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Conscious series: Outerknown

"For Outerknown, the goal has always been to be fully circular by 2030. We don't want to put anything new into the marketplace."

At Otrium, we are committed to a fashion industry where all clothing is worn. Our core mission is to connect excess inventory with its perfect owners, ensuring a win-win situation for brands and consumers alike, while preventing this unsold stock from finding its way into landfill. Alongside this mission, we aim to empower our customers to shop responsibly through our collaboration with Good on You, a leading impartial organisation that rates brands against three key criteria - labour rights, environmental impact and animal welfare. In line with this partnership, we are showcasing brands for whom conscious fashion is at the very heart of what they do.
This month, we meet Tommy Monette, Director of Wholesale at Outerknown.
What does being conscious mean to you?
I love my job and I love the industry, but fashion is  the second leading cause of waste on the planet. We’re only behind fossil fuels, so it’s really bad, accounting for 10% of all climate change.  The reason I moved jobs to Outerknown was for the brand’s impact story. If you’re sitting at the office at Outerknown, it’s the one thing that everybody is constantly talking about. Everything that we do, every conversation we have in the building is wrapped around impact.
For Outerknown, the goal has always been to be fully circular by 2030. We don’t want to put anything new into the marketplace.  We’re about 55% - 60% of the way to circularity at present. We’re not taking current items that we make and trying to retro-fit improved processes. When we develop our methods of working with different factories and different yarn producers, a conscious outlook is built into product development from the very start. 
Even if you’re using regenerative farming and organic cottons, you’re still putting something new into the market. If you can take something that has already been created and recycle it, then that’s so much better. For us, being conscious is all about people and the planet. Our top three priorities are circularity, water conservancy and the people who make our garments.
Tell us more about the people part of your mission
At Outerknown, our statement is ‘for people and planet’. We’ve always tried to live by that and execute our practices that way. People are the first part. It’s who’s touching the garments, how they’re being made, what factory is being used. The people in your supply chain have to be making a living wage, have access to healthcare and decent living conditions, and be treated fairly, otherwise sustainability doesn’t even matter. It has to start with making sure that we’re operating in a safe way. 
In the past, we have seen factories that tick all of our impact boxes, but then we’ve found out that they subcontract some of their work to territories that have had major worker rights issues. We can’t vet all of those practices, so we’ve pulled out. We don’t want to cut any corners. If we do, everything that we’ve said, everything that we are and everything that we’ve leaned on isn’t true and we don’t want to do that. You’re only as good as your word. Our reputation right now is really, really good, and if we slip even a little bit, that all goes out of the window. 
We have also exited markets completely where we object to the systems in place from a  political stance, as well as not taking part in events such as tradeshows in geographies where laws around LGBTQ+ rights don’t align with those of Outerknown. It hurts us financially to take that step back, but I mean, we’re selling pants and tops. So if you can’t do that in a way that’s meaningful and is clean on your conscience, what are you doing? This is something that our brand and our leadership is really committed to. If we see something that’s not working for us ethically, we’re out.
What about your animal welfare policies?
We don’t work with a lot of animal products, but those that we do use tie back into our circularity model. Our wool and cashmere products are fully recycled. We also use recycled down, which is easier to work with than recycled cashmere or wool. Cashmere in particular is really challenging. With down we’re just getting to the point where we can take the garments that we’re recycling and trace them back to the point of origin, so we can tell if the down was responsibly sourced from the very beginning. Down was so awful for so long from an ethical perspective, that it garnered a lot of attention, making tracking its origins a priority ahead of wool and cashmere. With some of our wools and cashmeres we don’t know where the original garment came from, but we then put it into our circularity loop.
What are the brand’s next innovations coming up?
The biggest push for us at the moment is getting C2, a type of regenerative cotton, off the ground. We grow it at our farms just north of Los Angeles. The fabric produced is a little thinner like a slub, and it’s high in recycled content. We’re testing that and putting it in the market for Spring Summer 23. When you’re growing cotton in huge swathes, you move fields and chew up a lot of ground. With C2, we use the same space over and over again, with less water. The yield is less, but it’s just a better way of farming.
Explain the challenges with cotton recycling
We’re continuously iterating to increase the proportion of recycled cotton in our products. When we started it was 10% but we’re now up to 40 - 50%, with two pairs of jeans and a jacket that are 100% recycled cotton. Doing something like a t-shirt is a lot harder because the threads and the composition is flimsier. Where we can’t use recycled cotton, we use our C2 cotton. No brand is using 100% recycled cotton in their products yet. It’s so tough. There are a lot of people working on this matter industry-wide and although it’s not been solved yet, cotton recycling techniques are improving and we’re getting closer.
Tell us more about your fully recycled garments
We’ve created a jacket called a Mono Puffer where the whole item comes from one garment - it’s fully recycled, and recyclable, right down to the zippers. It contains recycled fill rather than virgin down and the way that it’s built means that it can easily be turned into something else. This still doesn’t remove the issue around microplastics, which are an inherent problem with that kind of piece.
How are you addressing concerns around microshedding?
Recycled nylons and plastics are super tough to work with. We don’t even want to break the threads down - we want to take entire panels to recycle things into new garments. We’ve put our outerwear part of the business on hold until we can find a supplier that really addresses that. So we don’t have a lot of outerwear right now, which is really hurting our European teams, and especially Canada. We do have a fabric that doesn’t shed though. It’s an Italian material called ECONYL and is made from recycled fishing nets. It has a four-way stretch, and we use it for some of our swimming trunks, as well as a lot of our activewear. You can make it into jackets if you use a heavier weight of it too. It’s a really special fabric. 
Can you tell us about one of your initiatives around ocean and water conservancy?
Ocean conservancy and water conservancy are really, really big for us. We just launched a partnership with a German company called GOT BAGs. They have a really cool vertical supply chain where they’re making bags out of only ocean plastic. They have a fleet of 2,500 fishermen in Polynesia, Thailand, and the South Pacific. When they throw their nets out, they pull in plastic, which they previously would have burnt. GOT buys the plastic from them, creating an additional income stream for these people. They turn this plastic into pellets, the pellets into fabric and the fabric into waterproof bags. They own the whole supply chain and are continuously bringing more people into the programme.
How else does Outerknown work to conserve water and the oceans?
Our goal as a brand is to be net positive with water consumption and this extends beyond individual initiatives into every facet of our brand both in production terms but also down to how much water we use at our office and through the tons of beach clean ups we do. Manufacturing-wise, we use a lot of waterless dyes, and consistently monitor the kinds of factories we’re using for our fabrics. We reduce how many washes our denim goes through and are using on average 130 gallons of water to make a pair of jeans. Industry standard is around 280. We’re almost net positive with water consumption as a brand.
Can you tell us more about your pre-loved section Outerworn?
Outerworn is a really big initiative of ours and this goes back to the circularity of our brand. We would rather, and this goes against everything any brand has done, that people shop that section of our site than buy the new items. If you have any Outerknown gear, you can just login and post it on there. The transaction is similar to eBay. We take a commission, but the product goes from you to another consumer. We want that to become a major part of our business model.
What are your hopes for impact within the fashion industry in the next five to ten years?
Having fast fashion take a hike would be great. It’s really easy to fall into a trap where you can just pump things out and bring so much stuff into the marketplace that in six months is going to be in a landfill. I would say, the majority of the fashion industry falls into that sector. If you look at how clothing was made 200 years ago, people had one of each thing and that was it. We’ve reached the point now where you can scroll through Instagram and buy a whole new closet, and a lot of people aren’t recycling those garments. A lot of them can’t be recycled. It’s really disheartening. I don’t know if we’ll see a huge swing towards circularity, but anything helps. I’d like to see people really start to lean into circularity and commit to shrinking their closets.
What points make you hopeful for the fashion industry?
If you look at big brands like Nike or Asics, there’s a lot of focus on recycling. For example, Nike has a shoe with a recycled sole, and Asics has a whole recycled shoe. Buying sustainable pieces is still expensive and not everybody can afford that. Impact and being conscious needs to be an inclusive conversation where lower income families are able to purchase in this way. You need the buy-in of big brands to make the technologies scalable and bring the costs down for everyone. 
Outerknown is small. We don’t move the needle, but for example, when we first started, we did a three-year collaboration with Levis, because they’re big enough to affect change. We’ll continue to do different collabs with bigger brands. We’re going to have a shoe out with Asics the year after next to go with our active collection. Having those bigger brands starting to take part in impact initiatives and collaborate with smaller brands inspires real optimism.

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