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The Fabric: Sustaintex, Leaders in Eco-Friendly Wovens

Posted on June 06 2012

Plastic used to make fabricThe guys over at Sustaintex are your go-to guys for woven fabrics made from recycled polyester and cotton. Out of sheer luck, I found Jack Miller and Jerry Wheeler a few years ago in my woven fabric search for Bhoomki's debut collection of raincoats.

I wanted to make a water-repellent coat from a truly eco-friendly fabric without sacrificing quality, wearability or softness.  Sustaintex made Bhoomki coats' poplin shell from yarn made of 50% Texas organic cotton and 50% recycled plastic bottles. The fabric rivals the feel of any luxury brand’s best raincoat and I have Sustaintex to thank for it.

Through a circuitous path of multiple phone calls, I found Jack and Jerry. I called manufacturers of bags, made from recycled plastic bottles which led me to a treatment plant which crushes bottles in preparation for conversion to fibers. After several more leads, I finally spoke to weavers who produced knits made out of recycled polyester who suggested I call the Sustaintex fellows.

As soon as Jack picked up the phone, I knew we were going to work together. His warmth and dedication were contagious, and I appreciated his trial and error approach in the spirit of getting it right. We were going to make a water-repellent poplin for coats, and it was going to take a few tries before we got the weight and the feel just so.

The other half of the shell and and 100% of the lining comes from recycled plastic bottles.Recycled polyester and organic cotton behave differently than run-of-the-mill (no pun intended) threads. And their dedication to making a quality product is what makes Sustaintex so special. Through the process, I learned that recycled polyester can have the drape of silk if done right, and the softness of a pima cotton. It’s just as versatile as traditional polyester is. You can do pretty much anything with it, if the right people are putting it on the loom.

Jack and Jerry founded Sustaintex in 2008 to reinvigorate American textile manufacturing with socially and environmentally friendly fabric innovation and creation. They met at an Organic Exchange 2008 conference, and knew they wanted to create a profitable business with a focus on social and environmental change. Jack brings 25 years of textile experience to Sustaintex. He remembers growing up in the South when the manufacturing jobs were plentiful and America was still a leader in textile innovation, spinning and weaving. Continuing the spirit of American ingenuity, Jack employs traditional weaves utilizing modern sustainable fibers to create high quality fabric.

Jerry Wheeler has over 15 years of marketing and strategy experience with such household names as Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen and Reebok. In the late 1990s, when Casual Fridays became a fixture in corporate culture, Jerry developed private label lines consisting of sportswear, including the ubiquitous khaki pant. He saw overseas manufacturing degrading the quality of the end product in the competitive race for low prices, as well as massive amounts of environmental waste.

They’ve quickly become experts in working with recycled polyester filament, but they’re committed to collaboration and partnership in an industry often seen as cutthroat and competitive. Like most ethical fashion warriors, they constantly search for new business models in the still nascent sustainable textile industry. This happens through questioning and reworking the wholesale model, developing partnerships, and identifying niche markets aligned with their mission.

Ultimately, Sustaintex’s priority is the customer, and we’ve both come to the same conclusion working in the ethical apparel space. Barrel-scraping prices don’t always serve the customer, while quality at a fair price does.

Jack told me he was speaking to a respected recycled yarn manufacturer who related his visit to a huge retail giant (who shall not be named) interested in making a tee out of recycled polyester. The price quoted didn’t come anywhere close to the price retail Goliath wanted. “They wanted the same price as the regular shirt. To get the price down, you lighten it and you cheapen it. So what happens is the consumer becomes the loser. They think they are buying the same shirt in recycled content, but they’re not buying the same shirt. They’re buying a cheaper shirt, with recycled content, with the same price. Very frustrating.

Despite these sorts of challenges, Sustaintex continues to innovate. They’ve started working with Earthspun® yarns where the yarn retains the color of the plastic bottles.  The colors are mostly blues and greens, but it adds color while eliminating the dying process, saving water, time and energy. They’re also started working with Tencel, another gorgeous eco-friendly fiber, developing material combined with organic cotton and/or recycled polyester.

When I produced my eponymous collections in India, I spent a lot of money on air-freight charges and import duties, and while stomping a hefty carbon footprint on this planet. Working with American manufacturers not only maintains and supports US jobs, but it also reduces carbon emissions produced by airplanes, one of the biggest polluters. In fact, is there a bigger polluter?

Jack says that manufacturing could come back to America very easily with a shift in priorities on the part of large scale retailers.  “The innovation is still here, a lot of machinery techs have gone abroad, but we’ve still got the horsepower. Besides, old habits die, and you get a better result, when you start afresh.”

If you want to learn more about Sustaintex and/or are interested in working with them, please visit www.Sustaintex.com for more information.

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