It was just a random Sunday this February when Picture Organic Clothing dropped their mockumentary about a new technology called the Belly Button Fluff Project. The gist: the company would harvest the lint that collects in the navels of their harrier customers and weave the stuff into, “a material softer than cotton, wool, and silk combined.” From that “recyclable, recycled, reusable, renewable” fabric, Picture would churn out apparel, creating “a revolution in the textile industry.” Goofy? Yep. Gross? Definitely.
Yet, looking a little deeper, the piece is actually pretty emblematic of what has made the brand so successful.
Formed in just 2008, France’s Picture Organic Clothing has rapidly become a staple brand in ski shops worldwide, best known for its strides to make apparel more sustainable. The brand was one of the first outerwear companies to eliminate toxic PFCs from their line in 2017, and helped develop the world’s first bio-based waterproof-breathable membrane in 2019. They’ve won a host of awards for products like a 100-percent recyclable ski shell, and this year’s Demain jacket, formulated from 50 percent sugarcane waste. In 2019, they were awarded B Corp status, a stringent marker of a company striving for social and environmental good.
“They lead with sustainability stories,” says Rachel Thomas, of retailer evo, which has seen growth from Picture of 50 percent year over year.
While facetious, their belly button lint story isn’t too terribly far from Picture’s real campaigns. One year, notes Thomas, they sold “compostable fleece” that was purportedly fully biodegradable. “A lot of brands adopt sustainability practices gradually over many years, but it seems to be part of Picture’s DNA.”
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Indeed, says Julien Durant, one of Picture’s trio of founders, the company’s framing concept was to make a more sustainable apparel company.
“Patagonia was one of our models, but their style didn’t speak to us,” says Durant. “We wanted to make a brand with the same values, but for our generation.”
The inclusion of “organic clothing” in their name and their logo—a fir tree surrounded by a drop of water representing the lifecycle—was just the start. From its inception, the company employed all organic cotton in their line, and the following year they launched outerwear made of recycled material. These days, 69 percent of the polyester used in their line comes from recycled bottles, a figure that could be higher except that it would increase costs, Durant says, and they’d rather have more people consuming better sustainable products than a few consuming perfectly sustainable products.
In fact, because of their smaller size, Picture has been more nimble than even green apparel paragon Patagonia in introducing sustainability innovation, beating the larger company to market with PFC-free and recycled-fabric outerwear by several years, not to mention the introduction of fossil-fuel reducing innovations like the sugarcane-derived polyester. Picture often rolls out more radical innovations in their “Lab” line, a smaller run of garments. The Demain parka, which in addition to the sugarcane fabric, debuts a brand new, more eco-friendly waterproof-breathable membrane from Korean manufacturer Ben Q, is in the Lab line this year. After performing well this season, the Demain’s technologies will roll into roughly 30 percent of Picture’s outerwear line for next fall.
Such graduation isn’t always the case, however. Picture’s aforementioned biodegradable fleece, introduced in 2013, was ultimately discontinued because of uncertainty around whether the fleece, if landfilled, would still produce microplastics.
“We never got clear answers from the fabric’s supplier,” says Durant. “Because we weren’t confident about that issue, we discontinued it. We learned some important lessons.”
Picture’s relatively small size necessitates not only a higher risk tolerance but a higher appetite for the sort of collaboration implied in the belly button lint harvesting prank. In 2018, Picture approached French materials manufacturer Arkema with an idea for a waterproof-breathable membrane made from castor seeds.
“As a new brand coming into the market with no money, we had to think more along the lines of collaborations, co-developments, or partnerships,” says Durant. “We proposed to forgo exclusivity so the big firm could sell that technology to other manufacturers, making it more financially rewarding for them to work with us. They developed it, and shared it for the first year between Adidas and us.”
While such innovations are sexy, says Durant, more important from a sustainability standpoint is focusing on the greenhouse gasses produced in the manufacturing process—83 percent of the company’s output—and in the polyester bags used in distribution. To tackle the former, Picture is helping their two principal factories in Taiwan and Turkey install solar panels. For the latter, Picture has been experimenting with reusable packing on their European direct-to-consumers sales, and with “roll packing,” a technique where garments are rolled up and secured with biodegradable string. Picture estimates the practice can eventually eliminate 64 percent of the company’s polybag use.
Roll packing, it turns out, is a technique they borrowed from competitor prAna, which was only too happy to help Picture develop their own polybag reduction program.
“Collaborative efforts yield farther-reaching results,” says Durant.
Or, as the Belly Button Fluff Project video tells us, “Cooperation, solidarity—that’s what makes the world a better place.”