottles from landfill by 2021. And give them a much more useful life, as a bag.

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

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The embodied energy in making these products is only justified if they can live a long, vibrant life.

That’s the number one sustainable design principle, to design products that people want. They still have to be beautiful and functional, even now that there are all these other requirements we have to take into consideration. Which, I think, is something Bellroy does really well, in addition to function and aesthetic and community. You are a leader in this space. And you’re a B Corp. What do you hope other brands can take from what you are doing?

It is harder work. It does cost more. So customers need to value it. Then, brands need to be convinced that they value it. And then, you need to help everyone at their point in the journey. If it’s a kickstarter brand, and they’re going to stress about order minimums, they can’t go out and custom-make fabrics. You just want them to take a step further and then a step further and then a step further, rather than saying ‘do nothing, until you can be the most perfect in the world’.

Before Bellroy there was Carryology, the blog we launched way back in 2009. It’s now grown into a vibrant global community; a campfire for brands and fans and all sorts of partners to come and learn and develop. We review product, we talk about what’s good and what’s not. We have a Carry 101 that looks into the fundamentals of design. We get to interview our heroes – the best carry designers and thinkers. It can serve as a phenomenal education platform now for sustainability. We’re working on using Carryology to educate and inspire and hold people’s hands through the journey to more sustainable practices.

And then we’re also really active in the B Corp space. Benefit Corps are about identifying that there are more goals to business than just profit. To be certified as a B Corp is really hard. But it’s achievable, and we want more and more businesses to do it.

We’ve been so lucky that so many other brands have shared their insights and now we want to repay the favor, to brands who might be going through stages that we have. And we will continue to learn from the Patagonias of the world, and those who have been doing this on a much bigger scale than we can. The work Nike has done in sustainability mapping and material assessment platforms has blazed trails. So we’re trying to be actively involved in several communities where brands are pushing the edges of sustainability with bigger R&D budgets – for faster progress and more influence in the supply chain… they really pioneer it, we learn to adapt it to our scale, and we teach down.

It’s a series of communities all motivated by something beyond profit. All trying to push their area of sustainability.

How do you remain so optimistic in all of this? The company seems very optimistic in its character. And you, especially, despite talking about all of these externalities and world economies and bigger existential issues. When you’re working with these materials, you are still using plastic, a petroleum based material. How do you put that aside and feel good about taking these baby steps?

Because I think you’re right. It can be a huge barrier to some people – feeling like, if your step isn’t big enough, it’s not even worth taking. What do you do? Is it the surfing… is that what it is?

[Laughs] Surfing helps! Being in nature helps, too.

[He takes a long pause, and a deep breath] We’ve been very involved in the Effective Altruism community. This is a community that evolved over the last 10 or 20 years, to say ‘if you want to do good in the world, how can you do the most good? How do you use not just the heart but also the head to do good?’ And being part of the EA community means we get to work with some phenomenal nonprofits who have made blazing progress in the biggest issues the world is facing. When you do that, you start to realize that humankind has made progress in many areas – if you look at child mortality, it has plummeted. If you look at abject poverty, it has plummeted. If you look at many of the metrics for how the majority of humans are living, it has improved. If you go back to eradicating Smallpox. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are behind potentially eradicating Polio as well. If you look at the progress nonprofits like Against Malaria Foundation are making... When humankind wants to do something, we are phenomenal at doing it. There are so many people in the world who will change their life to go at a goal. And when we can recognize them as being valuable goals, man, we can hustle!

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The reality is, we have prioritized humanity over the planet and animals. And we have made progress for humanity’s position, but now we have to broaden that lens and say, how can we work towards people, animals and the planet all nurturing each other.

That might sound a bit silly for a company using leather to say…

But, we have been working behind the scenes for a few years now. We’re the inaugural and ongoing chair of an animal welfare group that is part of the Leather Working Group (the largest and most successful leather sustainability body), trying to find better sustainability practices in the leather supply chain. There are the biggest brands in leather now working to improve the plight of animals that have their hides used in leather. We’ve supported Farm Forward for many years, doing incredible work on trying to reduce the issues of factory farming.

This is a really challenging space, because it could feel like we are part of the problem. But, given where we are, can we help the big brands make progress – in leather, and factory farming processes? Can we work on it from the inside, and then work on alternatives that totally bypass animal products?

If we’re making progress, we’re doing a good thing. If we all throw our hands in the air and say ‘it’s hopeless, we’re all doomed’, that’s not going to get us to utopia. So we’re like, let’s get in, try and understand the problems from the inside and the outside, and see what we can do to help.

The leather conversation actually sounds quite parallel to the recycled conversation, in that you’re saying, yeah it’s not the solution, it’s not the only solution, and it’s unfortunately the way the world works… but you have to get in there and make things better, do what you can, and continue to progress towards that utopia.

We’re not there yet, but covering your eyes and waiting until we have a spaceship to Mars isn’t going to do anything. So it’s quite interesting to see how those two things are quite aligned in the work you’re doing.

People talk about leather being a byproduct of the meat industry. That’s not quite true, because any time there’s a value in something, it becomes part of the value chain. But if all of a sudden we all just stopped using leather, it would become a waste product. It does feel like we might eventually get to the point where we have excellent meat substitutes, and alternatives that economies and people value. But at the moment, it’s a gritty, difficult conversation. People care a lot. We’re not pretending our way is the best way. We’re trying to keep our eyes open, be really practical, and understand what we’re good at.

When you look at what you can make a wallet from, leather is still the best material. It ages incredibly well. It lasts so well. The value grows as you settle in with it, the patina improves. When we’ve looked at the petroleum substitutes, they crack, they degrade. You end up going through it much faster... It’s swapping one problem for another. We’re working really hard in the biosynthetics space to understand if there are new alternatives to leather that would perform as well as leather does. But there’s still going to be a huge meat industry operating and if we can get in and start to push from the higher value end – with brands who value and sell leather at a premium – we can start to influence that entire supply chain and improve farm practices.

It would be much simpler as a brand to say we stay right away from any animal product. But that’s just going to leave these industries to operate without anyone who’s motivated to improve how they operate. We prefer to get in amongst it and see if we can influence decisions; if we can improve transparency; if we can help consumers understand when a material is appropriate, and when it’s not; if we can help them know when there’s been less harm done in getting that material to them…

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Well I think, if you could take anything from this conversation, it would be that things are much more complicated than they seem, and everything is connected. Even if you don’t use leather and are not involved in the complications of the meat industry, then you’re using a petroleum product and there’s all the externalities with that. So, it really is a lot more complex than just saying ‘great, we used recycled polyester, we saved a bunch of water bottles. High five, we can all go home.’ It’s a continued effort and feeling good about those steps you’re taking while knowing that…

We have SO much to do.

[Laughs] Yep.

Any time I hear a voice of certainty in the sustainability space, I... call bullshit. You cannot be certain. There are so many interdependencies. There’s so much influence from the economic model, the business model, the narrative model, the desire model. The more you get into it, the more you realize it’s murky.

It’s so difficult.

And we could say that technology is the devil, but technology might actually be the thing that gets us through the quagmire. It gets disheartening, but then you start to find those beautiful ropes (made from synthetic spider silk), and you start to pull yourself out. Because there is hope. There’s more happening in this space than I’ve ever seen before. We’re seeing beautiful philosophies and approaches like cradle-to-cradle being reinvented under the circularity lens, we’re seeing new Eucalyptus pulp fibers and new technologies used to break it down… Yes, you have to say there’s a mess in the world right now, but there are also spotlights of hope, and incredible people working so hard to solve these problems. I find that exciting.

So what’s your call to action on a consumer level? It’s obviously not ‘throw out all your products and buy ones made from recycled plastics’... And how do you weigh that with being a business that needs to sell products in order to create profit?

Yeah, absolutely. There has been billions of marketing dollars spent telling me that ‘new is best’. And it’s in so many companies’ incentives to say that the first day you get something will be the best it will ever be. If you get people to stop and think about the things they love most in their life, that love has been built over time. You grow together with a person in a relationship. You work that denim jean in until it resembles your body and shape and is comfortable in all the right spots… We talk a lot about the idea of ‘day one, to day 1000’ – how do you make something even better on day 1000? That great pair of jeans, or great wallet, that you’ve broken in, that fits your life and tells your stories.

So, learning to see the beauty in something you’ve grown with is one.

And then, when things are too cheap to be true, they’ve probably taken a shortcut. So, buy less but buy better. And that’s not to say, buy more expensive. Just buy better. Start to think about the journey of that product before it gets to you – that’s where most of the impact is. What sort of journey has it been on? Find the companies sharing their credentials. Try and support those brands and platforms who are trying to move you beyond the sticker price and help you to understand where it’s come from.

If you want to just use something once, then don’t buy it. We’re starting to see this rental economy growing. If you don’t need a car everyday, rent it when you need it, or jump in an Uber. Start to think… is this something I need in my life every day or every week? Or is it something I could borrow?

Reduce what you buy, and buy with a goal to find things that you will fall more and more in love with.

Yes, that will mean we sell less product, but we’re about selling better products that create better relationships; we don’t want to sell everything to everyone.

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It’s definitely a tough stance, as a company, and I’m sure a lot would think, how can I do that because I need to keep my doors open. But it’s so great that it’s built into your company here and you take it as a design challenge – the top value is to provide quality product. And if that means you have to figure out how to make money in other ways, then so be it. So I guess your call to action really is, keep what you have, love what you have and when you do need to buy something new…

Buy better.

Buy a recycled Bellroy.

[Laughs] No no… buy the thing that’s fit for purpose. Our bags and wallets and other 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. And what we hope is that, when people need the new product that’s when they discover us and engage with us.

It actually does seem like a bit of a relief from a business standpoint to say, you know what, we’re not going to make product for everyone. And just focus on who you know your customer is and then do it really well. They get the best from it, and so do you.

So, my last question is… when your customers are done with their products, where can they send them?

Aaaarrrrgh. [Andy laughs, knowing that Teslin has found a sticking point.]

This is absolutely a project we’re working on. And hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will have a process for that. We’ve been so focused on longevity of product. We knew it was the biggest thing we could influence for more sustainable product. But now that we’re well on track with that, it’s time to get back and close the loop.

Always taking steps forward…


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Check out our recycled collection.


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