Seventy-six years ago, an enterprising chemist at the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del., synthesized a new polymer from a petroleum base. This new material, nylon, was first used as bristles in toothbrushes, a use that most of you reading this paper hopefully have a connection with. The eponymous nylon stocking came about in 1940, and new material was put to extensive use in World War II, particularly with parachutes, which historically had been constructed of silk. Hardly a day goes by that we are not using nylon in some form or another. It is a multipurpose material that can be built into a variety of consumer, industrial and military applications.
Nylon with its compact molecular structure is durable and strong. When used in textiles, the abrasion resistance is far superior to cotton. Through a variety of mechanical treatments it can be dyed to any color, woven into fabric soft enough for a bridal gown or tough enough for a backpack. Windbreakers, ski jackets and camouflage hunting coats are a few examples of the clothing we take for granted.
A large percentage of the performance nylon we use as a nation is woven, dyed and treated in the Republic of China, Taiwan. During the last week of February, my work took me to Taiwan to learn about how the fabrics are manufactured and the resulting environmental footprint. The mills we visited contract with the major brands - Nike, Adidas, Mossy Oak, Columbia and my employer of 27 years, The North Face.
The North Face, as an outdoor brand, addresses sustainability as part of its heritage. Just as publishers care about literacy for a viable consumer base, outdoor brands need places for their consumers to use their products. Yet sustainability is not just for the companies associated with nature. It is integral to business in the 21st century. Sound business practice includes addressing how products are manufactured and distributed. Wal-Mart, with their size and reach, has realized they have a tremendous opportunity to use less energy and harmful chemicals in their business. From their own website, "At Wal-Mart, sustainability continues to make us a better company by reducing waste, lowering costs, driving innovation, and helping us fulfill our mission to save people money so they can live better." It also makes Wal-Mart a more profitable company.
The environmental footprint of a given product equates to the amount of resources required to bring it to market. For a nylon jacket, the supply chain, from the raw material to the finished product, has the greatest impact. Dyeing the fabric involves massive machines that circulate the material at temperatures over 200 degrees for two hours in a bath of solvents and dye. The water, chemicals and energy to build a simple jacket are considerable. To monitor the production of a globally sourced product is a challenge. To help with this, The North Face partnered with Bluesign, a textile standards index based in Switzerland. The mills we visited in Taiwan were Bluesign compliant, initially because we as a vendor requested it and they value our business, but increasingly after two years of cooperation the realization that it has streamlined their business and made them more profitable. When annual savings are equated to a new automobile or a year of college tuition, factory owners get it.
Businesses that understand the benefit of sustainability will create more value and in turn be rewarded by the market and investors. Communities, whether regional or national, that embrace these practices are doing the right thing, be it job creation or leaving a less toxic planet, for the next generation. We should strive to leave future generations with the opportunities our parents and grandparents left us.
Conrad Anker is a mountaineer and author. He lives with his family in Bozeman.