The notion to become more ‘sustainable’ has become a major goal for big-name companies as concerns about climate change and other environmental damages have become commonplace and widespread issues.
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When it comes to the fashion industry, the damage done (and that’s still being done) in regards to wasted materials and production is eye-opening, to say the least.
According to the BBC, nearly 85% of discarded textiles in the U.S. are either dumped into a landfill or burned each year, with landfills receiving an estimated 17 million tons of municipal solid waste textiles in 2018, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
From 1996 to 2006, the EPA found that Americans have nearly doubled the amount of clothing that they throw out each year, jumping from 7 to 14 million tons in a 20-year timespan.
Decomposition times for these items are brutally long (think centuries), and the effects of burning these discarded fabrics and textiles can have devastating effects on carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, a crisis that only seems to be looming and becoming more ominous as the years go on.
And then we have the production of making new clothing and the resources that are overused and wasted during that production, with estimates that it takes nearly 2,700 liters of water to make just one cotton shirt.
The rise of fast fashion companies and their items’ short lifespans combined with the questionable ethics of how and where these items are produced have led consumers to begin researching just how and where their favorite items are being made.
“I don’t know why anyone would start a brand today if it wasn’t built sustainably,” says Outerknown co-founder and 11-time world championship surfer Kelly Slater. “I hope that’s the first thing people think about when they decide to start something new. We need to be working towards full circularity and continue to find new, regenerative, sustainable materials.”
Slater, a Florida native who began surfing at the age of five, has long been no stranger to the importance of maintaining our natural resources and conserving that which we have already begun to damage.
“I have spent my life in the ocean and I understand how delicate nature is,” he says. “We are depleting our limited natural resources and the apparel industry still holds to a broken and wasteful model.”
Slater founded Outerknown in 2015 alongside John Moore with the mission of creating an ethical and sustainable clothing brand focused on circularity to make clothes that feel good while still looking good, with a maximum effort being put into finding and working with sustainable and ethically sound suppliers and distributors without creating clothes that ever appear high maintenance.
“As an athlete, I’ve always been obsessed with what I put in my body and I started to think more about what I put on my body as well,” Slater explains of the company’s origins. “I realized that the fashion industry could do better, so I walked away from some sponsorships that didn’t value sustainability and ethically produced clothing to start Outerknown. I wanted to lead and show the industry that we could do things differently. This was in 2015 when sustainability wasn’t quite the buzzword it is now, so it was really revolutionary.”
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When Outerknown tapped Mark Walker as CEO in 2017, the businessman admittedly was already “an admirer from afar.” He had a similar experience in working with brands that didn’t have strong sustainability commitments, which pushed him to switch gears.
Walker’s career in retail began from working at small bike shops throughout high school and college (he was an avid mountain bike racer) before shifting over to the GAP and eventually Levi’s — the epitome of American style at the time. However, it wasn’t yet a big contender in the relatively untapped world of ecommerce in 2009.
From Levi’s, Walker went to Rue La La, a flash sale site that opened his eyes to the waste that was going on within the fashion industry, specifically in the flash sale community.
“It’s origin was intended well, because it was ‘we have all of this stuff that nobody wants’ and ‘how do we find a home before it just gets put into a landfill or discarded.’ Unfortunately, the flash sale (similar to promotion or discounting) stuff started to get created specifically for it,” Walker explains. “So it wasn’t just leftovers, it was [clothing] made to be sold in these very short punctuated moments … outlets used to be great when you could go in and buy defective products that had little holes or tears in them that they couldn’t sell in normal stores … now when you go to most outlet malls it’s label will usually say ‘factory store’ and it’s goods that are made specifically to be sold that outlet so it tends to be a lower quality that has a lower cost so you’re still buying the brand but for a lower cost.”
It was the combination of this blatant discard of undesirable goods and those goods no longer serving a purpose combined with the fast turnaround time of ecommerce that made Walker think about not only what was happening to these leftover or surplus items of clothing, but about where were they being sourced in the first place.
“In my ecomm space, it was just ‘how many units can you pump through the factory’ and ‘how much stuff can you sell’ and there was no conversation about who was making it, where it was made, how it was made, what it’s impact was and you honestly didn’t care … I always checked my own boxes personally with the decisions I had the capability to control about the factories we use and who made stuff … Environmentally, until Outerknown, I never had the luxury of working for a brand where you know you could pay more for the cost of the goods to be made the right way.”
All of Outerknown’s manufacturing partners must adhere to and abide by strict guidelines of safety and working conditions that are implemented by the FLA (Fair Labor Association.)
“Traveling the world has also reinforced how not all workers are treated the same, not everyone has the support they need from their employer to live a happy life,” Slater says. “It was really important to me that the brand not only be sustainable in its materials and production, but also work to create sustainable lifestyles for its employees. The Fair Labor Association holds us accountable to the most stringent labor standards and we’re only working to expand worker support in the future.”
In 2017, the brand launched its first Fair Trade Certified product (which means that an additional premium is paid to workers for each product created to help support the workers’ community and families) and by 2019, all of the brand’s swim trunks had become Fair Trade Certified.
But Outerknown hasn’t stopped there.
The brand recently launched its Second Spin collection, which takes used textiles and respins them into new fabrics that are used on new designs. These items specifically have “integrated EON technology” which allows the owner of each new piece of clothing to scan a QR code and trace the unique journey of their specific item.
More so, the brand launched Outerwear this summer, a new resale platform where customers can return old Outerknown garments and receive credit toward a new purchase, the old garments being resold to new customers.
This is all part of what brings it back to Outerknown’s major goal and primary focus moving forward — it’s not just about sustainability, but circularity.
“Outerknown has committed to full circularity by 2030 and it’s my hope that others follow,” Slater said. “We can’t just look at one piece of the puzzle. Customers can expect high-quality, stylish products made of sustainable and innovative fabrics like Econyl, which is recycled nylon made from discarded fishing nets, carpets and other waste streams.”
Walker is inclined to agree that Outerknown is “changing the vernacular from just being sustainable over to also being circular.”
It’s this dedication and loyalty to an evolving yet clearcut mission to minimize textile and resource waste that makes the Outerknown customer unique.
“We’re more of a psychographic than a demographic. I grew up [working] in brands where it was like, okay, our target customer is 40 to 50, with a sweet spot of 45. And they live in this city. And there’s some relevance to that,” Walker explains. “But I think what we’re learning about at Outerknown is that we have a community. We’ve done some VIP customer events where we’ll get our top 20 or 30 customers together. And the most amazing thing is they all come from different financial backgrounds, they all come from different places … it was this hunger to find a brand where they could find clothes that they felt were appropriate that interest, their personal style, but they actually could consciously feel good about wearing.”
Related: How to Become a More Sustainable Brand
Sustainably made clothes indeed cost more, on average about 20-25% more than a non-ethically sourced garment. The brand’s top-selling item, for example, is the blanket shirt — a comfy, oversized flannel men’s top that clocks in at $145.
The brand launched its womenswear division in 2019, with the top-selling item thus far being a collared jumpsuit called the S.E.A. Suit which costs $168 per piece.
But this goes to prove that Outerknown is succeeding in exactly what it set out to do — not just become another surfer brand with a “sustainable” label slapped on it, but become a lifestyle brand that attracted a community of like-minded people that wanted to feel morally conscious about the clothes they were wearing.
It just so happens that this does tend to attract the surfer, sports-oriented crowd.
After all, the brand was founded by who is perceived to be the greatest professional surfer of all time.
“Outerknown started as a brand inspired by my lifestyle, so naturally our customers are interested in surf, but our customer is more the guy who goes out for a morning session before his board meeting,” Slater says. “On the women’s side, she’s ambitious and hungry for adventure. Definitely someone who wants to look put together in her day to day, but wear clothing that stands for something.”
Clearly, the company’s model is working — the brand has seen year-over-year growth (exact numbers were not disclosed) well over 100% in the past three fiscal years with plans to continue opening brick-and-mortar stores while expanding their ecommerce outreach in order to make circular, sustainable fashion accessible to as many people as possible.
“For us, it’s not just about getting out there and selling as much stuff as [we] can. Our stores are really about making introductions and gaining brand awareness and letting people know Outerknown is, who we are, what we stand for, what our products are and hopefully people fall in love,” Walker says.
And with passionate minds like Slater leading the charge, it’s hard to believe that Outerknown will be anything but successful in that endeavor.
“I didn’t foresee this, but it’s a natural extension of everything I do,” Slater says of founding the company. “Working to make our planet more sustainable is important for everyone and I think my eyes were opened to the issues pretty early on. As a professional athlete, I always worked with sponsors in the fashion space, so I was definitely familiar but I never thought we’d be here and I’m stoked to see how we continue to push the envelope.”
We must admit we’re pretty stoked, too.
Related: It’s Official: Customers Prefer Sustainable Companies