Five questions with Merryn Chilcott of BAM Clothing UK

Five questions with Merryn Chilcott of BAM Clothing UK

Bam Clothing UK Matisse leggings on model

I was very excited to be given the opportunity to interview Merryn Chilcott, Sustainability and Technical Manager at BAM Clothing UK. Merryn gives us a fascinating glimpse into new sustainability initiatives that BAM are undertaking, and how they’re doing it. 

BAM specialises in clothing, specifically activewear, made from bamboo. They offer other sustainable fabrics too such as ethically sourced Merino wool from a Responsible Wool Standard certified farm and recycled (and recyclable!) polyester.

I love the fact that BAM don’t claim to be perfect but are openly trying to be as sustainable and ethical as they possibly can. This includes constant improvement, plus investment in research, which is beneficial to not only them but also to the industry as a whole.

impact positive

One of their most impressive pursuits is their goal to become Impact Positive by 2030. BAM launched this very ambitious goal in January 2020 and are reporting publically on their progress each year. 

Excitingly, the day of release of this interview (5 June 2022) is the day that they are releasing their Impact Positive: 2022 Annual Report.

The goal to become impact positive isn’t only for their UK operations or for their part of the ownership of their goods. The goal to become impact positive reaches across their whole range and their whole supply chain, from bamboo grower to garment maker to postage and packaging. It also includes the lifetime of the piece of clothing once it reaches the customer, and its ultimate disposal.

Why would a company take on such an ambitious, resource consuming and no doubt very expensive goal? Plus so publically? Because they believe that it’s the right thing to do. And they want to set an example to other businesses and become a blueprint for other clothing companies to follow. It’s impressive.

BAM Clothing UK 73 Zero gilet
73 Zero Insulated Gilet from BAM
All images courtesy of BAM Bamboo

Impact positive progress to date

Climate positive

So far BAM have become climate positive by offsetting the carbon emissions of the entire life of a piece of clothing from growing the fibre to 50 washes with the end consumer.

impact measured and plastic removed

They have also measured the impact of every garment throughout the supply chain to identify where they can improve. And they have removed all conventional plastic from their packaging.

100% recyclable clothing

If those things weren’t enough, BAM have released its 73 Zero range including jackets which are 100% recyclable!

Textile recycling is very new right now but BAM’s ultimate aim is that all clothes in their range, even those bought second hand, will be able to be sent free of charge for recycling (see more about this below). As they say, “If BAM doesn’t know how the clothes can be disposed of, they shouldn’t be made in the first place”.

BAM Clothing UK 73 Zero running jackets
73 Zero running jackets from BAM

living wage

Bam are also a living wage employer with 100% of their UK staff being paid a living wage. More about their ethical treatment of staff in their supply chain below.

What else makes BAM sustainable on their impact postive journey?

Becoming impact positive is all-encompassing, but there are many aspects that go into making that up. Here are just some of them.

Tracing back the supply chain

BAM have nine tier-one suppliers, i.e. those that they source their products from directly, and make these visible to their customers on their website. But they have spent two years tracing their supply chain back further, right back to the bamboo growers.

Supply chains in the fashion industry are typically very complex and difficult to trace. They involve sub contractors that aren’t always visible and often have so many layers that it is difficult to get beyond the first or second tier.

As BAM have recognised, it would be impossible to be completely environmentally and ethically sustainable without knowing all of the links in their product production chains. How can you treat your bamboo growers or garment makers fairly if you don’t know who they are?

Fashion Revolution too, places the utmost importance on transparency with their Fashion Transparency Index. Released every year, this tracks the transparency of 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands. Unsurprisingly, the most transparent tend to be the most ethical and sustainable.

Fair Wear Foundation

BAM have also proudly been approved to be a member of the Fair Wear Foundation. The Fair Wear Foundation is a not for profit organisation that works with suppliers and carries out audits to put worker welfare first across the supply chain. As part of BAM’s Impact Positive goal, ethical working conditions for their workers, right back to the bamboo growers, is of the utmost importance to them.

bamboo production

Bamboo forest
Bamboo is a very sustainable plant. Photo by Eric BARBEAU on Unsplash

Bamboo is a great sustainable plant. It doesn’t need any pesticides to thrive and is incredibly fast growing. It also cleans the air by absorbing five times more CO2 than the same amount of hardwood trees. What’s more, it leaves the majority of the carbon in the soil unlike cotton and trees, and releases 35% more oxygen than hardwood trees. 

Bamboo fabric is soft and comfortable to wear, needs less washing, is temperature controlling and anti allergenic. 

There is no doubt that bamboo is one of the most eco friendly plants out there. However bamboo needs to be made into bamboo viscose to be used as a fibre and the production process for viscose uses a significant amount of chemicals that must be disposed of. 

As you can see in our article Is viscose environmentally friendly, many viscose manufacturers dispose of these harmful chemicals directly into nearby waterways. This pollutes drinking water and groundwater where local communities live.

It’s something that BAM are very aware of. As they themselves say, Lyocell uses a more sustainable process where the main chemical can be reused and is organic. But Lyocell uses hardwood trees, which have a much greater environmental impact and take much longer to grow back than bamboo.

So, they are working closely with the ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) Foundation and their suppliers to make sure that waste is well managed and to find ways to reduce their impact to zero.

This ability to openly recognise where they can improve and transparently justifying their courses of action is what sets BAM apart from the vast majority of its competitors where, sadly, greenwashing is the order of the day. 

Read on to find out more about this inspirational company, and how they are helping to make our world a better place to live in.

The interview

Merryn Chilcott, BAM Clothing UK sustainability and technical manager
Merryn Chilcott, BAM's Sustainability and Technical Manager

impact positive:

BAM Clothing have announced an impressive and hugely challenging goal to become impact positive by 2030. This means becoming “truly regenerative” in all aspects of its business, supply chain and product life, right down to customer laundry! What made BAM decide to take on such a massive challenge, and from a business viewpoint, how financially sustainable or challenging is it to make it happen?

It’s a huge challenge but it’s the right thing to do! In this year’s Impact Report, we’ve narrowed our focus to three pillars – people, nature, and climate. It’s important to us, it’s important to the people who buy our clothes, and of course it’s important for the future of the planet.

One of the biggest challenges is balancing resources and costs with making progress on our impact goals; we need to be in business to make a positive change!

In terms of challenges, once we started to measure and understand the true impact of our clothing, it became clear how complex the challenges were within the clothing industry, with manufacture and customer use of our garments – as well as our own direct emissions – to consider.

We can’t have full control of the emissions our suppliers and our customers create, but we can make a difference through the choices we make. For example, we offset the emissions from the first 50 washes of every garment we sell, and we choose and vet our suppliers and manufacturers carefully to ensure they meet our rigorous standards, both in terms of how they treat their workers and their production methods.

One of the biggest challenges is balancing resources and costs with making progress on our impact goals; we need to be in business to make a positive change! Our team is working relentlessly on solutions that will enable us to reduce our impact while producing items at accessible prices. This is one of the reasons we are so proud of our 73 Zero fully circular jacket, which is designed to perform, yet is made from recycled materials and is 100% recyclable.

recyclable clothing:

It’s been well documented that recycled polyester in clothing is very difficult to recycle at end of life, however you have found a solution with Project Plan B to make your 73 Zero range of fully recyclable clothing. How do they do it and how will customers be able to recycle their clothes when they’ve finished with them?

Yes, we’re excited to be working with Project Plan B and their new not-for-profit organisation The Circular Textiles Foundation to ensure our range is fully recyclable. Their mechanical extrusion fibre-to-fibre recycling system is lower impact than chemical recycling and works by melting the polyester down, filtering it and then forming it back into pellets which can be used to make new polyester fibres.

We believe it’s important for brands to take responsibility for what they produce, by certifying a guaranteed route to recycling for garments, and ensuring an end of life circular plan is in place for every item created.

In an ideal world, all the polyester garments they receive would be designed for recycling, avoiding contaminants and non-recyclable components which take time to remove or cut out. This makes the process more economical and results in a higher quality recycled pellet.

We make it as easy as possible for customers to recycle our circular jackets, offering a take-back scheme to help make sure our clothing ends up back in the right place instead of landfill. Even if a customer buys their jacket second-hand, they can still send it to be fully recycled for free using the QR codes printed on the inside of the garment.

We paid an upfront fee with every garment to Project Plan B to cover the cost of recycling it, even though it may be many, many years before that actually happens. We believe it’s important for brands to take responsibility for what they produce, by certifying a guaranteed route to recycling for garments, and ensuring an end of life circular plan is in place for every item created. Unfortunately, many brands aren’t taking responsibility – financial or otherwise – for the clothing they produce once it reaches the end of its use.

Following the success of this collaboration, we are excited to continue working towards a fully-certified circular range with their support by becoming members of the Circular Textiles Foundation.

This exciting new initiative brings together brands and recycling technologies to accelerate the textile industry’s transition to circularity by providing expertise and supporting brands to deliver certified circular products. We design our garments specifically to their requirements, and the Circular Textiles Foundation certifies that they are recyclable by a named fibre-to-fibre recycler.

Perform base layer in hot pink and high waist 7-8 enduro leggins in Zenith print
Perform base layer in hot pink and high waist 7-8 enduro leggins in Zenith print from BAM

compostable synthetics:

BAM are also looking into compostable solutions to synthetic fibres which is fascinating and would be ground breaking for the fashion industry. Can you give us a sneak peak into how this might work?

we funded a researcher to spend a year in the lab developing a system to trial different fungi to see how well they can break down textiles

With a huge 73% of clothing ending up in landfill or incinerated, we wanted to explore sustainable options for disposing of end-of-use textiles. We also want to address what should be done about the tonnes of clothing already in landfill.

Bio-remediation (using microbes to eliminate pollution) could be the answer. That’s why we funded a researcher to spend a year in the lab developing a system to trial different fungi to see how well they can break down textiles, and to see what impact the elastane content of clothing has on the process.

While hugely promising, this research is still in the very early stages and needs more funding than we’re able to provide to continue making great progress. Even though it’s a huge undertaking for a small business to spend our limited budget on research for solutions that are still years and years away from scale up, we really believe in the need for more innovation to find solutions for some of the huge challenges the industry faces.

biggest challenges:

BAM publishes a report each year showing their progress but also where they have fallen short. What have been the biggest challenges, or goals to date that have been particularly hard to reach?

Since first publishing our goal three years ago we’ve made some great progress in areas like traceability, circular clothing and innovation, thanks in part to our size and agility. On the other hand, our size has meant we’ve had some real challenges in areas like carbon reduction, influencing suppliers further back in the supply chain and accessing new-to-market materials which often have very high prices and minimum order quantities.

As you’ll see in our 2022 Impact report we’ve been re-working the specific pillars and goals that sit under the overarching ambition to become impact positive. These reflect everything we’ve learned so far and the more focused approach we’re now taking to achieve our Impact Positive goal. 

Garganey leggings with coordinating Pipet crop top from Enduro bamboo super stretch fabric from BAM
Garganey leggings with coordinating Pipet crop top from Enduro bamboo super stretch fabric from BAM

learnings for fast fashion:

BAM have said that “there are very few quick wins”, however, from your experience showing that ethical and sustainable fashion can be successful, is there one thing that fast fashion brands could easily do to reduce their impact on people, planet and animals?

The best thing fast fashion brands could do – at least in the short term while recycling infrastructure and technology develops – is to produce fewer items of clothing. But I’m not sure how many brands will be willing to adopt this strategy!

Certain brands are doing positive things with the massive resources they have in terms of funding innovation and driving change on a larger scale than smaller brands can do alone. Their entire business model, however, still centres around selling new ranges every couple of weeks and contributing to a “must buy more” culture. Huge quantities of clothing are produced to help drive down prices but these rarely sell through, meaning they need to be heavily discounted, incinerated or sold on to overseas markets where they often end up in landfill.

If fast fashion brands aren’t willing to produce less, then the most important thing is for them to design clothing with recyclability in mind, and invest in the recycling systems needed to deal with all the textile waste they are creating.

Lots of brands seem to be launching take back schemes but the clothes they are collecting haven’t been designed with recycling in mind, and they don’t yet have the right recycling infrastructure in place. It does make me wonder, what will happen to all that clothing they’re collecting? Will it be recycled, and when?

This is so true, the fast fashion model is built on growing sales and production when we’re already buying 400% more clothing than we were two decades ago! So at the very least they need to take responsibility for how these clothes are disposed of. 

We reported about proposed EU legislation that could help this in our article Laws and regulations in the fashion industry, but there is nothing concrete yet and even these measures don’t go as far as BAM is already doing.

I personally find these new measures that BAM are taking to be hugely exciting and inspiring. I hope that they do get used as a blueprint for the rest of the industry to improve their damaging practices. 

Check out their website to find out more and to get your hands on some of their gorgeous impact positive clothing. Thanks so much to Merryn for taking part in this interview, I found it fascinating and hope you did too!

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