Function has always led form when it comes to designing for the outdoors. As more people head for the outdoors, manufacturers have strived to bring them the most technologically advanced fabrics and designs possible.
But, at a time when more people are paying attention to their impact on the environment, the same outdoors companies are looking for new ways to incorporate renewable, recycled and generally more environmentally friendly materials.
What once was the sole territory of Patagonia--which has carried the environmentally conscious banner for more than 30 years--has begun welcoming new converts who are arriving carrying fabrics made out of bamboo, organic cotton and recycled polyester.
"Consumers are looking for environmentally friendly options," said Noah Bryan, president of Boise-based Core Concepts. "It has a lot to do with where people's awareness is now."
Todd Copeland, Patagonia's Common Threads material developer, said it's a trend he's seeing industrywide. And thanks to increased demand, it's becoming easier for more companies to be able to buy the new materials.
"The industry has to step up and supply this," he said, pointing out that even mega-retailers like Target and Walmart are using organic cotton in select products.
Over the years, Patagonia has tried a variety of ways to make its products more environmentally friendly, including the extensive use of recycled material. And in the case of the outdoors icon, that doesn't just mean turning old soda bottles into fleece.
Since 2005, the company has run its Common Threads program, which accepts apparel made out of certain fabrics from the public and then recycles it into new garments.
By spring 2010, 83 percent of Patagonia products will be recyclable, and 65 percent will be made from environmentally friendly materials, said Jessica Clayton, product public relations marketer for Patagonia. Additionally, the company has a goal of making that 100 percent by the fall of 2010.
"We wanted to take responsibility for our products," Copeland added.
Since the company was founded in 1972, environmentalism has been a primary focus, and over the decades, testing and research labs have allowed it to come up with new ways to meet that goal.
The company routinely uses recycled polyester and nylon, as well as organic cotton and chlorine-free merino wool.
Core Concepts has used recycled polyester for base-layer garments, as well as some fleece, since the company began roughly four years ago. But last year, they began working with bamboo-based fabric in a line of T-shirts and long-sleeved, lightweight hoodies.
And while bamboo has become the "it" material for everything from flooring to landscaping, it also happens to have a hollow-fiber structure that makes it less apt to retain moisture while being naturally anti-microbial. And when processed correctly, it can feel as smooth as silk.
Bryan is looking for new ways to incorporate bamboo in products, including using different blends for cold weather. For now, the company is focused on the bamboo shirts, which will be available at the Idaho Mountain Touring booth at the Idaho Green Expo, on Saturday, July 18, and Sunday, July 19. A portion of all proceeds will be donated to the Idaho Conservation League.
Increasing numbers of products are hitting store shelves touting their environmental sensitivity, although it's often left to the consumer to decide what actually has a green quality and what is more marketing.
In the last few years, the availability of bamboo fabric has increased, but it's still not sold on a mass level, since it is still relatively expensive. But Bryan and others warn that just because something is labeled "bamboo," that doesn't mean it's environmentally friendly.
The process of taking bamboo from plant to fabric is a complex one, and many manufacturers use caustic chemicals to break down the plant fiber into a liquid, which is then turned into fabric. It's the reason Patagonia has stayed away from using bamboo rayon.
Bryan said it took a long time to find a supplier that was using a greener process involving enzymes rather than chemicals. But for him, the extra effort was required.
"If the process of getting to that [end product] produces a chemical by-product that's extremely caustic, there's not much gained by going that route," Bryan said.
Vetting what works is a key part of the research process before any product hits the market for Patagonia. While other companies have jumped on trends of using materials like corn, banana fiber and soy, not everything is appropriate for every product. Other times, ethical problems arise with a material, like fabric made from corn, which Patagonia learned was genetically modified.
"More people are looking to put [environmentally friendly materials] in a wider variety of products," Clayton said. "You have to invest the time and money and research into it if you're going to do it right."
Copeland said all Patagonia products have to go through the same testing process, regardless of what they're made of.
"It's tempting to bring in a new material just because it's new, but the quality of the material is important," he said. "It has to last if you really want to reduce the impact on the environment."
Bryan has had the most success blending bamboo with organic cotton, which adds more warmth and increases the performance while remaining extremely lightweight. The blend also allows Bryan to screenprint vivid designs on the shirts, something that is limited with pure organic cotton.
Core Concept's bamboo line has found the most popularity online thanks to customers searching for bamboo fabric products.
"There's definitely consumer demand," Bryan said. "It just has to do with the fabric itself."
Bryan said many first-time customers buy a single shirt, but the company has seen "an amazing amount of repeat business" from those coming back to buy two or three more.
As people look for green options, Bryan warns that there is not one perfect product. Be it cotton, polyester, soy or corn fibers, each has its own set of pros and cons.
"It's finding the product that is going to fit the needs of the customer, will last and perform and be in a realistic price point," he said. But Bryan also believes consumers are getting good at looking past the marketing hype.
"They're just trying to make the best decision from a production and consumption standpoint," he said.
Copeland agrees that the marketing can sometimes be confusing.
"There are so many messages," he said. "How do we make a simple message, but make it clear?"
Some of those confusing messages come from companies just trying to use the green label, but others are unintentional, Copeland said, recalling a fashion show that bragged about environmentally friendly shoes made out of PVC.
The problem is that there are no guidelines on what can be called green, although the Outdoor Industry Association is trying to develop a green-products ranking system that would be standard across the industry. The effort has been in the works for several years, but Copeland is positive that the organization is heading in the right direction.
"Now, it's at that tipping point," he said.