Carol Shu spends her days thinking about gear that’s going home with customers right this minute. As senior manager of global sustainability for The North Face, she is constantly wondering how to make outdoor goods with a smaller environmental footprint that still perform everywhere, from sidewalk to summit.
But she also thinks about that gear’s future—after it’s had a nice life, with countless adventures and a few patch-ups, when it’s just about on its last (pant) leg. Once it’s no longer repairable, the piece is ready for its next phase—and if Shu and her colleagues have anything to do with it, that means the gear is going to be turned into something new and ready to hit the trail again.
The brand’s new Circaloft™ apparel line makes that vision real. Circaloft is a lightweight and packable insulation designed to be recyclable into raw goods for future gear. The jackets and pants in the new collection are built for light travel in fairly cold, drizzly conditions, and feature minimalist designs in soft colors. The design principles and materials behind the line demonstrate how The North Face has progressed toward a circular business model—one that disrupts the traditional take-make-waste gear economy—in the last decade. The goal is to encourage repairs and keep gear out in the world (and out of landfills) through recycling and reuse.
REI Co-op has been supporting the circular economy with its Re/Supply used-gear program, and actively seeks to partner with brands that put sustainability efforts at the fore. The North Face is definitively one: From its take-back program in 2013 to the 2018 launch of The North Face Renewed—the brand’s refurbished gear program—and now with Circaloft, the nearly 60-year-old company has been making significant moves in tackling the manufacturing footprint on a systemic level.
Circular Design in Action
Producing any new clothes or gear in a linear supply chain takes an environmental toll, from extracting resources and using energy to make and distribute products to disposing of gear at the end of its life. The brand gets items back from customers through its take-back program, thereby reusing hard-won materials to create new goods and reducing each item’s impact by extending its life cycle. It requires some creativity, however—and that’s where Shu and the rest of the The North Face team come in.
The North Face designers work to create more easily recycled gear that’s also made in a low- to no-waste production stream. To achieve that, more of the brand’s gear is constructed with recycled, responsibly sourced, renewable or regeneratively grown materials. The North Face also works with disposal partners who can more efficiently take apart and repurpose gear at its end of life.
That’s why it’s no coincidence that Shu brings up table saws not long into discussing Circaloft. Because to really understand the future of circular design, you have to get into ripping things up.
Imagine everything that goes into your average puffy: the stitching and seams, different colored polyester, metal zippers, buttons, snaps, elastics and more. All these elements make a sturdy garment, but they also gum up the works when it comes time to take the jacket apart and make it into something new. Any metal or elastic, for example, needs to be cut out before recycling, and each fabric in a jacket’s design might need to be recycled differently (and separately).
That’s what makes the pants and jackets in this The North Face Circaloft collection unique: They are designed with few variations in materials and construction, can quickly be separated into their components and are shredded before recycling. They feature minimalist stitching, simple colorways and recycled polyester zipper tapes to go along with the rest of the garment, which is made of nearly 100% recycled polyester.
“Kellen Hennessy is our senior circularity design manager, and she really works closely with the design teams and our technical development teams on garment construction, placement of trims and seams and thinking holistically about how that product is built,” Shu says.
After the initial design, The North Face sent product samples to the textile recommerce and recycling center Tersus, which will receive Circaloft take-back products to disassemble and prep them for recycling. Tersus conducted disassembly trials to see how fast the products could be taken apart with the most material saved, and provided feedback on what could make the process easier.
“They set up a small table saw and cut out all of the metal zipper tops and bottom stops, cut out elastic cuffs,” Shu says. “We timed the trials to see how long it would take, and we also weighed the products before and after to see how much material we were recovering.”
Built to Last Lifetimes
While The North Face Circaloft products are designed to be all-stars when it comes time to shred, they’re also designed to be very good clothes, lasting a long time before hitting the table saw. Shu says, “The best thing a consumer can do is to use our product—like, completely wear it out.” The North Face encourages customers to repair and re-wear as long as possible and provides QR codes in labels inside each Circaloft piece with info about what to do when items reach their end of life.
“We are excited about Circaloft’s warmth-to-weight ratio, great packability and sustainability features,” says Alexa Mennella, an outdoor category merchandising manager at REI Co-op. “This piece has great performance.” This season’s minimal quilting pattern holds synthetic sheet insulation in place to avoid clumping of loose insulation; there’s a non-PFC finish that repels water; and both Circaloft pants and jackets pack down super small. Shu says The North Face leadership is thinking about how to make even more products fit this circular philosophy. “I think Circular Design really reflects how we’re thinking bigger across more of our line,” says Shu. “Circular Design products aren’t limited to just one product category.”
Because of that, circularity will continue to be a major goal in all facets of the brand. “We try to think about circularity as an overall umbrella under which a lot of our work falls,” says Shu, who herself has had no small part in shepherding this effort over her eight-year career at The North Face. While her job is to think about the brand’s environmental footprint in all aspects of the company, she spends much of her time thinking specifically about products and materials. “That’s probably also the most fun part for me,” she says.
The long-term circularity goal at The North Face, Shu says, is to build an entire system to support circular production streams—right now, there’s no robust infrastructure for efficiently recycling all the parts of the clothes we wear. Recycling more items requires more recycling facilities, like chemical or advanced recyclers, working with a wider variety of companies. Shu envisions a collaboration of brands both big and small to build demand for that infrastructure, because recycling higher volumes will be more impactful—and influential. “I think there is going to be a lot of opportunity for brands to work together to gather enough volume to build regional facilities and help service this need,” she explains.
The Circaloft line is the first step in what Shu hopes will be a long legacy of cross-industry, cross-brand partnerships that make circular design something consumers can expect more broadly—not something that only some brands, like The North Face or REI Co-op, do. She looks forward to knowing—hopefully many years from now—that material from this Circaloft collection has made it into brand-new The North Face products. “That would be the dream,” she says. “If you bought Circaloft version five, it might have a little bit of postconsumer take-back in it.”
And then it would head out to the trails for its next adventure.