This 3-year-old startup is leaving its competitors in a cloud of bio-synthetic, climate neutral, regenerative smoke.
First of all — I am not a Pangaia employee, neither am I sponsored by them. I am just an average human who works as a Trend Analyst in the performance footwear sector who is passionate about the environment.
I specialise in helping clients make more responsible decisions in what materials, components, packaging, and storytelling they use. I am always on the lookout for exciting new brands and technologies to use as examples of how to… They do exist, they come, and they go; they want to change the world. Usually, the ambition is there, and the passion, but those two qualities alone are not enough to guarantee success, so I am always a bit cynical.
I have been watching Pangaia for a while now, and they are a bit different.
One of the most challenging parts of my role is getting customers to understand the big picture. Using one recycled plastic component on their shoes is better than doing nothing, yes, but it’s not enough.
Even more frustratingly for my clients, it’s not always possible to make the changes they want. They might not have the resources, connections, or even the type of presence in the marketplace to attract the makers of these innovations. Trust me — they don’t just get handed out to anyone; they have to be the right fit.
It’s all too common for something amazing to come along. It gets snapped up by one of the industry powerhouses (your Nike’s and Adidas’s), who slaps on a license, and that’s it, game over they become the sole user. All of the smaller brands continue digging around in the dirt for an alternative they can access.
As a side note, I should say that some brand-owned technologies are open-source as they are genuinely committed to collaborating in the fight to slow Climate Change. AllBirds are an example of this mindset, but they are few and far between.
So, it’s hard! Really hard!
So what’s the issue with fashion?
We have been using a slight evolution on the broken, outdated, linear economy to produce since the industrial revolution around 300 years ago. We have an enormous population of influential super consumers. We have been digging up, knocking down, slaughtering, and ploughing right through the middle of our natural resources with such blind abandon that we now find ourselves amidst a Climate Crisis. Even people armed with this information still choose to do nothing, say nothing, or gloss over it with friendly terms so as not to upset anyone because, let’s be honest, it’s uncomfortable.
It’s funny, I went to a school to do a talk about this with 12-year-olds, and they got it. They understood. They wanted to know what they could do to help. If 12-year-olds get it, what’s wrong with everyone else?
Pangaia are working towards being Earth Positive
That means they want their impact to be positive, a business that gives back more than it takes. I can see in all that they are doing that this is a realistic goal for them; they have already come so far.
It all started with the idea of re-working the humble t-shirt.
‘We re-imagined it in seaweed fiber (our seaweed is harvested in Iceland and is collected only once every four years) and in organic cotton, at 20% and 80% respectively, but we are currently working on reversing the equation. All of our materials are treated with mint oil, to reduce the frequency of washing, and therefore water pollution. This is not forgetting our vibrant colours, which we only use with vegetable dyes’
Pangaia’s evolution has been fast!
Superfast. Three years in, and they have to be one of the single most intelligent, all-encompassing, regenerative, ethical fashion ecosystems I have ever seen. (Please go ahead and correct me if you know of something better because I want all of these brands to get the publicity they deserve) It is nothing short of mind-blowing. They think about every part of this broken system and ways to solve these issues with originality and innovation.
They have an incredible team of specialists
Pangaia first started to gain real traction with celebrity endorsement and social media. Then their botanical tracksuit sold out in 15 minutes; (they make small runs and do pre-orders to stop overproduction, reducing unnecessary waste).
Next, Eva Kruse joined their team. If you don’t know who Eva is and care about the correlation between climate change, pollution, ethics, and fashion, look her up here. Founder of the Global Fashion Agenda, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and all-around spokesperson, and pioneer instrumental in driving positive change in the fashion industry.
I have been fortunate enough to see Eva speak, and she is one of the only people in years that left me feeling inspired instead of defeated; her passion and determination changed my outlook (which was grim by the way). She stepped down from 15 astounding years in that role to join Pangaia’s executive team. My LinkedIn started to blow up, the Selfridges pop-up was announced, and Pangaia has become a bit more accessible, so now feels like the right time to talk about why they are special.
pan | pæn — gaia | gı̄ə
Pan — All-inclusive, especially in relation to the whole of a continent, racial group, or religion.
Gaia — Mother Earth.
So what separates them from every other ‘sustainable’ brand?
Well, first of all, let’s talk about that word, sustainable — what does it mean?
It means something can be sustained, that’s all. It’s deliberately vague, not an official certification; it’s simply a word to make people feel better, and it’s subjective; used to target the consumer and make them feel like they are doing something good. The market is so oversaturated with this meaningless buzzword (and various others) that it’s almost comical to use it as a benchmark for anything.
When fast-fashion giants like H&M and Primark are allowed to label their products with various iterations of this word, it should set some alarm bells off. It’s greenwashing, and if you’re not familiar with that term, take a look at the video below.
Recycling is another word that is used to manipulate the consumer. It’s not a viable, complete solution; most countries don’t have the infrastructure in place. (Sweden is the exception) Plus, it makes such an insignificant dent in our global waste (around 8%) that it just highlights the fact that the problem at hand is multi-layered and complex.
The fashion industry is broken
Pangaia invested ten years in carrying out research and development before they launched, so when they use the word sustainable, I feel comfortable they understand how that is supposed to look at each level. I have noticed that they often opt to use the word responsible, which I support. It’s a better word— we need to take responsibility in addressing these issues and how we choose to move forward.
They have set to work disrupting the traditional fashion industry model from the ground up, and it’s actually working.
A colleague once said to me:
‘Science should foster nature and the power of nature should be harnessed to evolve science’ — Keith Jacobson Director Footwear Operations at Lululemon
This is so true; it should be symbiotic, a mutually beneficial relationship. One should not cause damage or destruction to the other; they should be working in harmony. When we have all of this technology at our disposal, sometimes I ask myself why change is so slow, but as I said earlier — it is difficult. Companies can’t just throw everything out and start again; that would generate more waste. Change needs to come at the very beginning, to be the first part of every idea, process, design. The lifecycle of the product and every component within it.
Pangaia knows that.
They started with their humble t-shirt. They could have stopped there, but they didn’t. Instead, they began to introduce new products, new science, new partnerships.
Pangaia is committed to stopping the fashion industry from being so dependent on non-renewable resources (like those used to produce synthetic fibres from fossil fuels), working hard to change people’s perception of what we truly need.
It should be noted that Pangaia is not a completely vegan brand and do use some virgin animal fibres (to help bind the recycled fibre). The bulk of their animal fibres are recycled from post-consumer waste. Waste that would have been destined for the landfill. This way of thinking supports the transition to a circular economy.
They are focused on using as little virgin material as possible across the board; if they do, they ensure it is the least harmful, most natural, ethical, sustainable option available.
‘Our current solution is to use recycled cotton made from repurposed production scraps and retired textiles. Using recycled cotton saves 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of cotton and reduces the amount of energy use. Sometimes these figures can appear greenwashed, as much of the reduction in water and energy exists because the fiber has already been processed once.’ — thepangaia.com
As someone who is vegan and works in the footwear industry, I get pretty cheesed off with people peddling their ‘vegan’ leathers which are often (not always) made from PU or PVC. They are vegan, but these materials are made from fossil fuels that release chemicals into the environment when they are being produced and again when breaking down. They are harmful to humans and ecosystems alike, they are not degradable or sustainable, and as a vegan who cares about the planet and animals, a plastic-based solution is not a good alternative. It’s a cop-out.
Replacing leather with Vegea is a brilliant example of capitalising on resources that would otherwise be wasted and upcycling them.
‘Vegea’s grape leather utilizes and repurposes waste materials, thereby extending the utility of the grapes and making the winemaking process more circular. The base material is organic cotton, and it uses the most environmentally-responsible form of polyurethane on the market’ — thepangaia.com
I would wear this stuff!
I mean, my parcel is en route as I write this. The colours are rich and vibrant, made from dyes extracted from plants, fruits, and vegetables, are non-toxic, free from harmful chemicals, and Oeko-Tex® certified. They use a water-efficient process, in which they treat waste effluents, re-capture, and reuse.
All products are unisex, and they provide the credentials of the models so you can work out your fit along with their size chart.
They are a little more on the pricey side of things, but you are using your money, and therefore power to make better choices, driving change, step by step, day by day. When you buy from Pangaia you are investing in a quality product and the future of the planet, for real.
If you, like me, are vegan, you know you made a choice that changes multiple parts of your life. As a result of this decision, your options for clothing and footwear become significantly reduced. When you care about other interconnecting elements like ethics, pollution, climate change, they become even smaller. You find yourself left with an extremely niche group of possibilities available for you to buy. Although this is improving, there are very few fashion brands that I would consider cool that also align with all my other requirements.
The materials and technologies have performance properties
Another thing you can (often) kiss goodbye to when you take the plunge into ethical, planet-friendly, vegan clothing is performance. You make that sacrifice, and you get used to it, but this is where Pangaia is different; they have multiple technologies and treatments.
They are using science to harness the power of nature
They are even transforming air pollution into something better with AIR INK®, which uses a carbon collection technology that captures air pollution particles before turning them into different inks, dispersions, and coatings.
‘For this capsule the captured air particles were turned into safe, water-based inks’ — thepangaia.com
They only have an online store (and the current pop-up), so of course, all their packaging is biodegradable, using non-toxic inks for printing. The biosynthetic plastic will compost in 24 weeks if you bury it in your garden.
They are committed to transparency, and after being called out in the media on several things, they have fixed them with figures on diversity, code of conduct, and annual report, all of which are open source.
They have also included equivalences and actual statistics for their products. This means someone with basic knowledge of this (very complex) topic can see and understand. It’s inclusive.
The only way to make things better for our planet is to get as many people involved as possible, so they work with organisations, non-profits, support changemakers, activists, artists, designers, and here’s the kicker… If you want to access one of their materials or technologies, it is possible to do so. They hold the licenses, yes, but like-minded brands can access them. Pangaia knows the more extensive the community focusing on the issues at hand, the faster we will get to the solution.
Pangaia is dedicated, that’s for sure; they are on a mission, adding new technologies, treatments, and materials to their collection all the time. They strive to evolve and improve constantly; their goal is to become Earth Positive — a business that gives back more than it takes.
Even the cynic in me feels pretty convinced that Pangaia has the drive and vision to reach that goal.
Enjoy that? Here is some more of my work: