QWSTION + MOVER INTERVIEW
Interview by Anna Dorothea Ker
Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic lifecycle.¹ Given its enormous (and still continuously growing) production volumes, this makes plastic a key driver of the greenhouse effect and climate change.²
Tackling the challenge head-on is Swiss brand Mover Plastic Free Sportswear, QWSTION’s latest collaborator and Platform Resident. Together, they have created a bag made to move – at all heights and intensity levels. Buy the Hip Pack here.
To delve deep into the thinking (and doing) behind the collaboration, Mover CEO Nicolas Rochat joins QWSTION Co-Founder and Creative Director Christian Kaegi for a frank repartee, canvassing the origins of the plastic problem, what we can do to begin to solve it, and why the ‘mirage’ of recycled plastic requires urgent demystification.
Why is 99.9% of sportswear still made from plastic, given what we know about its harms?
Nicolas Rochat: I think the answer is easy: for the last 50 years, we've never considered doing anything differently. The industry led us into this plastic world, which we thought was beautiful. 60-70 percent of the population doesn't know that polyester and polyamide are plastic.³ We’re not aware of what we are wearing. By showing people these synthetic fibres are plastic and petrol-based, we can rediscover this very 'old-fashioned' reality that we can actually replace everything with natural fibres – or that we should never have switched to synthetic in the first place.
In the fashion industry, 60% of fabrics are synthetic-based – because we have cotton and wool.⁴ In the sports industry, it’s almost 100%, because plastic is easier, cheaper, and more mouldable. So it has many advantages. The downside, obviously, is its origin, but also microplastic pollution. Only 8% of this pollution is visible, and we only tend to care about what we see – in landfills, floating in the oceans, in the stomachs of birds and turtles.
But this is only 8% of the problem. The other 92% is the microplastic soup in the ocean, and 35% of this soup is made of microplastic from washing and from wearing our garments.⁵ So there's a huge amount that we can address nowadays simply in the way we dress ourselves. In everyday life, it's quite easy to switch to natural fabrics. When it comes to sports, it's very difficult, because the offer is not there on the market. There is no sportswear brand today that offers 100% natural fabrics.
Christian Kaegi: With bags, we're facing the same problem. It's not quite as extreme – there's more cotton and leather in the field of everyday bags – but just by looking out at the streets I see over 80% plastic as well. Ultimately, it comes down to price, and I believe it has to do with the fact that the whole industry around petroleum is heavily subsidised all over the world. It's not held accountable for environmental damage it causes. This results in plastic products being cheaper than natural fibers.⁶
What are some common misconceptions about using natural fabrics for thermal and sports clothing?
We need to be more efficient with the resources we have. Nature offers the best examples in that regard. There is no waste in nature. Our species invented waste.
NR: I think it's very human to take what is given to you without challenging it. But let's consider the functions you need to go outdoors – what type of shoe do you need? Do you need gloves? If you're actively touring in the outdoors, many people you see out there will wear a scarf. But there are reasons not to wear a scarf, because it'll build up steam on your face, glasses – you'll overheat. People don't often know what they need for their sports.
An opportunity in our position as designers is to think through the required functions and propose a solution that is fit for purpose. In the sports world, it's super interesting to go into natural fibres, because we can challenge and rethink all functions, sport by sport. You do need some heat, but what you need most is breathability. You can't beat the breathability of natural fibres. Why do natural fibres breathe better? Because it took a billion years to evolve wool fibre. It only took 100 years to make the plastic fibres we're working with today.
CK: I think the topic of appropriateness is super important, and also linked to minimalism in a way – to not have products that over-perform but are actually efficient with the materials we use, to have products that serve their purpose. To put it simply, it doesn't make sense to drive a two-and-a-half tonne SUV in the city. We just don't need that kind of vehicle to transport our own body weight from A to B. It's non-appropriate, and with it comes a huge overconsumption of materials, with supply chains involved. I think that's the direction we need to point our thinking towards. We need to be more efficient with the resources we have. Nature offers the best examples in that regard. There is no waste in nature. Our species invented waste.
How did Mover manage to go from the plastic problem to the plant- based solution?
NR: We were frustrated by what the industry could offer in terms of padding and insulation materials, because we had very few options but to use polyester fleece – Primaloft, Thermolite, Thermoloft, there are many – or to use down, which is a natural material. The problem with polyester is that when you're actively skiing, the synthetic close to your body creates a lot of warmth very quickly. It becomes too warm, you start sweating more quickly. We were trying to avoid that by looking for a better thermal exchange, with more breathability. That's why we developed insulation from wool, which we called Swisswool®.
Swisswool was the first wool-based insulation available when it launched in 2010. Five years later, in 2015, we were looking to replace Gore-Tex® outer shields, the last synthetic layer on the body, because we were also frustrated that we couldn't wear Gore-Tex jackets when we were climbing in the mountains, or were active, as we were getting sweaty too quickly. We had to keep taking our jackets off, putting them on again, and taking them off again.
We were looking for something that was more breathable, that we could keep on the body. We found this Ventile fabric, which is a patent from the '40s used by the British Army. That accounted for the success of the Burberry trench coat, because it's a high-density woven cotton that is so dense that it's water resistant and windproof. We thought, maybe we could apply this in skiwear. The first tests were absolutely demonstrative. We were amazed by the comfort we gained by using this breathable fabric instead of having this plastic shield Gore-Tex around the body.
So it was very empirical. We got there step by step, without any sustainable thinking behind it. It was completely performance-oriented. And when I say performance, I mean pure comfort for the wearer – here, for the skier to go further in their efforts, and in their passion for skiiing.
We had sailor friends coming back from completely remote islands in the North Pacific saying they'd found plastic on every beach, in every place in the world. We started documenting this, and we began to understand how bad the microplastic problem was. We said, "But we do have a solution on hand that actually performs better than synthetics." That was the real start of this new launch of Mover Plastic Free Sportswear.
Christian, how does that compare with QWSTION’s journey of material experimentation?
The idea is to meet in the middle, you could say – Mover with plastic free outerwear or clothing for movement, and QWSTION with everyday bags.CK: We have a different approach in the sense that in 2008, when we started, we saw the problem of plastic and made the decision to work with plants, which was basically about going back to the roots. Before plastic took over in the '60s and '70s, natural fibres were dominant in functional applications. We had looked at old Swiss Army bags and discovered they were made from natural fibres like cotton and hemp. It was an evolutionary process – from the beginning, we had to work with what we could find on the market until we realised we had to get involved with material development in order to truly get to the point where we could have an impact.
What was the initial spark that led you to work together?
CK: We started discussing the topic several years ago, mainly at a conference where we were both speaking. From there on, it's really been about exchanging ideas. We've tried to develop things jointly, in terms of zippers for example. There have been many touchpoints. Then with our Bananatex material, there was another level on which we could explore things. Now, with the Mover relaunch, the time was right to develop a product together.
NR: From my perspective, it's been a very natural collaboration. And as Christian points out, we've been in contact and collaborating for years. I'm a big admirer of Bananatex. I truly believe this is the first fibre on the market that offers a true alternative to 'fake' sustainable solutions. They are too many lies, too much hypocrisy about pseudo-alternatives to plastic fibres, which are plastic – PLA or polysaccharides. We need more brands going the same way to move beyond synthetics. So it's quite natural that we joined forces.
It’s very important that we can help each other in terms of suppliers, contacts, development. It's true that the smallest things were the toughest to solve. Trims accessories, zippers – it took a year to get our plastic free zippers. But that was a fight, and QWSTION went through the same process, so it's good that we can exchange information on that and share our experiences. This will help the movement, the market, and also our competitors.
How can we expect your common vision and values to manifest in the tangible form of this collaboration?
CK: The idea is to meet in the middle, you could say – Mover with plastic free outerwear or clothing for movement, and QWSTION with everyday carry bags. So what we're doing together is a bag that is designed for movement outdoors. It's smaller than what we usually do and it's made to be worn while you move.
NR: It's a merger of both of our philosophies and brands to create a bag to move with. We have both the movement and the carry functions. We brought different approaches and different projects to the collaboration, and I think we came to this very nice object that sums up the best of what both brands offer.
CK: All of our team moves a lot – we spend a lot of time outdoors, and so far we haven't really have a dedicated carry product for that. So we've been kind of abusing what we have in our collection. We're all looking forward to having something that suits the purpose.
What have been the greatest challenges and gains from the collaboration?
The message is: do not recycle plastic. Move away from plastic.
NR: The biggest challenge was to find the object that links our brands in a real way. How do we link bags to apparel? That was the starting point: to understand whether we do a garment or do a bag. And actually, the first project was a garment and the final project is a bag.
CK: True collaboration is based on dialogue, which means exchanging ideas. Our common ground is the values and goals we pursue. The rest was really about finding something that speaks for itself, and can actually communicate those values.
How do you hope that this bag and everything it embodies will contribute to the societal need for an end to plastic?
NR: One topic I would like to address is the recycling issue, because the unanimous response of the textile industry to plastic pollution is to recycle plastic from the oceans or mix plastic with plants like pineapple. These answers are lies, and I think we should address this head-on. It is a real problem nowadays because the consumer is led to a false choice, and they feel good because they buy recycled plastic.
We know for sure that recycled plastic is as toxic as fresh plastic, and releases the same endocrine disruptors, the same bisphenol. It's the same thing for the fish who eat it. Plastic can be recycled 1.7 times and no more. Only three types of plastic can be recycled out of seven or eight, in very special conditions, because it has to be clean. 9% of plastic worldwide is recycled, while plastic production increases by 7% per year.⁷
So recycling is a mirage that was invented by the plastic industry in order to continue to produce more plastic, provide more plastic, and continue to pollute. I think it's dangerous for the consumer, because they truly believe that they are being more sustainable by buying recycled stuff, or plastic from the oceans. Our answer is to say yes, of course it's good to collect plastic that is in the landfills and the oceans, but it should not be transformed into the same thing again. Make something else other than plastic – burn it, create energy with it, but don't do more plastic. We have to stop plastic.
CK: In the bag market, ‘recycling bottles’ is a huge thing. There are a tonne of brands that create a sustainable image and communicate sustainability in this way. Just envisioning what's happening there is really helpful. Basically, we're taking bottles from a system that is already not a closed loop, a system that's not working. A part of those bottles come back to being recycled, but the majority don't. It goes into landfills and waterways. In many countries, some of it may be burned.
Taking plastic out of that loop to create a product that has no end-of-life solution to it – that just doesn't make sense. What happens is that more new plastic is fed into the bottle loop. It's important to address that, which we’re aiming to do with our project as well. It's really about creating transparency for our community and for consumers in general to understand what is actually happening.
NR: The message is really: do not recycle plastic. Move away from plastic.
1 – Center for International Economic Law, ‘Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’ (2019), <www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate>
2 – Beyond Plastics, ‘The New Coal: Plastics & Climate Change’ (2021)
3 – Yonder & Plastic Planet Poll (2021)
4 – Boucher & Friot, ‘Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources’ (2017), <www.dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.CH.2017.01.en>
5 – The Guardian, ‘Magnets, Vacuums and Tiny Nets: the New Fight Against Microplastics’ (2021), <www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/18/microplastics-oceans-environment-science>
6 – The Atlantic, ‘How Bad are Plastics Really?’ (2022), <www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2022/01/plastic-history-climate-change/621033/>
IMF, ‘Still Not Getting Energy Prices Right: A Global and Country Update of Fossil Fuel Subsidies’ (2021), <www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2021/09/23/Still-Not-Getting-Energy-Prices-Right-A-Global-and-Country-Update-of-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-466004>
7 – Science Advances, ‘Production, Use and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made’ (2017), <www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1700782>