Sewing machine with fabric

Sustainability spotlight: how we’re working with recycled materials

With 66 per cent of everything we create now made from recycled or natural sources, let’s sit down with our senior materials manager, Rebekah Ziegner, for a closer look at how we’re working with recycled products.

BY : MARK COHEN • Sustainability • 25.10.2022

“Consumers are pushing for more transparency and action on sustainability, so industry needs to be both more transparent and actively considering the sustainable aspects of everything,” said Rebekah Ziegner, ODLO’s senior materials manager, during a recent in-house interview. “I’ve always been a very sporty person and also had this dream to combine my passion for textiles with sports. So, when I was offered the opportunity to move to ODLO—which is based in Switzerland, where outdoors is everything—it wasn’t a difficult choice.”


In eight years, Rebekah’s team has dramatically shifted ODLO’s use of natural and sustainable materials across the company. We asked her about the current state of material use and how ODLO plans to continue moving towards 100 per cent sustainable material use by 2030.


How has sustainable yarn use evolved at ODLO since you started?

The momentum behind greater sustainable yarn use has grown exponentially throughout my career. My previous company launched the first sustainable product in the nineties using organic cotton, for example. But nobody cared about it then, so they dropped it.


When I started at ODLO, sustainable yarn use hadn’t yet gained critical mass like it has today, but we were already working with recycled yarns for seamless layers.


Despite our best efforts, and somewhat ironically, that collection—crafted from recycled yarns—generated leftover yarn. We recognised that was a mistake and came up with a seamless collection from those leftovers, which went on to become Blackcomb–one of our best known performance base layers. The design won a gold medal at ISPO in 2015, and today Blackcomb base layers are made from more than 80 per cent recycled yarns. 


What’s the state of material use at the company today?

When I arrived at ODLO, we were sourcing fabrics mainly for function. Then, all of a sudden, a fabric made of recycled polyester became available. Things have progressed quickly from there.


Now, a non-recycled fabric is really a no-go, and I’m trying to integrate this ethos across the entire product line. Garment function is the main focus, but the preferred materials are recycled or natural, and if this would compromise the full function of the garment, we need to rethink the design.


I don’t just look into more sustainable materials, but also dyeing methods and chemicals. Say I want to use a less impactful chemical on a rain jacket; well, the jacket might look wetter in the rain even if it isn’t, but the feel is a big issue, and I want the consumer to be happy.


The lighter the fabric, the wetter the optic, so now the challenge is balancing the best chemistry with the consumer’s understanding that they have a top-end, functional garment.


In the end, people want their apparel to work. So, are you suggesting that sometimes you need to limit sustainability in favour of functionality?

 There are several ways to think about sustainability. I might not give you a product with all the most sustainable components, for instance, but if I give you a product of the highest quality that lasts 5 years instead of 2, then that’s a big sustainability win as well.


If you can’t always be the most sustainable with technical performance, then you can gain a sustainability edge this way.

Sewing garment
Fabric in factory
Base layer close-up - Be Aware Of What You Wear

A sustainability mindset therefore means there isn’t just one aspect or approach, but that it’s multi-dimensional across the entire lifespan of the garment. Is that right?

 Exactly. And it starts with allocation. Where do I buy the fabric? Where am I producing the garment? I try not to ship materials around the world and instead source it where it’s being put together; if we’re making the garment in Asia then the fabric should be made there, and the same goes for things we make in Europe.


Another consideration might be that if you can’t source the most sustainable material, you can at least make mono-component garments—with no mixed materials—so it’s easier to recycle at the end of its life. We put a lot of effort into really considering each step, from allocation to chemical treatments, dyeing methods and even water use.


Considering product end-of-life is the hallmark of circularity, is that what you’re aiming for?

Absolutely. Circularity is essential. Not just reusing or recycling old garments, but what you do with recycled waste and what kind of pollution might be generated. As an economy, we should aim to become completely circular, but there’s a long way to go.


We’ve started working with TEXAID to put drop boxes in stores for people to return worn out garments. These are sent to a warehouse, and the partner takes them to a sorting plant. Polyester fabric, for instance, can be shredded down to create plastic pellets that can be re-spun and knitted.


At this stage, the industry is still developing the recycling plants for these processes, but the potential is huge. For instance, textile waste might be used for insulation in houses or to stuff upholstery. So, even though the material isn’t going back into new garments, it’s being reused. These kinds of partnerships are essential to becoming more circular.


What’s next for sustainable material use?

We still have a long way to go but I think it’s evolving quickly because everyone is aware it has to happen fast.


At a recent trade fair, there were some amazing presentations on this, and banks were interested enough to invest in it. Another important aspect is vetting and credibility—knowing that if someone makes sustainability claims, they’re not doing it because it’s popular, but because they can back it up. We get certifications for each material from each supplier to ensure we have the most truthful background on a product.


We also have a restricted substance list to ensure suppliers aren’t using any harmful chemicals. And there’s a benefit here to being a small company because I can oversee this with all the product lines, which really helps with being more sustainable.


We have a plan to be 100 per cent sustainable with synthetic, recycled and natural fibres by 2030. We’ve achieved so much recently. We’re optimistic we’ll get there.

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