Jason Chen, founder of Taiwanese textile manufacturer Singtex, made what may be the company’s most
important decision because his wife told him he smelled bad. They were getting coffee at a Starbucks, and he had just been to the gym.
“Why don’t you just put coffee grounds in your clothing?” she asked, after observing an old lady who was picking up free coffee grounds, waste material Starbucks didn’t use. Chen immediately took the idea to his company, found there were no existing patents and got to work.
When Chen founded Singtex 24 years ago, it was a traditional textile manufacturer, but the company began producing synthetic fabric when it started to face cheaper Chinese competition in the 1990s. Now it creates the synthetic fabric used in many brands of outerwear, from Nike to The North Face. With the decision, in 2005, to incorporate discarded coffee grounds, Singtex opened a new door to a sustainable, environmentally friendly approach that builds on the concept, frequently seen in nature, of ecosystem-level resource re-use.
“I want to use nature’s technology to build a high-tech company and to help our environment,” says Chen. “We don’t want to waste any kind of energy.”
As a result, Singtex, which filed its initial public offering in 2013, has placed an emphasis on environmental practices. It’s achieving bluesign certification—think LEED for the textile industry—thanks to careful use of recycled water, natural gas for energy and eliminating non-sustainable ingredients from its products.
Housed in a large modern factory in Taipei, Singtex employs 230 people. The factory is clean and white and smells of coffee. The long, open building is filled with the machinery that spins the yarn and weaves the fabric, as well as a research and development facility.
But Singtex is more than a sustainable factory; the coffee grounds offer real innovation. Singtex extracts oil residue from the grounds and incorporates it into the product. Early prototypes didn’t work so well; over time, the oil would blend with oil from the wearer’s body and start giving off a foul scent of coffee and body odor. So Singtex began using a high-pressure CO2 extractor, which isolates certain components of the coffee oil. When used to weave fabric, these create pores that trap scent and expel water vapor. After four years and $2 million, Singtex had a working product called S.Café, which is now incorporated into products from Eastern Mountain Sports, New Balance, Asics and others. (Patagonia uses fabric from Singtex—but not the S.Café brand—and Singtex participates in Patagonia’s “1% for the Planet” campaign.)
Plastic clothes are everywhere. Chances are you’re wearing something synthetic right now. Visit any ski hill, and you’ll see hordes of brightly colored athletes staying warm and dry in gear made from polyester and nylon, imitation down and fleece, branded with names like Gore-Tex, Polartec, NeoShell and OmniDry.
While all that plastic makes pretty nice clothes, wicking sweat from the inside out and protecting wearers from the environment, the environment needs protecting from the clothes, too. Simply putting them in a washing machine causes tiny fibers to split off, which get expelled in waste water. They eventually make their way to the oceans and into the food chain, according to a study by researchers at University College Dublin published in 2011 in Environmental Science and Technology. Plus, there’s the creation process, which consumes water and petroleum and generates CO2—34 gallons of water and 20 pounds of CO2 per garment in the case of Patagonia’s R2 jacket—enough that the outdoor-clothing manufacturer has encouraged customers not to buy its clothes and has set up recycling and exchange programs.
So how do we lessen the impact of all this plastic clothing? Recycling or upcycling natural fibers into the garments is a start. More and more, companies are innovating around a solution, or a family of solutions, that incorporates some amount of natural product—like coconut or coffee waste—into the fibers, helping them keep you warmer and drier. At a stroke, this little lesson from nature can make clothing more sustainable and more effective.
Although Singtex fabrics incorporate nature, rather than copying it, what they do copy is one of nature’s founding principles: Whatever is waste in one cycle is food, fuel or building material in the next. Singtex is mimicking that loop, nature’s uncanny ability to repurpose nearly every byproduct into a building block for something else.
This is different from recycling, explains Gunter Pauli, an expert in sustainable entrepreneurship. In his 2010 book, The Blue Economy, he describes a zero-waste economy. Instead of traditional recycling, material is repurposed. It’s a more elegant, more efficient system, albeit more complex. “Whenever we do not know what to do with a ‘waste,’ we ‘discard’ it. That is antithetical to the way natural ecosystems operate,” Pauli writes. “The first step is to search for ways to convert waste into contribution and to identify inputs that are widely and cheaply available because they are of little to no value to anyone else in the system.”
Coffee is a perfect example: It’s notoriously wasteful, with up to 99.8 percent of the bulk—either fruit and shells or grounds—discarded. And it’s the second-most-traded commodity in the world, after oil.
There’s plenty of that coffee waste to go around, and Singtex isn’t alone in infusing synthetic products with coffee byproduct. Virus, a small company founded in 2010, uses the discarded hulls of coffee beans—that is, the byproduct of the fruit, before the beans are processed—purchased from Starbucks, to make its base layer tights warmer.
Virus is housed in a small southern California workshop primarily used for research and development. It’s home to big rolls of fabric, stitching machines and computers that aid design. The staff, including a full-time designer, experiments with patterns on mannequins and then on human models. And they experiment with the material itself.
In one test, Virus took two versions of blended spandex/nylon fabric—one coffee infused, one not—and set them beside each other under a heat lamp. After one minute, the impregnated version, with threads about 50 percent thicker, was 10 to 15 degrees warmer. “We were all excited about the heat trap technology, but really what it comes down to is the way we’ve woven the fabric together creates this incredible moisture wicking technology,” says Sten Rasmussen, vice president of marketing at Virus. “If you’re dry, you’re warm.”
As a bonus, the hulls are cheap. Partly
because of the large supply of expendable coffee bits, and partly because Virus contracts for its own textiles from a factory in Taiwan, the company can sell its clothing at price points comparable to non-coffee-endowed competitors. Although people are increasingly willing to pay a premium for sustainable products, the Blue Economy principle means that may not be necessary.
Virus is still small, cobbled together by about five people, yet it’s growing and seeing success with its business model. As a company with a self-branded product, rather than a component of other brands, it is making an effort to differentiate itself. Virus uses different material, infuses it differently, markets to different sports and holds its own patents and trademarks. Virus’ founders participate in action sports like surfing and motocross, so that’s where they focus their marketing. They have no need to take on the big boys yet, though Rasmussen claims Virus gear is as good or better. It’s even finding a niche among sponsored athletes: “We have guys that are buying our stuff who get Nike and Under Armour for free.”
This is an excerpt from a longer article that was printed in the Jan/Feb issue of The Intelligent Optimist. Download a FREE copy here.
Top image: Emile Noordeloos | Bottom image: Courtesy of Singtex