Sustainability and Slovenia: Kelly Slater and John Moore on Outerknown’s Complete Circle | Heartbreakers II Pop-In@Nordstrom

Images + captions by John Moore

Competitive surfing legend Kelly Slater is now riding the menswear wave as an entrepreneur with Outerknown, the new casual-luxe brand he founded with designer and surfer John Moore which is part of our Heartbreakers II Pop-In Shop.

And he’s considering the health of our planet every step of the way.

The unofficial Outerknown motto is “we don’t expect what we don’t inspect”, which is how Slater and Moore ended up in a chemical plant last year in Ljubljana, Slovenia, analyzing reclaimed fishing nets being processed into ECONYL® nylon yarn–the basis of Outerknown’s swim trunks.

Outerknown is part of the Kering conglomerate which includes Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, and can be seen as a blend of that luxury world with a brand like Patagonia, built on values of sustainability and transparency about its supply chain.

Moore says on the factory floor in Slovenia is when the “first day” of the company truly occurred, surrounded by weird smells and industrial waste. There, he and Slater faced production costs in a very real way and decided they were all in.

Here’s that story in a Q&A with Moore and Slater.

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The Slovenian countryside. You can see horses if you squint.

Nordstrom blogs: OK, let’s go to Slovenia.

John Moore: Yep.

Why did you have to go there to see the operations in person? Why wasn’t it enough for you to believe ECONYL was in fact as ethical as it said it was?

In general about our whole supply chain, we have a saying that’s been ingrained since day one, which is “don’t expect what you don’t inspect”. There’s so many layers traditionally to the way you manufacture clothing, and so many things that can happen from subcontracting, to yarns being switched out, to different things that happen along the process. For us we took those words to heart and wanted to go straight to the source. ECONYL being a new product, and something we weren’t familiar with, we really wanted to understand it for ourselves. So it made sense to go there. I could not have told you where Slovenia was before I went. I thought it was in Eastern Europe. I had no idea it’s like five hours from Milan. We travel a lot as a brand. We don’t want to leave anything to someone else. We want to see it with our own eyes.

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Afternoon sunlight.

Why are there so many fishing nets floating off the coast of Slovenia?

There isn’t. Slovenia only has 28 kilometers of coastline. But that’s where Aquafil, the parent company of ECONYL, has set up their operations to work on the ECONYL yarn. And they’ve invested a lot of money in it, something like $20 million Euros, for this intake and conversion center. They’re pulling nets from all over the world. The bulk of the nets we were exposed to when we toured the facility were from the North Sea. They have a couple companies bringing nets to the intake center. They can take nets from all over the world.

What did it look like? Nets everywhere?

The only way I can describe it is there were literally football-field-sized rooms filled with nets from floor to ceiling. Manually, workers are pulling nets and preparing them to be reclaimed. Four rooms the size of football fields, stacked with nets of all colors. Over the course of the next 48 hours, we saw many different tractor trailer trucks delivering more nets. I can’t speak to the tonnage. But we saw tons and tons of nets. Other rooms held other nylon wastes, like the top pile of industrial carpeting that they’re ripping out of old buildings. And the moldings that are discarded from furniture that’s also made from nylon. We kept seeing more and more waste.

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The Karl Mayer machines spinning out yarns.

Are these functional nets? Abandoned?

There are nets considered ghost nets, which are literally drifting out in the ocean which are collected all over the world. There are nets that are discarded, and sitting at fishing yards. There are new nets that somehow end up in the waste program, maybe they have a functional problem. The interior of the net, the bulk of the net, is this Nylon 6 fiber. And that’s what we’re able to reclaim. The rope around the edge of the net is made out of a polyamide, and that isn’t reclaimed for our ECONYL yarns, but Aquafil sends those ropes somewhere else to be recycled.

What does that mean, Nylon 6?

It’s a generic fiber, it’s good for a lot of things. It’s what we’re able to reclaim. And that fiber is available in these particular fishing nets, as well as waste from furniture manufacturing as well as of the top pile of industrial carpeting. So those are the three sources we’re using in our yarn.

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I loved the patterns in the rope.

A brief technical note from Aquafil’s brand and communications manager, Maria Giovanna Sandrini:

Fishing nets are cleaned and chopped in order to feed the chemical plant we implemented few years ago. Thanks to it, Aquafil is able to regenerate Nylon 6 waste into the raw material we generally buy (a derivative of oil). From there the process is the same as the traditional one: raw material is transformed into polymers (white chips) and then extruded into ECONYL® yarn. Our main sources of nets are the fish farm industry, ports, fishermen’s groups and initiatives such as Healthy Seas and Net-Works.

Back to John Moore:

What we saw was all of the nets and this other waste brought together, ground down into a powder and then distilled into what I would call–and again, this is my brain–a soup. They create a liquid from the powder. Ultimately they’re creating new nylon yarns. It’s all being compressed into new threads. Fourteen hundred thread counts coming out of one machine at once, on new spools which are the yarns we send to our factories. It blew my mind. And look, we’re seeing the good and the bad. In these early stages of going out there to see these different relationships we have, we’re not just going out there to pound our chests about how great we’re doing, we’re going out to see what doesn’t feel right about the process. If you’re creating new nylon, the process is petroleum intense. When you’re reclaiming, you’re using 80% less petroleum. That’s phenomenal by itself. That was one of the aha moments for me. But to be honest with you, in the factories, there were aspects that didn’t make us feel right. The temperatures of the rooms and some of the smells. We see the good and the bad. That’s why we’re going to these factories. To experience it directly, so not only can we work with them to build the most sustainable standards, but how we can help them to improve their social standards on the factory floor. After we did our tour, Kelly and I weren’t wearing facemasks. And we noticed a few other people weren’t as well. And so we worked with them to see if that was something they would consider going forward. And that’s something they’ve done at the factory level. They showed us the entire process, from the nets to these giant, giant spools. The size of tractor tires.

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Standing on stacks of nets.

Do you remember a conversation with Kelly in the intake facility when you both decided, Yes, this is OK with us?

Yes. It was in a roundabout way. Kelly was questioning on the factory floor, saying, “This is great, but do we need nylon in our product?” I believed we did, because if we’re making functional trunks and jackets, we need to use some sort of synthetic fiber. We can either generate new synthetic materials and textiles which is extremely fuel-intensive–that’s the whole petroleum conversation–or we can reclaim these, cutting down on the resources necessary to build them. We were having this conversation as we decompressed at the end of the day, and it was heavy, because even after being there all day, he was questioning whether we should go through with this process. I asked him, “Do you want to make trunks? Do you want to make jackets that can be all-weather garments?” He said, “Absolutely, these items are essential to our lifestyle.” We both had this moment, this realization that ECONYL should be a big part of our equation. It had been a year and a half of developing Outerknown. We had been talking about ECONYL for six months at the time of the Slovenia visit. That day on the factory floor, for me, felt like day one. We were there, on the ground, in a place I couldn’t have told you where it was before, with Kelly, who’s between surfing contests–he’s incredibly busy….I’m asking the question in a bigger way, which is if we wanted to use these materials we had to use this process, but also that day validated our mission. It felt like the first day of really bringing this to life.

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The colors blew my mind.

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The neutrals.

Kelly Slater, reached in between surfing contests:

What was it about seeing the ECONYL fishing net-gathering process in Slovenia that made you decide they were a good partner for Outerknown? What were your concerns going in?

As a fabric it is endlessly recyclable. Being able to use a fabric that makes the ocean cleaner to create boardshorts, which are made to be in the water, feels like a complete circle. At first we wondered about the quality, but once we got to Slovenia and saw firsthand their commitment to conservation and sustainability, we realized we could create a product that fit our standards. Shortly after our trip to Slovenia, we hired Shelly Gottschamer, our Chief Officer of Sustainability. So now she vets all of our factories on the front end to make sure they adhere to our strict social and environmental standards.

When did conservation become important for you?

As a professional surfer I spend a tremendous amount of time in the ocean, so its health is very important to me. Traveling around the world, I’ve experienced firsthand the ways we are polluting and damaging our largest resource, and if we don’t all take action now, it will be devastating. I’ve been sponsored all of my life as a surfer. People would give me clothes and I started to ask myself how those clothes were made and who made them. Those questions were the basis for starting Outerknown. Sustainability, conservation and transparency were core concepts before design or anything else. What we want is for Outerknown to help inspire change in the apparel industry and show what can be done when you put sustainability as your company mission.

What do you want Outerknown to be?

I just really believe that sustainability is all about transparency. We aren’t perfect. We are striving to put out the best possible product in a sustainable way and we are challenging the traditional system in order to do that. It’s certainly not easy and we aren’t 100% sustainable but that’s our goal. That’s why we try to be transparent and tell stories about the people we source from and we hope people come on the journey with us. Acting with integrity is not always the easiest path to take, but we really believe that we need to be sensible and mindful of the legacy we are leaving behind us as consumers. If we can encourage or inspire other companies to take the same path we are on, that would be a success for me.

Back to John Moore:

What stood out to you about the physical area around the intake facility? What’s it like there?

I can send you a couple iPhone photos I took of the environment. It’s lush, beautiful farmland. Rolling green hills. They get a lot of rain. Beautiful mountains. As we were driving from Ljubljana–it’s so hard for me to pronounce–it was about a 45 minute drive through beautiful, rural Europe. Barns everywhere. Stunning land. There aren’t a lot of waves in that region, but there’s amazing coastline.

For Outerknown, do you also go to Peru where the alpacas are sheared or the farms where the hemp is made into yarn?

Absolutely. And now we have Shelly Gottschamer, who came to us from Patagonia and who this week is in Portugal setting up a new supply chain. She is literally on the factory floor, in one factory or another, every week. She’s hardly ever in the office. This March we’re going to Peru, Kelly and I, to be exposed to our Peruvian supply chain where we get our organic pima cotton, where we mill products, manufacture them. This is farm-to-product for how we make our Peruvian knits. Just so you know though, we don’t open up any of these supply chain partnerships–and I believe we have nine in total–until they are fully vetted and adhere to the very strict standards of the Fair Labor Association. So even though Kelly and I might not be on the front end of all those relationships, Shelly is.

–Andrew Matson

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