With terms like 'eco-friendly' and 'sustainability' sounding more like marketing buzzwords than meaningful concepts, you'd be forgiven for feeling cynical when brands talk about their impact on the environment. Kate from Bellroy, on the other hand, is much more frank – "if I'm honest, the most sustainable production is none at all."
Where so many others fall back on cop-out answers in the face of an enormously complex problem, Kate clearly takes it as a provocation to think more deeply about the small changes Bellroy could make to reduce its environmental impact. "Working towards a more sustainable practice is not to change or action only one thing; it involves the tuning of many different complex cogs at any one given time." As the brand's Materials Developer, Kate pinpointed textiles as the space where she could make the biggest change, and the Bellroy team set about doing what they do best: design.
In the short-term, Bellroy zeroed in on recycled materials as the best way to make a positive change. Just a few years later, over 90% of the brand's textiles have switched to recycled sources, which turn single-use plastic bottles into a strong, reliable fabric that dramatically reduces the need for virgin materials. That recycled PET makes for durable bags and pouches, which fits Bellroy's goal of making things that we can love for as long as possible, so it's an effective substitute that doesn't sacrifice the quality that the brand is known for, with massive environmental benefits too. As Kate lays out in a video on Bellroy's Instagram, "when you switch from virgin to a recycled yarn, you're looking at anywhere from up to 85% reduction in energy use, you're looking at significant water reductions, you're looking at lower landfill in terms of the plastic bottles [that are used in making the textile], and in turn, you're looking at lower carbon emissions."
Those recycled materials are also certified by bluesign and OEKO-TEX, organisations who exist to ensure that textiles are safe for both the people making and using them, and for the planet. PET is also a strong choice as it's one of the most broadly recyclable materials, but ultimately, recycled materials are only a temporary solution. As Bellroy looks towards a more circular production model inspired by cradle-to-cradle design principles, it's clear that Kate and her team needed to plan for the next stage.
Kate began to explore options for plant-based materials, which turned out to be more of a challenge than anyone could've guessed. "Plant-based materials have been around for ages – waxed cotton is one of the oldest materials, with some extremely rich history in products that were required to be significantly robust. But as we learn more about the impact that our materials have on the planet, those options just weren't good enough anymore." It turns out that there are plenty of drawbacks to using virgin materials like cotton, from water use to the amount of energy used in processing, that meant it didn't live up to Bellroy's high standards.
It took more than a year of working with Bellroy's existing textile mills, creating something from scratch that satisfied the brand's plan to cut down on both virgin materials and petroleum-based products, before Kate found the next step for the brand. "We landed on TENCEL™ X REFIBRA™ when we learnt that the Refibra technology uses anywhere from 30%-50% recycled cotton mixed with the renewable FSC certified Tencel to make the material."
The process wasn't as simple as swapping one material for the other, though – TENCEL™ X REFIBRA™ had never been used for hard-wearing carry gear before, giving Kate and her team a challenge as they worked to turn a fabric mostly used in apparel into something suitable for pouches. "Developing a material from scratch is equal parts exciting and terrifying. You're working with something that you have no prior reference of; you don’t know how it might look or perform," says Kate. "The main challenge when working with a material like Tencel is constantly learning and adapting to play to its strengths. It's certainly kept us on our toes, and it's been extremely rewarding working on innovative solutions to reduce the environmental impact of our materials."
Now, after all that time and effort, you can finally hold the product of all Kate's hard work in your hand. The Gumnut and Smoke Blue fabrics are the first products using the TENCEL™ X REFIBRA™ material to hit shelves, available in Bellroy's beloved Classic Pouch and the newer Standing Pouch Plus. The fabric feels soft and strong at the same time, with a warm woven texture that's totally in keeping with Bellroy's reputation for construction and design.
Bellroy's Classic Pouch in Smoke Blue, made with TENCEL™ X REFIBRA™
But the work doesn't end there. From co-founder Andy to Kate to the brand as a whole, Bellroy is uncommonly candid about the challenges that come with improving their environmental impact, and how far they have to go. The process of moving towards the cradle-to-cradle production model that the brand aims for is not an end goal to be accomplished, but a destination to strive for, marked by constant learning, refining, education and experimentation. Part of that means exploring the potential of TENCEL™ X REFIBRA™, but Bellroy is also looking at further reducing the dependence on virgin materials, supporting regenerative agriculture and using the brand's profile to advocate for industry-wide change.
It's no small task, but Bellroy takes the challenge seriously, and won't hide behind greenwashing buzzwords to avoid doing its part.