The initial shock factor
Considering we work with dozens of fashion brands to navigate the transition to become a circular, regenerative, (and inclusive) business, we thought it was important that we shared our thoughts on the Kathmandu BioDown jacket that has recently hit the shelves (and with advertising in bus shelters, on billboards, and across social media).
For those that missed it, Kathmandu recently released a new puffer jacket that has been designed to biodegrade in a modern landfill. The technical language they provide on their website is “Testing under ASTM D5511 indicates biodegradation of 86.6% after 3 years could occur in optimal conditions in some biologically active landfills without oxygen. Please ask your local council if this type of collection or waste disposal facilities exist for the product.”
When the advertising campaign for this jacket was first shown to us we thought it was satire. We watched the video promoting the landfilling of resources and were unsure whether to laugh or cry, then assumed it must be a campaign to help highlight the ridiculousness of the current fashion system. One that sees over 100 billion garments produced every year and of which, for every 5 garments produced, the equivalent of 3 end up in a landfill or incinerated each year.
But then the punchline never came – this wasn’t a joke. Kathmandu were actually promoting landfill as the end-of-life option for their jacket.
Shortly after watching the video we learned of the interactive bus shelter installation they constructed that literally advertises their jacket by depicting it in a real-life landfill.
For many of us working to transform our economy into one that operates in harmony with the real world and its naturally circular systems where there is no waste (just food or nutrients for another organism), it came as a jarring shock to see throw-away culture being promoted by what we had regarded as one of Aotearoa’s most trusted companies, and one that is wholly reliant on the great outdoors and environment.
A chance to calibrate our initial shock
To ensure we didn’t let this kind of greenwashing influence too many, we took what small actions we could. We discussed the jacket with our clients and friends, reaffirming the dire need for us to design and produce (and consume) within a circular economy. We posted our discontent on our social media pages.
But how often does the big guy (Kathmandu Brands generated over $900m of revenue last year) listen to the small guy? Not often, we feel. But that is why we were a little surprised, if not quietly optimistic when we were invited to discuss our views on the jacket and its promotion with the Kathmandu team. We joined a call with four Kathmandu representatives: their Head of Product Innovation and Product Sustainability, Chief Customer Officer, General Manager of Product, and external comms partner from a global communications agency. Safe to say, we felt like we had the right people in the room!
And whilst we hugely respect Kathmandu’s approach in speaking to us and other voices (such as Ethically Kate) within the fashion and sustainability community, our conversation did not change our fundamental concerns with BioDown. Even though we heard from Kathmandu’s R&D expert how cutting edge the technology is, and from their marketing department about the ‘consumer research’ that backs up the product and the international awards they have won, we feel that BioDown and its promotion lack basic engagement with some essential concepts of sustainability. If one actually understands and implements well-established and celebrated sustainability concepts such as doughnut economics, the Sustainable Development Goals, or Ellen MacArthur’s principles of the Circular Economy, designing something to be thrown into landfills is a very different interpretation of those frameworks to ours.
Below we have set out the most significant issues (in our eyes) with the product. However, the ultimate theme that runs through each concern is that this product, from its design to its advertising, does not deliver on the transition to the circular, regenerative (and inclusive) economy that we desperately need.
Our issues with the BioDown Jacket
This is not an exhaustive list of our concerns but rather captures the most significant ones. Please reach out to us if you want to continue the kōrero, learn more about any of these points or add your own issues, or just discuss the circular economy more generally.
Design out waste + pollution
- If we are to achieve a circular fashion system first and foremost we have to design for it. This is not a jacket designed for a circular, waste-free future. This is a jacket designed to go into a landfill. In our conversation, Kathmandu told us they are committed to the principles of a circular economy, and on their website, they state “As a brand, we have the goal to have 100% of our products designed, developed, and manufactured using elements of circularity principles by 2025.” but we can only guess our interpretation of designing out waste and pollution is different to theirs.
- Kathmandu told us the number one design purpose of their BioDown jacket was durability. Or as it states on their website “…it’s designed to last forever,…”. A feature they tried to communicate through the aging character in their video. It’s been incredibly disheartening for us to realise that Kathmandu’s vision for the future of their industry in 40 or so years is that we will still be landfilling clothes. This is a vision we wholeheartedly disagree with. The fact that Kathmandu are using their mega platform to champion their vision of a future that is full of the same burgeoning landfills as today is perhaps what upset us the most. More than ever, we need people to be inspired and engaged to stop sending resources to landfills, and businesses to design products for the systems of the future – not the broken ones of today.
- Another aspect of the design we have felt let down by is that the entire jacket is made from virgin materials. When producing garments using synthetic fibres, we expect our clients to do so with a high percentage of recycled material – especially if they are creating a product using synthetic fibres. Because we quite simply have to leave fossil fuels in the ground! We know they are on a completely different scale, but for example, our client, Maggie Marilyn, uses reclaimed down, and recycled nylon in their comparable jacket.
- The choice of using an outdoor puffer jacket for this campaign was also a disappointment on the design side. Outdoor wear is traditionally made to last, designed with durability, and designed to be passed down the generations. Outdoor wear can easily be repaired, mended, and resold to maintain the highest possible value of the materials. These would all be lost if sent to landfill.
Promotion of landfills and passing on the responsibility
- Kathmandu is actively advertising a habit we need to desperately break. Chucking clothes in a landfill. No natural system has a landfill, we should not be heroing the inverse of the circular systems of nature that existed before us and will continue for the history of our planet.
- Kathmandu should use their position of trust and influence to promote demonstrable change in the way of responsible consumption, designing out waste and pollution, extending the life of products, and regenerating natural systems (the three principles of a circular economy).
- A key component of achieving a circular economy requires companies to take responsibility for their products. This is known as Product Stewardship aka Extended Producer Responsibility. It typically involves those responsible for manufacturing and / or selling a product to take responsibility for where that product “ends its life”. Or in circular thinking terms – how to ensure those resources go back into our economy. Kathmandu state on their website under the FAQ’s “When you’re ready to dispose of the jacket – which we think will be many years from now as it’s been made to last- you’ll need to check with your local council where the landfill sites are in your areas.” This is completely passing the buck to their customers. And how many of their customers do they really think will check with their local council?? In comparison, Patagonia (we acknowledge their significantly larger resource base) have set up Worn Wear. A program that provides a “…credit towards your next purchase on a used or new garment” when old Patagonia garments are returned to them.
Greenwashing – confusing the public
- Greenwashing involves the use of language, branding, imagery, or even products or services to fool customers or other stakeholders into thinking a business is doing good for the environment when in reality they are not.
- Fundamentally this is a campaign like all other product launch campaigns. Its main goal is to sell as many items as possible. The fact that Kathmandu are using virgin materials, saying they are ok to go to landfill, and perpetuating consumption of earth’s resources while using terminology such as “protects the planet”, “a new kind of jacket that the planet will approve of”, and “You’ll look good on the outside and feel great on the inside knowing you’re helping the planet.” is greenwashing plain and simple.
- When one of New Zealand’s largest fashion brands with huge influence runs a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign prompting the landfilling of their new jacket it massively damages all the work done by others to communicate the very opposite. So many in the fashion and sustainability space have done so much to engage and inspire their communities to extend the life of their clothes through care, repair, swap, and resale. All of this is undermined by a campaign that is telling the public they can throw a jacket in the landfill and it’s ok.
Use of money + resource
- This campaign would have cost multi-millions of dollars. That money could have been spent on engaging and educating Kathmandu customers on how to repair their damaged clothes, on repairing customers’ damaged clothes for them, developing a product stewardship programme, or developing a take-back and recycling programme. We don’t deny all of that is hard, but tackling the hard solutions is exactly what we need leading and well-resourced brands in this industry to be doing.
So, in conclusion, we are deeply disappointed with Kathmandu’s BioDown campaign. Designing a jacket that “…does use virgin materials…” and running a massive advertising campaign promoting the landfilling of said jacket does not align with our vision for a circular, regenerative, and inclusive fashion industry (and economy).
We feel deeply disappointed that Kathmandu have used their significant resources to produce and promote a product designed for landfills rather than tackling the industry’s huge challenges of overconsumption and production, recycling, repair, and resale.
We do however want to acknowledge and respect Kathmandu’s approach in reaching out and taking the time to speak with us. We are living in a climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis, a plastic pollution crisis, and widening inequality and we have to transform how we do business. That’s really hard! And, we aren’t all going to agree all the time on how we solve these wicked problems, so keeping open lines of communication to challenge our thinking, bounce ideas, take on feedback, and collaborate is of the utmost importance. We did send this article to them for comment before publishing but they never got back to us.
Further to this collaboration and communication, we need businesses and their people to be brave and bold, face up to the challenges, then design and test solutions. Transforming from a linear extractive and exclusive economic system to one that is circular, regenerative, and inclusive won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen if no one tries.
So we applaud Kathmandu for trying, but we will also speak up when we believe they have got it wrong.
Our biggest hope from all of this is that Kathmandu ceases to use the greenwashing terms highlighted above and take away a lot of learnings that they can then apply to their next new product development – one that really is designed for a circular, regenerative, and inclusive economy.
We look forward to seeing what that is, and how it is communicated.
Go Well Consulting.