What is the difference between ingredient brands and other materials? Can ingredient brands be an asset for outdoor brands in their sustainability efforts? And can such partnerships carry risks? Suston turns to the experts to answer these questions.

Membranes, zippers, leather, outer fabric, buttons, velcro, rubber soles, insoles… products in the outdoor world are a puzzle of materials. Each such puzzle piece in a hiking backpack, for example, is likely to have a name, at least familiar to the designer and purchas­er. But some of the materials – or ingredients – are known to many more people. If you ask retail staff or experienced outdoor enthusiasts, they will prob­ably be able to list over twenty material names. Brands like Gore-Tex, Sympatex, Vibram, Polartec, Primaloft etc. Other materials, meanwhile, are completely unknown in the same circles.

“The first category is usually called ingredient brands – the rest are what we call ‘branded ingredients,’ or, materials with a name,” says Tomas Vucurevic, Founder and Managing Director of Braind, one of the industry’s leading experts in brand development and marketing in this niche.

Known within the wider community

There is no clear-cut line between the first and second categories, says Tomas Vucurevic.

“But you do not suddenly become an ingredient brand by self-declaration. You must bring some­thing special to the market and think and act like a brand, communicating with persistence based on a clear, attractive promise.

“One of the most common mistakes is that companies address that too superficially. They believe putting a hangtag or a label on their fabric will do the job. But if you continue to think like a supplier, you will remain a supplier.”

Martin Kössler is CEO of the consulting firm Huginbiz, with several clients among ingredient brands. He also leads a network for Nordic brands, with members such as Recco, Mips and others. He agrees that marketing is a key differentiator.

“A material supplier focuses on the customer’s purchasing organization. An ingredient brand also focuses on the sales and marketing organizations of its customers. They want to create demand – the pull effect – for their customers, by helping to process the downstream. This often means speak­ing directly to the user of the finished product, the outdoor enthusiast.”

Another important difference is the level of innovation, says Martin Kössler.

“Just like in the automotive industry and many other industries, innovation is mainly driven by large subcontractors. Few outdoor brands are big enough or have the expertise and manufacturing resources to initiate real development themselves. This also applies to sustainability.”

 

Performance Days is an important arena for the ingredient brands to showcase their products. (Credit: Performance Days)

Performance and/or sustainability?

Tomas Vucurevic has seen and participated in many brand developments over the years. Between 2001 and 2010 he was Global Brand Manager at W.L. Gore’s Fabrics Division, responsible for the Gore-Tex and Windstopper brands. He then went on to set up his own consultancy, Braind, which has helped brands such as Primaloft, Terracare and Polygiene. Looking back, Tomas Vucurevic identi­fies three distinct phases in the textile industry.

“In the beginning, the focus was on performance. Companies held patents on innovations that pro­vided a unique performance benefit that was not available elsewhere. These innovations made the finished products better. In the outdoor industry, it might be making products waterproof, windproof, more durable or better insulated.”

The next phase began around 2011 with a focus on sustainability, says Tomas Vucurevic.

“That’s when, for example, Aquafil developed Econyl, which is made from recycled nylon. In the last ten years, many ingredient brands have broad­ened their focus from performance to purpose.”

The third and newest phase is about eco-de­signed and bio-based ingredients.

“At the beginning of this movement, the perfor­mance aspect was secondary and some very eco-minded host brands settled for lower quality, as the materials were bio-based and more sustain­able,” says Tomas Vucurevic.

But there is a risk in leaving out what has been the core of ingredient brands: Performance. How does an ordinary customer of an outdoor brand react if a shell jacket is not resistant to water and wind? Performance might move from a point of differentiation to a point of parity, but bio-based materials still need to meet the performance ex­pectations of the end user. It’s really about what you promise to the customer and how you are able to deliver on that.”

Outsourcing to specialists

When it comes to sustainability, the focus has increasingly shifted to “scope 3” – or over to the textile industry’s suppliers, in layman’s terms. Whether you’re talking about the need for more transparency or reducing CO2 emissions, it’s in the supply chain that the big potential – and the big risks – lie. As ingredient brands shift their focus towards sustainability, they can become a central part of an outdoor brand’s path to achieving its goals. Sympatex is one of the earliest such compa­nies to profile itself in sustainability.

“Around 80% of a garment’s environmental impact is decided in the design phase, so what materials that are selected can make a very big difference,” says Kim Scholze, Chief Sales & Mar­keting Officer at Sympatex, adding that the compa­ny not only contributes to traceability and more sustainable materials.

“With the knowledge that we have acquired over the last 30 years, we can support our partners with eco-design guidelines, share our knowledge and connect to the right people within the industry.”

The focus on sustainability means that brands like Sympatex can have different communication goals, compared to a fixation on performance. Raising important industry issues and reaching out to consumers can create a new “pull effect.”

“Education is one important part of our commu­nication. We don’t want anyone to ask explicitly for a Sympatex jacket, but for the most forward thinking and sustainable products.”

Traceable, transparent, risk management

Today, outdoor brands are under pressure to im­prove traceability and transparency in their supply chains. After major retailers like REI in the US and Globetrotter in Germany started asking questions, more and more outdoor retailers have followed suit. At the same time, policymakers are demand­ing more substantiated green claims. This can benefit ingredient brands that already have full control of their own supply chain and production.

At the same time, there are risks. An important reason why ingredient brands started to get atten­tion was Greenpeace’s Detox campaign, launched in 2011 with the mission to eliminate hazardous chemicals from textile production. In 2015, Green­peace specifically targeted PFCs with the Detox Outdoor message. One material that was attacked was Gore-Tex, which in turn led to brands such as Patagonia and The North Face also being criticized. Gore Fabrics chose to collaborate with Greenpeace and in 2017 pledged to step-by-step eliminate PFCs of Environmental Concern from its outdoor weath­erproofing laminates.

Depending on who you ask, the events following Detox Outdoor can be an example of either the risk or the strength of tight collaborations between “host brands” and “ingredient brands.” If one falls, it can drag down the other one – or they can help and strengthen each other in times of crises.

“I think the best cases come from companies that have a long-term relationship and very clear expectations and communication. Brand value is a lot about trust. At the end of the day, both sides need to ensure that their brand promises are up­held in a joint appearance. It is a mutual dependen­cy,” says Tomas Vucurevic.

Kim Sholze adds another perspective: That because the larger ingredient brands already work with many outdoor brands, they can initiate collab­orations around sustainability. Also, this relation­ship enables them to get insights from their differ­ent partners.

“An ingredient brand can take a more neutral position and strengthen cooperation within the industry. We learn from our brand partners, the retailers, and the end consumers. At the same time, we also look at other industries to exchange infor­mation and solutions. We bring the knowledge from this into circulation and establish connec­tions and synergies. Especially in the textile industry, this is a very decisive step. Water and CO2-saving dyeing technologies, for example, are associated with incredibly high MOQs [Suston: MOQ = minimum order quantity] and sustainable purchasing practices require an early commitment from the entire supply chain.

Supporting communication

Another advantage that ingredient brands say they bring to the table is communication. Both the educational parts, but also marketing toward the end-consumers.

“Generally, we support with a wide range of communication tools to share this information as informatively and emotionally as possible. We are more than suppliers. Our values and a service promise should give our brand partners significant added value”, says Kim Sholze.

And last but not least, an additional advantage is increased transparency.

“Material selection has a very big impact on the CO2 footprint and overall, in terms of social and environmental sustainability. It is our responsibili­ty to be transparent.”

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Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com
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