Sweatsuits have undergone the ultimate rebrand. Long gone are the days of baggy polyester sacks reserved for a wintery commute to the gym, one’s Jazzercise apparel covertly tucked beneath. Like so much in the apparel industry, sweats have changed — and so have the circumstances in which it’s permissible to wear them.
For nearly two years, “loungewear,” as per contemporary terminology, has served as a sort of pandemic uniform, with labels building entire consumer bases over plush, fuzzy cotton. That’s certainly been the case for Pangaia, a clothing brand that is, by all approximations, aggressively environmental: Launched in 2018, the retailer claims to be a material science company masquerading as a fashion label, with its garments simply serving as the vehicle for natural, renewable innovation. Today, its inventory features no shortage of categories, from sneakers to pajamas, but it’s the sweatshirts and coordinating track pants that have inked their top spot as a brand calling card.
On its face, Pangaia’s sweats are not entirely dissimilar from the bevy of alternatives already on the market. The range comes in a mélange of appetizing colors, like Flamingo Pink and Saffron Yellow, with a slick silhouette those in the know recognize from the pixels of Instagram. The environmental features lie internally, in the fabric: The sweats are made from what the brand calls a “responsibly-sourced, high-quality, recycled and organic cotton mix,” crafted from repurposed production scraps and retired textiles; up to 95% of the water used is rain-fed, meaning it protects both groundwater and surface water resources, and all dyes are non-toxic and free from harmful chemicals, like formaldehyde and phthalates.
A summation of the above is printed on the garments’ upper right corners, in a tidy, sans-serif block. It’s a gentle reminder to both wearers and onlookers that the items are planet-friendly, first and foremost. The clothing is inseparable from the mission with which it’s made, and that appeals to a lot of parties, consumers and scientists alike.
“Our moral and ethical objectives with the business are to change the fashion industry as quickly as possible, and the way to do that is to make sure the innovation’s spread as far as possible,” says Dr. Amanda Parkes, Pangaia’s chief innovation officer. “As a brand, as an aesthetic, we’ve been creating lifestyle basics that people use a lot. That’s one of the ways to make the quickest change, right?”
Parkes has been with the company since its earliest days, having first cut her teeth at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before founding her own fashion-technology studio that developed textile projects for areas like performance and medicine. Along the way, she became acquainted with the founding team of what was then Future Tech Lab, a technology consulting company focused on inventions, products and software — also, Pangaia’s precursor. By 2017, she joined on in an official capacity, helping to introduce Pangaia to the world just a year later.
Though she’s been swirling fashion adjacency for more than a decade, Parkes still stumbles over some of the industry’s most enduring pain points. Mainly, she explains, it’s that fashion companies don’t own their means of production. Historically, research and development takes place in a separate silo from design and manufacturing. With any innovation entirely isolated from actual construction, fashion as a whole has fewer resources, yet alone motivating factors, with which to engineer the future. That’s a big problem, particularly for a sector so beleaguered by mounting environmental and ethical faults.
“I took some cues from working in technology businesses, where companies like Google and Apple are always designing the future of their own industry,” says Parkes. “I was shocked when I got into fashion and found out that major conglomerates don’t have this level of internal research. It, quite frankly, felt a little bit random that people weren’t taking ownership of this space.”
Now three years in, Pangaia’s solution is something it calls “high-tech naturalism,” wherein the future of a sustainable fashion industry involves using existing natural materials and augmenting them with scientific and technological processes. We can use technology to augment nature, says Parkes, not be at odds with it.
One of Pangaia’s principal ways of doing so is by making alternatives to traditional textiles — cotton, most lucratively — that promote biodiversity. Using conventional methods, it takes around 10,000 liters of water to grow just two pounds of cotton, waste the company aims to address with at-market cotton substitutes “PLNTFIBER” and “FRUTFIBER.” Where PLNTFIBER uses fast-growing plants like bamboo, eucalyptus and seaweed, FRUTFIBER repurposes food waste, such as banana leaf and pineapple leaf fiber. Both serve as viable alternatives to cotton, but it’s not the cotton itself — the very same kind that makes up the brand’s iconic sweatsuits — that’s the problem.
“There’s nothing wrong with cotton itself,” says Parkes. “It’s about our systems. We’ve over-industrialized it. We’re killing the ground it grows in and everything that grows around it. We have to find alternate solutions, and it’s not that we’re looking for a single alternative, because that’s actually the problem. The solution is biodiversity. Instead of making everything with cotton, we can blend different fibers to get different functions, different feels, different price points.”
The lion’s share of Pangaia’s fiber research occurs in Florence, Italy, where the company’s primary research lab, aptly-named the Pangaia Lab, is based. At the onset of the pandemic last spring, Parkes’ direct innovation team was made up of just 12 scientists and engineers stationed in various corners of the globe. Now, that number stands north of 160. Every day, she says, is a new challenge, from manipulating textile compositions to testing botanical dye absorption — after all, the goal is not always to develop full-fledged products that can immediately be brought to market. Instead, armed with the luxury of time, development is done iteratively, even if said products never make it in front of a consumer.
Being a material science company first and foremost, Pangaia is — or strongly appears to be, rather — remarkably breezy about selling its physical garments. It operates a robust B2B sales department, which sells its proprietary textiles across the industry. Its direct-to-consumer business, meanwhile, revolves around versatile, everyday items that today’s consumers wear to shreds, loungewear chief among them.
Its sunglasses, created in collaboration with carbon-transformation company Twelve, feature polycarbonate lenses made partially from carbon dioxide. Its puffer coats are filled with a down-fill material it calls “FLWRDWN,” made using a combination of wildflowers, a biopolymer and aerogel. And on Tuesday, Pangaia announced that it’s set to launch denim, crafted with Himalayan nettle, a perennial herb used in Nepal to make fiber.
“It makes perfect sense that denim would be the next answer to our question of, ‘What do people use all the time?'” says Parkes. “Denim is one of the most sustainable objects inside the fashion industry. It’s kept the longest, and oftentimes grows in value over time.”
Consumer behavior aside, denim is still known as one of the more resource-heavy, environmentally damaging industries, for reasons that stem back to the cotton that’s used to construct it. The vast majority of the planet’s cotton is not only grown with dangerous fertilizers and pesticides, but also requires tremendous amounts of water to produce. Pangaia’s denim is created using a rare technique called a “left-hand weave” in which the lines of the twill run from the top left-hand corner toward the bottom right-hand corner, resulting in a softer materiality overall. All transpires on a slow-speed shuttle loom using “cellulosic” sewing thread, made from structural matter that comprise the stems, stalks and leaves of plants.
It’s not easy bringing a development like this to market. Parkes explains that her team is constantly reevaluating a matrix around experimentation and supply chains — putting new fibers into play, then figuring out how to make them reliably. As Pangaia considers its supply chains, it’s being forced to consider more than the locales from where its renewable materials are being sourced. How can businesses like Pangaia invest its scientific methodology into those communities that may benefit from innovation the most?
Like so much in science, as in business, the answer to this question isn’t clear-cut. But Parkes is confident that, at the very least, it begins with the way we discuss supply chains overall, across all retailers.
“People will talk endlessly about where cotton is coming from, but no one ever asks where the chemicals came from to create that polyester,” says Parkes. “There’s no supply chain that says, ‘Oh, that polyester came from that oil rig.’ We need to compare apples to apples here. You can’t just say that these plastic pellets appear magically, but on the other side, you’re talking all the way down into the soil. Everything goes back to nature in some way, in the sense that we’re digging up oil and fossil fuels, too, and that’s not accounted for in most supply chain analyses.”
Transparency, then, is key — but to commit to the practice in earnest is easier said than done, and not necessarily out of malice. Take greenwashing, which, for Parkes, doesn’t necessarily come from what she calls a “root evil.” By and large, consumers, brands and manufacturers want to do right by the planet, but they’re not equipped with the tools, the information or quite frankly, the time to do so. That’s where Pangaia hopes to serve most impactfully. And if tracksuits are its most effective, far-reaching way to do so, then tracksuits it is.
“The existence of the object in itself and the establishment of its process can change the conversation and potentially push legislation,” says Parkes. “I know that’s very lofty. We’re a fashion company. We’re making objects. But there’s a conversation around fashion that can be used to point toward a positive solution. That’s what I want Pangaia to do.”