Jan 24 2014, 10:20am CST | by Forbes
Eco-friendly denim takes the prize.
By that I mean, I recently was a judge at a pitch competition held during MakeImpactNYC, a conference aimed at getting social enterprises and other like-minded people from the five boroughs of New York together at one time. Called the Battle of the Boros, the competition pitted startups representing Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island–one for each borough.
The winner, by unanimous decision, was a startup in Manhattan by the name of I Am Not A Virgin, which plans to sell a line of jeans made from a mix of cotton and recycled materials, like plastic bottles, and from non-cotton materials like bamboo. (Bamboo, according to founder Peter Heron, makes for a better fit. Also, in case you’re wondering, the company name refers to the fact that the denim is made of other things in addition to cotton).
The company was started by Peter Heron, who was working as a creative director for an advertising agency in Australia when he won a green card in the lottery five years ago and decided to move to New York City to start a business. The idea was simple, in a complex way: “I wanted to know if green technology could make a better fitting jean,” he says.
Through a lot of research he discovered that some people were making denim manufactured partially with scraps of leftover fabric. That seemed like an ok idea, but Heron didn’t think the quality was good enough. So he decided to take a different tack, at first using 75% cotton and 25% recycled materials. Too much of the recycled stuff, he feared, would hurt the jeans’ durability.
At the same time, “I knew if you want a great product you need a great team,” he says. Through a contact, he met Walt Connelly, a former executive creative director at JWT and Ogilvy, and they became partners. He also took a course in how to cut and sew, a pretty important skill he wanted to master.
Heron continued to try out other approaches, however, always with his eye on producing eco-friendly jeans that fit well. The company’s motto is “First we save your ass. Second we save the environment.” Says Heron. “Number one thing is we are a fashion brand.”
So, Heron tested out different proportions of recycled to non-recycled material. To produce trendy skinny jeans, for example, he tried lowering the content to 10% recycled stuff. (Zippers are made partially from milk protein). At the same time, he started working with other materials, like monocel, which is made from bamboo, is very soft, and, with a four-way stretch, makes for a better fit, he says. (He also plans to make t-shirts that may be made partially from such materials as recycled X-ray film).
The exact styles he’ll launch with–and the material they’ll contain–are still a bit of a work in progress.
Finding investors, apparently, also is a work in progress, because so many investors are putting their money in digital tech startups these days. He’s talking to some potential investors now, but can’t say who they are. He hopes to launch in two months or so.
As you might expect, it’s the story behind the company that Heron hopes will be particularly attractive to investors and consumers–an authentic message likely to resonate with today’s young, socially conscious consumers. “We’re what we term eco-sexy,” he says.
The actual cutting and sewing of the fabric will be sub-contracted out to manufacturers in L.A. As for where he’s selling the product, first step is online, next is to get in brick and mortar stores. According to Heron, they’re working on a sophisticated technology with which consumers can figure out the best size and fit online.
How, exactly, does Heron turn, for example, bottles into fabric for jeans? In the case of bottles, it’s all about extracting oil. So bottles, which are collected in a recycling facility, are melted down into fine particles, which, in turn, are extruded through a nozzle system that pulls out strands to be twisted into yarn. That material, finally, is woven into denim, along with virgin cotton. Each pair of jeans uses six to eight recycled bottles.
The result of this process, according to Heron, is a big reduction in oil. He says that about 600 million pairs of jeans are sold in the U.S. every year and if they all used his process, we’d save about 1.2 million barrels of oil a year.
The bamboo route, of course, doesn’t even involve using cotton. That can reap big savings in reduced use of land, water, and fertilizer needed to grow cotton.
(The right to use the word “virgin”, by the way, has been disputed by Virgin, something that Forbes contributor Anderson Antunes has written about).
I Am Not A Virgin, of course, is not the first social enterprise to use recycled materials. There’s Terracycle, a seller of fertilizer made from worm poop, along with other products fashioned from recycled juice pouches and other such things. And Rareform, which I’ve written about, makes surfboard bags from billboards. So why not jeans?
“Our green technology is a unique fit,” says Heron.
Source: Forbes Business
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