For a brand that's just turned three years old, PANGAIA has been making a lot of noise. Launched in late 2018, its ethos might not seem unusual for a contemporary fashion brand: to create and sell clothing made through earth-friendly practices. But PANGAIA looks to do this by replacing traditional materials with bio-based, animal-friendly alternatives developed by its own team of biologists, fiber scientists and engineers. Its founding team includes alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while investors include Carmen Busquets, co-founder of fashion brand NET-A-PORTER.
The brand's origins trace back to Future Tech Lab, an incubator specializing in responsible technological innovations. While collaborating on next-generation sustainable materials, a team of seven employees including Dr Amanda Parkes, a fashion scientist who now works as PANGAIA's chief innovation officer, began to realize how stagnant the fashion industry was. Amanda and her colleagues thought it was strange that, while tech giants like Google and Apple develop their own software through internal research, hardly any fashion labels were developing their own materials.
‘Whereas technology has moved forward hugely, textiles simply haven't advanced,’ Amanda tells Courier from PANGAIA's London office. ‘The last big breakthrough in textile technology was polyester or Spandex in the sixties. We realized there was so much opportunity to make new stuff.’
That's not to say that innovative materials weren't being made. But too often these were limited to a ‘laboratory, experimental scale’, she says, without a ‘direct route’ to commercialization. PANGAIA – its name derived from the Ancient Greek ‘pan’ (all, entire, whole) and ‘Gaia’ (mother earth, land) – was launched to bring the most effective technologies that the team could identify to fruition and, by fusing them with good design, show them off.
In doing so, the company hopes to address an industry that's been devastating the environment for decades. Between 4% and 10% of global carbon emissions can be attributed to fashion – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. The industry also consumes nearly 100 billion cubic meters of water and produces around 92 million tonnes of waste annually. On top of that, there's the chemical pollution: treatment of garments, such as dyeing, makes up roughly 17% to 20% of all industrial water pollution.
Show them what you're made of
PANGAIA is a demonstration, says Amanda, that sustainability and sales aren't mutually exclusive. The brand launched with a collection of seaweed fiber T-shirts, but it made its name from its bright tracksuits, made from recycled and organic cotton. In 2020, its first full year of trading, PANGAIA turned over $75 million in sales and remained profitable, according to analysis company The Business of Fashion.
Among the materials PANGAIA produces is FLWRDWN, made from wildflowers and used in place of feathers and synthetic down. It has more recently unveiled two fabrics that look and feel like cotton, but have zero cotton content: FRUTFIBER repurposes banana leaf, pineapple leaf and bamboo fibers, while PLNTFIBER uses renewable plants like Himalayan nettle, bamboo, eucalyptus and seaweed.
The brand is also collaborating with materials science company Kintra Fibers to create a polyester replacement derived from corn rather than fossil fuels, scheduled to launch later this year.
Though the collections differ in fabric, they remain constant in style: bright, bold and cozy. The brand sells clothes almost exclusively online, each item inscribed with its materials. Today, the company has more than 160 employees, 15 of which comprise a research and development team in New York. Besides New York, its top markets are the UK, Los Angeles, Paris, Shanghai and Seoul.
Balancing innovation with profit
The fashion industry has been throwing the word ‘sustainability’ around for decades, but PANGAIA doesn't want to be perceived as another greenwashing brand. So, instead, it defines its work by two concepts: responsible innovation and high-tech naturalism.
In practice, this means the company takes materials only where there's ‘an abundance in nature’, Amanda says, then it'll apply the ‘highest level of science to pull out what nature is doing well’. With FLWRDWN, for example, it takes wildflowers and mixes them with a biopolymer to augment the thermal properties. ‘It's about taking the mechanisms of nature and using them for what we need, but not going against them,’ explains Amanda.
The company's research is directed by several ‘pillars’ – or areas where it's ‘trying to shift something in the fashion industry’, says Amanda. Currently, this means moving away from plants that require intensive farming to grow, like cotton; animal products, like leather and down; and anything with chemical products obtained from petroleum, like Spandex synthetics. It also hopes to eradicate the toxic chemicals contained in dyes, pigments, and treatments. Within each pillar, the company seeks to develop its own technology or collaborate with specialist laboratories. ‘Sometimes there's a seed of something and we'll bring all of our internal scientists to push that idea out into a real, marketable product,’ says Amanda.
At any time, there can be as many as 30 technologies in development. And, within each pillar, there are short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions. In the short term, PANGAIA looks to responsibly source the best materials out there – which, in the example of cotton, means organic alternatives. In the background, it'll be developing alternative fibers, like FRUTFIBER, to try to find a long-term solution.
This innovation isn't cheap. Marrying fashion and science is one of PANGAIA's biggest challenges, because it means delivering cutting-edge materials at a reasonable price. Its hoodies cost between $140 and $220, which positions the brand towards the higher end of contemporary fashion. But a large portion of that price can be attributed to the development of materials and, even then, few technologies make it to market because they're too expensive. Where possible, the company invests ‘more in raw materials and research’, while other brands ‘might spend millions for a celebrity campaign’, a company spokesperson explains over email. The science almost becomes the marketing.
Despite this progress, questions remain, explains Kathrine Nasteva, a sustainable fashion consultant. ‘In terms of its material innovation, what PANGAIA is doing is really important, because synthetic fibers have serious impacts – not only at the end of their product's life cycle, but deep within the upstream supply chain,’ she says. ‘But, because these materials are pretty new and we still don't totally understand them, it's unclear whether we're substituting one environmental impact with another one.’
Building a company on the values of sustainability and transparency does bring an inherent vulnerability. For example, San Francisco-based Everlane, which once claimed ‘radical transparency’, is one of several rival clothing companies that have been named by Remake, a non-profit working in climate justice, for preaching rather than doing. Until PANGAIA discloses its emissions and wages across its supply chain, there'll always be some skepticism over its sustainability claims.
A new business model for fashion brands?
With PANGAIA, clothes retail is a means to an end, rather than the primary purpose of the brand's existence. Instead of selling its breakthrough technologies to fashion labels, it can bring them into the world itself, demonstrating in a tangible way that they're fit for commercial reality. ‘It's shocking how really small things can get in the way of a [fashion] brand using new technologies. Other startups can sometimes earn no money and collapse,’ Amanda says. ‘With our own line, these are small things for us to fix.’
In the short-term, too, selling clothes will provide PANGAIA with a revenue stream, though it's unclear how significantly this will be hit by a post-Covid world – the majority of its sales have come through sweatpants, rather than more formal clothes. But, whatever these revenues are, one day soon they'll be overshadowed by materials licensing to other labels – just like how fabric brand GORE-TEX, for example, has developed lucrative partnerships. The long-term goal, Amanda says, is for PANGAIA to become an umbrella organization with its own library of environmental materials, which will likely make it an appealing target for acquisition by a more established brand looking to clean up its operations.
According to Jeff Trexler, an associate director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, PANGAIA is a reflection of fashion's ‘broader potential’ to take a path similar to that of Silicon Valley or aerospace, with the ‘revenue generating for potential patents’ becoming an ‘integral part’ of the business model.
‘We're not going to be everyone's style, but we love that we can provide the base textiles for other people to use. That model has potential,’ Amanda says. PANGAIA is already offering FLWRDWN to different companies, and brand collaborations are on the way.
That said, there's a long way to go before the company can monetize its patents. It can be costly and time-consuming for clothes brands to integrate new fibers, materials and tech into existing supply chains, and many are still recovering from the pandemic.
It's also a competitive market. According to research conducted by Nicole Rawling, the co-founder of Material Innovation Initiative, a non-profit set up to facilitate the development of next-gen materials, there are between 125 and 150 companies developing them in fashion alone.
Shoe brand Allbirds, for example, has developed a sugarcane bioplastic sneaker foam that's being used by Adidas. ‘While some industries, including fashion, have been slow to embrace next-gen materials, nowadays everyone is seeing the potential,’ Nicole says.
PANGAIA is showing that you can make appealing clothes while looking after the planet. But we're not even close to next-gen materials being adopted widely. This is in part due to price, but it's more to do with supply: there aren't enough materials for brands to buy. As investment pours in, more supply will probably come, which might bring a new era of sustainable fashion.