Men’s apparel startup HyperNatural is aiming to subvert the industry’s reliance on synthetic materials with its unique fabric made from a blend of recycled and organic waste streams. While it’s still ironing out circularity kinks, the brand is determined to not make perfection the enemy of progress.
The world might utter a collective, bored sigh at the announcement of yet another polo shirt. But what about one made from zero virgin polyester, plastics, synthetic dyes or petrochemicals?
HyperNatural is a Wisconsin-based startup producing a new breed of polo shirts made from natural and recycled materials. HyperNatural’s unique fabric is crafted from organic cotton, recycled yarn scraps, mother of pearl buttons, and waste crab shells and jade stone — resulting in a garment that’s soft, cool to the touch, sweat- and odor-absorbing, and 95 percent biodegradable.
Co-founder Chris Kolbe told Sustainable Brands® he envisioned a superior-quality product that also happens to be sustainable.
“A lot of sustainable products focus on marketing and what stories to tell; but the product too often is not awesome or differentiated from what’s in the market today,” he said.
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HyperNatural is a part of a growing movement of brands aiming to redefine luxury through a sustainability lens — ushering in a paradigm shift from scarcity-as-status to function-and-virtue-as-status. As Kolbe pointed out, luxury pulls the market with it — the high end can cascade throughout the market to affect a broader consumer base. And though sustainability isn’t HyperNatural’s main value proposition, the company unashamedly exists to promote natural materials over the current reigning champ of textiles: Polyester.
The startup flipped the typical “design-first” approach in the garment industry and started from the material up — developing a yarn blend of waste materials including jade stone, chitin derived from crab shells, and scrap cotton from mill floors. Aside from the environmental benefits of utilizing waste material, HyperNatural’s Franken-fiber has key performance benefits: Jade stone helps regulate skin temperature; and chitin, a natural biopolymer, has promise in reducing body odor. HyperNatural blended this reclaimed yarn with just over 50 percent US-grown Supima cotton, which is considered one of the world’s premier cottons.
To make waves in the market, Kolbe said, a product must be awesome first and virtuous second. This guerilla sustainability tactic uses our innate human desire for status as a vehicle for sneaking sustainability into the mainstream.
“If we’re going to make something sustainable, it has to be an awesome product first,” he said. “We want people to wear the product regardless of its sustainability … What drives consumption and brand loyalty is a combination of product and brand; so, if you make a really great product that also has a virtuous benefit or brand connection, then you have a real competitive advantage in the market.”
HyperNatural’s irreverent brand voice is also a twist; Kolbe says irreverence humanizes things and is an underutilized tool in both the luxury and sustainability space for capturing hearts and minds.
“We think nature is f*cking awesome,” Kolbe said. “That is luxury. Nature feels good — whether it’s on your body or you’re in it.”
Image credit: HyperNatural
The problem with poly
Polyester is the most widely used clothing fiber in the world. The polyester boom is a direct result of the fast-fashion movement, Kolbe said. A fossil-based textile, polyester is linked to a host of problems, from oil extraction to production to health effects in use to end of life. And while game-changing advancements are emerging in recycling polyester and even creating the fabric from captured carbon, in the end the story is the same: Polyester takes decades to decompose.); and as 85 percent of all garments end up in landfills (almost six percent of all municipal waste each year), we’re still clogging our natural world with plastic pollution.
“In the end, we’re trying to eliminate polyester from being a real option in apparel,” Kolbe said. “Nature is the way to do it — nature is our hero.”
HyperNatural has gotten comfy with a few realities:
People value quality over virtue.
Widespread adoption comes when something becomes fashionable.
With most clothes ending up in landfill, biodegradability must be incorporated into product design.
Another reality is that HyperNatural polos aren’t recyclable (spoiler alert: Most clothes aren’t, because end of life isn’t considered in most garment design) and they do contain five percent recycled spandex. But, Kolbe says, they’re not letting perfection be the enemy of progress.
“You’ve got to work toward lowest impact versus perfection,” he said. “Biodegradability should be the first goal [over recyclability]; because [being landfilled] is likely the outcome.”
Currently, 95 percent of HyperNatural material is biodegradable in a home compost bin; and the brand is working toward 100 percent natural and regenerative materials within the next two years. The remaining five percent not readily broken down in the environment is recycled spandex, which the company plans to supplant with bio-based spandex soon.
Alternative materials and traceability: Uncharted waters
Another thing Kolbe acknowledges is that life cycle analyses and traceability programs don’t yet exist for chitin and jade. HyperNatural wants to use its influence to demand transparency from its alternative fiber suppliers — but for now, building a better shirt is the key mission; and lacking that transparency for some of its key materials isn't getting in the way of a launch.
“When you’re starting something really new, like we’re doing, a lot of these things take a little bit of time — because you have to invest money to get a lot of these certifications,” Kolbe said. “We’re in pretty new territory here, so we need to find the right ways to validate it.”
“We’re working really hard on the source level to reduce the need for synthetic, petrochemical materials,” Kolbe said. “That’s our main goal. That’s how we can have the biggest impact on carbon and end of life.”
Replacing its recycled spandex with a bio-based alternative will eliminate the most carbon-intensive component of HyperNatural’s material. It will also work closely with cotton farmers to use regenerative farming techniques, which sequester carbon and enhance soil health.
“Ten years from now, people will see polyester in the same way they see petroleum today,” Kolbe said. “The way to replace polyester in the market is to give people the idea that nature can have performance, too. Changing the paradigm to natural performance is better or comparable — I think that’s a big opportunity with the consumer.”
HyperNatural will debut in finer men’s retail stores in Spring 2023.