For the Alternative Line, Slovak brand Isadore are relying on 100% recycled plastic to make high-quality cycling kits. Moreover, it’s made entirely in Europe, promising high quality and longevity, thereby leading the way in the brand’s existing sustainability concept. Is this the future or is there a catch?

A stylish new jersey, jacket that lets every rain drop just pearl off, and bib shorts that really work. We often find ourselves in the changing rooms of our favourite shop or with our fingers swiping away or caressing the friendly rodent, whether it’s in pursuit of optimisation or purely out of a desire for something new. Tap – sold.

Yes, a functional and comfortable cycling kit makes perfect sense if you want to get the most out of your time on the bike. Concerning resource consumption and the ethically questionable aspects of production and disposal, however, you’ve got to ask yourself: what do you really need? Is this must-have truly a must-have? How sustainable is this? And there we have it, the issue of sustainability, often praised and hardly ever backed with clear figures. It’s like an apparition: you believe it exists, but if you want to capture it with a good strategy, it laughs and disappears.

Many sectors are striving towards a circular economy to save resources, but what about the textile industry? Indeed, some have recognised that the fast fashion business model is obsolete and are responding with sustainability strategies, offering clothing that contains recycled plastic. But how sustainable is it really? How much recycled plastic is being used? Where does it come from and what is the carbon footprint? In short: is this the apparition or merely a green lookalike? What about cycling kit? Surely, the “circular economy” should seem obvious to riders, considering the cyclical nature of spinning the cranks.

Isadore’s Alternative Line piqued our interest, and we wanted to dive deeper into the myth of sustainable clothing and quiz them about the concept.

Racing genes reversed – Isadore’s philosophy

Looking at Isadore’s philosophy, you’ll inevitably encounter aspects of sustainability, and they’ve held this philosophy long before sustainability became a trend in the textile industry. This is confirmed by Boris Stefanik, Brand Manager of Isadore in Puchov, Slovakia. “When Martin and Peter founded Isadore, their primary goal was to find the most sustainable solutions for production and manufacturing.” Some of you will associate the brothers Martin and Peter Veltis with speed, performance, discipline and success. As a professional cyclist with various top teams such as HTC Highroad and Quickstep, competing in races such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France, this is exactly what they were all about for over a decade. At the same time, they developed another passion: “Martin and Peter have always questioned everything that determines the production and quality of cycling kit, and they were obsessed with designing a product from scratch.” That was the birth of Isadore, as Boris recalls. “From the beginning, their goal was to find joy in cycling while creating a healthy relationship between athletes and nature. Natural materials and sustainable production methods quickly caught their attention.”

The sheep’s new partner

Isadore’s collections rely mainly on renewable materials, such as organic cotton, cellulose fibres and, above all, merino wool, which is at the heart of the company. Now, Merino sheep have a new partner in sustainability that’s never actually lived but still gets a second chance at life. “With the introduced and expanded Alternative Line, we rely on fabrics made of 100% recycled plastic,” explains Boris. “The sustainability of the raw material is one thing. But we also place just as much importance on sustainable production and that the product has all the characteristics required for it to remain your favourite piece of kit for a long time.” We talk about functionality, comfort, quality and durability, and about weather and wind resistance, depending on the application. The Alternative Line, which was introduced in spring 2019, is constantly expanding. It currently includes jerseys, bib shorts, 3/4 trousers, base layers, vests and jackets.

“Our unique selling proposition is pretty simple, the same fabric performance-wise that would be made from virgin synthetic is replaced with a recycled version.”

Plastic bottles as a bottleneck

However, we want to know more about the underlying recycled material, drilling them with questions about rPET fibres (or, for those who can pronounce it, recycled polyethylene terephthalate). The Isadore team are aware of all aspects, and we soon realise that their transparency claim is sincere. “For the fabric of a jersey, we need about 300 grams of plastic, which corresponds to about 30 small 0.5 litre PET bottles,” Boris tells us. “Our rPET polyester is GRS-certified. The Global Recycled Standard guarantees that the material obtained from PET bottles is recovered and converted without adding virgin plastic.” Of course, this is a crucial point, as virgin plastic fibres are based on crude oil. And of course, it’s easy to say that everything is being done as environmentally friendly as possible. But how do you know for sure? “It was always important to us that we could actively retrace our entire supply chain, from the source of the raw materials to the processing quality and the proof that all those involved work in a healthy environment and receive a fair wage.”

The raw material. The idea that a large part of our plastic waste gets collected, recycled and turned into new products and is thus prevented from polluting our environment, landing in the oceans and the bellies of sea creatures, well… is a romantic one. Only a small proportion of plastic waste can be recycled for the textile industry, namely PET bottles, as Boris confirms. “Of all the accumulated plastic, PET bottles are the most valuable raw material, easy to separate, clean and shred.” The scraps are then melted and spun into a fine yarn. But where does the plastic come from? According to Boris, Isadore aim to trace all the paths of their products and present them transparently to consumers: “In the Alternative Essential Jacket, for example, the recycled yarns are produced and processed in Japan. For the Alternative jerseys, the recycled yarns are produced in China and the fabrics are woven in Italy. The plastic waste used to make the yarn usually originates from the same country as the yarn is produced, though it will occasionally also get imported. China, for example, is the largest importer of plastic and paper waste for recycling.”

Let’s get back to the bottle, which all this depends on. Isadore don’t see any problems here: “There is enough used PET available,” Boris says. And for recycled plastic to be freely available on the market in the future, the EU aims to collect and recycle around 90% of plastic bottles by 2030, though all this depends on government investment in collection and sorting infrastructures of course. But, as so often, business as usual is a dumb strategy even if the infrastructure and technology haven’t yet matured. At some point, you must turn your back on the typical resource-consuming model and just take the first step, which Isadore are doing at 100%.

The end of the shirt is the start of the shirt?

Using 100% recycled plastic has a big advantage: it keeps the circular economy going. If the polyester were mixed with other materials, it couldn’t be recycled or doing so would be very difficult. So, an old shirt can become a new shirt at the end of its life? “No, it’s not yet possible to produce recycled yarns from these garments,” Boris bursts our bubble. However, he gives us new hope because manufacturers such as Isadore are developing solutions to give their garments a second life nonetheless, and we’re not talking about park benches. “We’ve spent the last few months finding the right partner to reuse our products. They’ll be able to treat the garments sustainably and repurpose them as insulation.”

According to Boris, Isadore intend to use recycled sources for all their synthetic materials by 2025. “Even though it will take some time to switch to recycled yarns as the predominant material, the textile industry is increasingly making the shift.” Isadore want to set a trend. You’ll see this on their website, celebrating the fact that more and more brands are joining the sustainability movement. We ask about the ecological footprint and learn that recycled plastic production reduces energy consumption by up to 53% compared to the production of virgin plastic and natural fibres while producing less CO2 emissions and consuming fewer raw materials. It’s a known fact that cotton production uses a lot of water and pesticides. As such, manufacturers such as Isadore only rely on organic cotton for their cotton products.

“In an ideal world all production of recycling and textile manufacturing will one day be powered by renewable energy, but it is not yet so. To be honest, it’s the best solution for a bad situation. Using rPET allows us to avoid creating virgin plastics and helps keep existing plastic bottles from ending up in our oceans.”

No stink – About the labels and European production

Does this mean we’ll have to stink? No. Boris explains that the completely recycled materials promise to be just as breathable, functional and comfortable as Isadore’s conventional materials – the manufacturing process remains the same, except that the yarn has been replaced by a recycled version. “We’re cyclists. So, we obviously have extremely high demands of the materials that we wear. And above all, they should last a long time.” How is this achieved? Is it all in the bottle? Boris is quick to answer our questions. “We achieve the required quality through the weaving processes and HEIQ antimicrobial technology. And, like all the materials we use, it’s Bluesign and OEKO-TEX certified.” We learn that the OEKO-TEX standard guarantees that there are no toxins in the product, while the Bluesign label certifies the entire supply chain.

The products are produced entirely in Europe. Doing so offers enormous advantages, as Boris explains. For one, Martin and Peter Veltis can keep an eye on the entire supply chain and employment relationships. In addition, the requirements for wastewater treatment are higher in Europe than in other countries and the short logistics routes are more efficient.

On a roll – Times four

If high-quality, durable products last longer, won’t we simply get bored of wearing the same kit? The Slovakians have an answer to this that will make any caterpillar envious: thanks to the Jersey subscription model, you can get the latest outfits every three months – borrowed and sent to your door. Depending on the subscription model, you get one or more jerseys, which get cleaned in an environmentally friendly way, tested and, if necessary, repaired once returned. If it’s as good as new, it can get sent out to the next rider. This model seems to make a lot of sense. Buyer’s remorse? No more. You’ve probably got too much in your cupboard anyway.

Okay, we get it: reduce, reuse, recycle. It rrrolls off the tongue. But that’s not enough for Isadore, adding another r – repair – offering a free wear and tear repair service for all their products.

Did we test any of the products? Of course, we put select items from the Alternative Line through their paces and convinced ourselves of the quality. You can find our review in THE LAB section of this issue. And yes, we’ve understood their strategy. As everywhere else, the lifespan of materials is supposed to be extended by reusing them in a circular economy. Even so, there will be an increasing demand for the required raw materials… Which is why some manufacturers such as Isadore place so much emphasis on high-quality, durable products that are worth their price so that we consume less overall.

“Everything should cost what it’s actually worth, whether it’s flights, smartphones or t-shirts. But are we willing to pay the true price?”

Of course, we all think local production is great and, at the moment, it’s a reactionary trend that’s becoming increasingly noticeable. It makes us more independent of resources and transport routes from distant countries, and you have better control over the supply chain and can enforce higher environmental standards. On the other hand, it’s equally clear that not all products can be produced entirely in Europe, simply because – among other things – they would cost at least three times as much and the current economy won’t take well to further price hikes. Therefore, many manufacturers are retaining some of their Asian supply chains, establishing audits and permanent external quality assurances on-site instead. In addition, there’s an increasing number of research being done by manufacturers on the optimisation of things like reducing particulate matter and microplastic emissions during production.

It remains to be seen whether local production is generally sustainable. Ultimately, everything should cost what it’s actually worth, whether it’s flights, smartphones or t-shirts. But are we willing to pay the true price? It’s a price war amongst the manufacturers and an eco-fight in our minds. However, being aware of something is already a step in the right direction.

We can’t help it. When we ride, we want to look and feel good in our outfits, even if they’re made from recycled plastic bottles. If they’re well-made and feature high-quality materials, they can easily fulfil the functional demands of cycling. We know that if something persists, it’s plastic, and as cyclists, the circular economy must be something we can support.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, we would be stoked if you decide to support us with a monthly contribution. By becoming a supporter of GRAN FONDO, you will help secure a sustainable future for high-quality cycling journalism. Click here to learn more.

Words: Simone Giesler Photos: Hersteller