SMARTWOOL : THINKING OUTSIDE OF THE FLEECE
Remember the Y2K scare as we approached the year 2000? Well, sustainability in 2030 often feels a bit like that—looming, with uncertain consequences.
But it’s also a milestone year to work towards in terms of sustainability for brands and businesses. But what does it really mean to “work towards being 100% Climate Positive by 2030” when you are a company selling goods? People will keep buying/needing products and yes you can thrift and buy used but socks and even first layers... That’s kind of a hard one to find on Facebook Marketplace… You can make durable products that people will keep for a while, but then again, you take your boots off after a big day on the mountain and your big toe is poking through your socks. Some things can’t be repaired forever and will end up in the landfill at some point. But Smartwool has been pulling the hair out of their grower’s sheeps thinking about this.. Like literally, and those sheeps are part of the ZQRX program.
We wanted to know more so we chatted with Alicia Chin, Director, Sustainability and Social Impact at Smartwool. In a classic Q&A form, we're breaking down their 3 sustainability goals, piece by piece, to understand what they mean and where they stand as of today.
Goal 1 : 100% Climate Positive Wool Sourced
POW Canada (POWC): For some, 2030 seems far, but when you have big bold goals like Smartwool, it might look closer than you think. Can you tell us where you are at with the climate positive wool sourcing and how the ZQRX program has helped you improve?
Alicia Chin (AC): The majority of our carbon footprint comes from on-farm emissions associated with our wool. We know that we must work with our growers and support them on their journey towards embracing regenerative agriculture best practices. Regenerative agriculture encompasses a variety of environmentally and socially conscious practices, which aim to help support biodiversity, enhance water cycles, improve soil health and sequester carbon. In partnership with New Zealand Merino, Smartwool helped launch ZQRX, a collaborative action platform to help wool growers measure and improve how much they give back as they restore waterways, protect native species, offset carbon, and enhance local communities.
In 2022. 48% of our contracted wool with New Zealand Merino came from farms in the ZQRX program. As we work towards our 2030 goal, Smartwool continues to invest in and support the work of New Zealand Merino and ZQRX to implement measures like planting native vegetation to sequester carbon and restore soil health and work towards climate positive wool.
POWC: How does the Regenerative Index work in measuring and improving the environmental and social impact of Merino wool production? What are the key indicators used to assess a grower's performance?
AC: ZQRX is a model for change. Growers are currently assessed across 15 key practice areas focusing on environment, animal welfare, and people and are expected to show continuous improvement over time. The ZQRX program is focusing on measuring outcomes associated with carbon, land health, and biodiversity.
Goal 2 : 100% regenerative, responsibly sourced renewable or recycled materials
POWC: Smartwool is shifting toward using more renewable and recycled materials. Could you provide insights into the challenges and successes encountered during this transition? How do you balance sustainability with product durability and performance?
AC: Cost and performance of alternative materials are often some of the challenges that brands face when shifting towards more sustainable options. Given the current landscape of sustainable materials, we recognize that we do need to continue to use synthetic materials to maintain the performance and durability that we are known for. Ensuring that a product is loved and lasts is a key part of our brand and sustainability philosophy.
For the Fall 23 season, 77% of the synthetics used are recycled and we are continuing to increase that percentage in upcoming seasons. The overall amount of synthetic materials that we use, however, has decreased over time, as we make greater investments in renewable materials like lyocell, cotton and hemp.
POWC: You are committed to eliminating single-use plastics in your packaging by 2025 (which is like… tomorrow). We understand that polybags are useful to protect garments before they get to stores or customers, but we sure hope there is a way around that without compromising the delivery. How has joining the Responsible Packaging Movement helped you and do you think this goal is still achievable?
AC: We have made significant steps to reducing single use plastics in our on-product packaging. However, eliminating product polybags continues to be a challenge for us. As we embarked on this journey we soon realized that this may require a systems change - from retailer requirements to equipment at distribution centers - so it may take us longer than we had hoped for.
The Responsible Packaging Movement is an incredible example of brands coming together for the good of the planet. The knowledge and experience shared by brands across different industries all working to eliminate plastic has been invaluable. We are continuing to pilot and explore alternatives to polybags, including roll packing and naked delivery, in hopes to achieve our goal.
Goal 3: Shift to a more circular business model
POWC: A circular business model is basically the dream of most businesses, especially if sustainability is something you have at heart. We know you launched the Second Cut Project Hike Sock not that long ago. Can you speak about the process? Is it something you see being transferable to other products ?
AC: Back in 2020 we surveyed our consumers to understand what they currently do with their socks. We know that socks are one of the most thrown away items - they are hard to resell as well as donate. Our consumers overwhelmingly asked for a solution to prevent their socks from going into landfill. Through connections in the industry, we got connected to Material Return, a textile circularity provider, based in Morganton, NC. As our sock development team and sock mills are based in the southeast, it was a perfect fit for creating a local circular system.
In April 2021, we launched the Second Cut Project sock takeback program. We take back any and all socks through retail partners and via an ecomm takeback bag. To date we have collected over one million socks! In partnership with Material Return, we have been able to use those socks as filling for dog beds and ultimately work towards creating circular yarn out of the socks to create the Second Cut Hike Sock. We are continuing to refine and innovate on the circular yarn. Our vision is to use the yarn in the majority of our products, including accessories like beanies and all of our socks!
On a different aspect of circular economy, we are piloting resale in the US later this month!
POWC: We like to finish by asking if there are any other cool projects you could tease our audience with or share your wildest sustainable dream as a brand.
AC: Smartwool aspires to be climate positive, to restore and regenerate the planet. We want to create product that is a force for good - product that helps to heal the environment, improves livelihoods, and ensures people get outside longer and do more of what they love. Hopefully it isn’t as wild a dream as one would think!
When I started my research on Smartwool for this blog, I stumbled upon a video introducing ZQRX. It featured growers from Mt Nicholas Station, in Lake Wakatipu NZ and a quote from Kate Cocks really resonated with me: With a place like this, you really feel like it doesn’t belong to you, you belong to it. Having experienced New Zealand myself, I deeply understand what she means by that. I also think it’s a mindset that we should all have with our environment, with our planet. It's inspiring to see brands putting as much effort into the very source of their products than they do with its final version. Speaking of going above and beyond, from now until September 28th, Smartwool will match EVERY one-time donation up to $5000. So if you've been on the fence about donating, now is the time to make double the impact!