Manu Rastogi: Our industry produces 100 billion units of clothing every year and less than 1 per cent of all the materials used in those products is recycled back into new textiles, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. These are big industry problems to solve.
What we also need to do is scale up fibre-to-fibre or textile-to-textile recycling (technically called advanced recycling) so that the products don’t end up in a landfill. But unfortunately, these technologies are still in their infancy, and we simply cannot wait.
And so, we created BioDown. BioDown is primarily designed to be a highly durable product that can last for decades. We will continue to explore and try to scale up textile-to-textile recycling solutions, so that one day none of our product ends up in a landfill. However, if it does find its way to landfill, it will not stay there for hundreds of years, rather, it will biodegrade entirely in just a few years’ time.
IR: How long did it take from idea to launch?
MR: It took four-plus years from inspiration to launch. The BioDown project was initiated in early 2018, with prototyping beginning in mid-2020, once all the necessary materials and validated test reports against our standards were made available. BioDown was launched in stores in April 2022.
IR: Is that different from the typical product development process?
MR: Yes, in every aspect, from inspiration to ideation and implementation. It modifies IDEO’s 3I model [inspire, ideate, implement] to become nature-centric design thinking. We wanted to understand more about the problem that we are trying to solve – textiles ending up in landfill – and used this to fuel our innovation.
IR: How much collaboration was there with external R&D labs or suppliers?
MR: A huge amount. The concept started with designing an ultra-durable down jacket using a single material that would make it easier to be recycled back into new textiles once the advanced recycling technologies scale up. But as mentioned earlier, we don’t have those solutions available at scale. And so, it evolved and extended to, ‘What if we can make this jacket entirely biodegradable?’
The challenge was to engineer different types of materials – fabric, sewing thread, the complete zipper assembly – using the same polymer (Nylon 66) with a special additive that makes it biodegradable without compromising on aesthetics and, most importantly, durability and performance.
This required working collaboratively with different suppliers and test labs from different regions over a period until we were satisfied on all aspects. Sustainability for us begins with products that last, so we can never compromise upon durability just to make something more sustainable. Our products need to last.
IR: What were the biggest challenges you faced in the product development/design process? Were there any unexpected curveballs?
MR: Engineering the materials. We didn’t have many biodegradable materials to work with, we only had a handful of items that we could use to build this down jacket; we had two fabrics, a zipper, and a sewing thread. That’s it. We didn’t have any other biodegradable trims, didn’t have a cord lock or elastics or shock cords or eyelets, or meshes, or tapes, and that seemed to be a challenge. But our talented design and development team took that challenge head-on, leading to some unique design solutions.
The thing you will admire most about this jacket, apart from the great styling, is when you pick it up…how light and buttery soft it feels, because it’s been stripped of so many trim items that could have added to its weight.
This product is, therefore, not just revolutionary in terms of its technology and the unique design, but it is also a great example of frugal innovation and how scarcity of resources can ultimately help fuel creativity.
IR: Can you explain a bit more how you made the jacket both biodegradable and durable? How did you ensure it won’t start biodegrading while in use?
MR: The fabric, sewing thread and the entire zipper assembly are made from Nylon 66. Your toothbrush bristles are made from Nylon 6. Nylon 6 is more durable than polyester, and most of the jackets on the market are made of polyester. Nylon 66 takes it to the next-level of durability. Carpets, friction bearings, our high-end hiking backpacks are made from Nylon 66, because that material is rugged and durable.
We have made this Nylon 66 biodegradable by adding a special additive during its manufacturing process. It remains completely inactive when you are wearing it out there or washing it in your laundry. Nothing will happen to it. But as soon as it reaches the right landfill environment – not your home compost or an industrial compost but an anaerobic, or oxygen-free, landfill environment – where almost all of our textiles eventually end up, the additive gets activated.
IR: What were the biggest lessons learned from the development process? Will you be able to apply these to other products in future?
MR: This jacket shows how deeply committed we are to our 2025 circularity goal as we continue to change the way we look at our product and its impact on our planet. It’s the ultimate expression of passion, dedication, and skill used with the sole intention to make the world a better place.
This is the start, and we will continue to apply this technology to other products. Ultimately, we want to get from a place of doing less bad to doing more good.
IR: Do you think there’s enough scientific innovation happening around new materials? How can brands drive this, if at all?
MR: Yes, there is a huge amount of innovation happening on next-generation materials, bio-fabricated materials and bio-based materials. There’s lots of learning from nature and how nature does it.
Brands can drive this by partnering and collaborating with next-generation material innovators and suppliers, sending them demand signals and supporting them in their journey. However, the research, development, and scaleup associated with these novel, sustainable material feedstocks and chemistries that can be adopted by next-gen innovators take time and investment.
The problems of our industry were not created overnight, the solutions won’t be either.
IR: Kathmandu aims to make 100 per cent of its range circular by 2025. That’s just 2.5 years away. How close is the company to achieving that? What are the biggest roadblocks?
MR: For us, the long-term goals around sustainability have to do with circularity more than anything else. There are lots of principles of circularity, all of which we’re heavily invested in supporting, exploring, developing, and innovating around, and they’re all in various states of go.
The problem we face is that much of the infrastructure required to close those circular systems isn’t widely available in Australia yet. For example, we are still a long way away from widespread textile-to-textile chemical recycling, and the types of anaerobic landfills required to make BioDown’s innovative material biodegrade effectively are sparse. We’re doing our part to energise that infrastructure, so that as we introduce new products, new concepts into the marketplace, there’s an infrastructure in place that we can partner with, plug into and collaborate with.