From Life Cycle Impact Assessments to Bio-Based Synthetics, How Kathmandu is Reshaping Outdoor Eco Apparel

From Life Cycle Impact Assessments to Bio-Based Synthetics, How Kathmandu is Reshaping Outdoor Eco Apparel

With adventure and travel more popular than ever, it’s an exciting time for outdoor brands to influence sustainability in the textile industry. From failures to progression, it’s integral for both consumers and other companies to learn and understand a brand’s journey in social and environmental responsibility.

Kathmandu is an adventure and travel brand originating in New Zealand, with more than 30 years experience in the retail space. Since its inception, the brand has become a household name and has made strong headway in sustainability. The brand was recently awarded an ‘A’ by Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Report, and ranked second in the world for materials by The Textile Exchange. This progression however doesn’t happen overnight, it takes hard work and smart leadership.

To find out Kathmandu’s key ingredients to making a sustainable brand, we spoke to team members Oliver Milliner (Sustainability Specialist) and Manu Rastogi (Textile Research & Development / Responsible Materials Manager).


“Leadership is important because it’s always hard being the first one to adopt sustainability initiatives across an organisation.”

Once one company makes (sustainable) achievements it helps create positive change across the industry. For example, we achieved 100% Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certification in 2016 and then saw a number of competing brands in Australasia adopt this too.

At Kathmandu, sustainability isn’t departments, it’s a way of doing things. We have a strategic team embedded across the organisation and representatives within each department driving sustainability against the plan.

We have one full-time Sustainability Specialist who is based within the brand team. His role is focussed on driving the company-wide sustainability plan with the wider sustainability team, project manages the annual sustainability report, briefing and working with the marketing team to communicate sustainability and also looks after the waste and carbon programs.

We also have two people within Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) focussing on worker’s rights in the supply chain.  The CSR Manager is based in New Zealand and we have a CSR Specialist who is based on the ground in China and manages the implementation of our CSR best practices within our supply chain.

Everyone who works at Kathmandu is 100% supportive behind our sustainability program and are always keen to support these initiatives. One of the biggest challenges that we face sometimes are the inflated costs that can come with some of these initiatives eg. materials, using repreve and sustainable cotton is more expensive than non-sustainable alternatives.

Smarter Materials

“Which material is more sustainable? Down or polyester? Cotton or wool? Polypro or viscose? If there was an easy answer, our job would have been simple. All materials have trade-offs and there are no easy answers.”

Life cycle impact assessments tell us that about 85% of the impact of a product comes from the material we choose. So it’s important to look closely at each material’s impact on climate change, water use, pollution, and resource depletion.

Our approach is to analyze materials, apparel or equipment, according to the size of their impact and how much influence we can have. As such, we’ve ranked them in order of importance into a list that we call our Preferred Fibres and Materials (PFM’s). Preferred because they are ecologically or socially progressive. It’s also a fluid list for us that changes according to global impacts and customer feedback as well as our internal priorities as our business evolves.

Adoption of more preferred fibers and materials is one of the barometers of transformational change within the textile industry. The way that Kathmandu, as an outdoor brand and retailer, can influence improvement in fiber and material production is one of the greatest opportunities we have to contribute to securing a sustainable future.

Bio-based Synthetics

As oil reserves decline and the stability of oil comes under risk, a lot of new exciting developments have been happening in the “bio-based synthetics” workspace that give us alternatives to manufacturing textiles, whilst opening up opportunities for new performance capabilities with less impact on resource use.

These bio-based synthetics use raw materials that come from natural renewable resources such as plants, sugars, agricultural waste etc. instead of fossil fuels.  The bio-feedstocks used to make them have also been evolving from the first generation food-based crops such as corn to the second generation agriculture based waste products such as nutshells to now the third generation resources that do not compete with the food production at all such as algae, microbes etc. Our challenge – and opportunity at Kathmandu is to how to accelerate and bring these exciting innovations to scale.

We identified bio-based synthetics as an emerging materials arena with lots of potential to grow and develop, some time ago now, and that’s why it has also been part of our PFM Portfolio. Our thinking has also benefited by being part of a global multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI) – Bio-based Synthetics Working Group since 2016 where we have been working alongside other brands, industry working groups, NGO’s, fibers and dyestuff suppliers with a focus on supply chain mapping, bringing economies of scale and communication needed to increase knowledge—and eventually uptake of bio-based synthetics in a way that’s feasible for today’s market. It’s still early stages but there’s lots of exciting stuff happening and we are glad to be part of it.

When we heard about Archroma’s EarthColors, we were immediately excited by what is probably the first technology allowing colours to be synthesised from plants rather than petroleum while keeping similar performance.

Microfiber Pollution Research

Plastics of various sizes are being discovered in waterways and marine life, at levels and in places not previously realized. The presence of plastic debris poses dramatic changes and risk to the marine ecosystems. The science is still emerging. But you don’t need a degree to understand that plastics in our oceans is a problem.

Related Post: Washing Synthetic Clothing Releases Microplastics Into Our Oceans, Here’s What to Do About It…

Research has established that the solution to microfibre pollution is not going to be straightforward and a multifaceted approach needs to be taken. Textiles that shed fewer fibres or do not shed at all need to be developed. Washing machines and waste water treatment plants need more effective filtration units etc. Evidently, these things will not be immediate developments and will require input from various industries.

So what is Kathmandu doing about it?

The first step is to understand more. Luckily, we’re not alone. Our entire industry faces the microfiber pollution problem and we can be more effective in partnership than in our own brand silos. We are part of the Outdoor Industry Association Sustainability Working Group that has a vision to create products that do no harm. And microfibres is on their list of priority issues. They have set up a Microfibres Task Force to investigate the problem further and look for industrywide solutions.

New testing services are also being developed that will help us understand if some products shed more microfibres than others. We have also undertaken a pilot project to analyse the amount of microfibers being released by our products, so there may be some choices we can make when choosing fabrics that will make a difference.

Guppyfriend microfibre washing bag
Guppyfriend microfibre bag is available at Kathmandu

We also offer a home-based solution like the GuppyFriend to our customers as a first step, while we work towards identifying more longer term solutions.

Authentic Collaboration

Kathmandu has a number of ambassadors they work with, including environmental scientist and explorer Tim Jarvis.

Tim Jarvis founded the 25zero Project which raises awareness to customers, industry, businesses and government on climate change and specifically 25 equatorial glaciers that will be gone within 25 years. We promote this project to our customer and wider stakeholder base for everyone to take action.

As Tim Jarvis is a professional mountaineer and environmental scientist, we collaborated with him to help us redesign the XT range and test it on an ascent on Mt Kilimanjaro to document the melting glaciers there. As he has profound technical knowledge and expertise in mountaineering, this helped us to elevate the range to the best it’s ever been.

Shifting To A Circular Economy

We are the only brand in Australasia to use the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index tool. This online platform provides us with a sustainability pathway built on the circular model.

We recently released an online series on customer product care and repair, basically providing a set of tools and examples on how to repair and look after your gear. We will grow this initiative so that customers prolong the life and performance of their gear, and avoid either buying more product or throwing into landfill. We do also have clothing donation bins across all of our stores which are then donated to Red Cross.

Related Post: There’s a Race To Innovation in Circular Fashion. Here Are Some Inspiring Concepts to Consider…

Customer Communications

We’ve prioritised our sustainability program into five key areas in order of: 1) worker’s and human rights in our supply chain, 2) product stewardship and sustainable design 3) our operational footprint including waste, carbon emissions and store development 4) our community program and 5) our team development.

We talk mainly to our customers about workers rights and sustainable products and materials as these areas have the biggest impact and most interest from our customers. For example, as we sell a lot of down jackets a huge amount of our customers are interested to know if our down feathers are ethically sourced (which they are).

We have a huge amount of information publically available for anyone to look into. We publish an annual sustainability report which is available on our website.

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All images courtesy of Kathmandu.

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