To look at a shirt produced by New Britain's Kenai Sports and refer to it simply as a piece of clothing would be misdirected. It is, in fact, the glorious reincarnation of trash. Lots and lots of trash.
In 2008, while in their senior year at Massachusetts' Babson College, company founders Phil Tepfer and Charlie Bogoian first created cotton garments as part of a class project. The following year, they chose the entrepreneurial challenge of setting themselves apart while making a difference. Sustainability became the key.
"We did the research and found that upholsterers had been using recycled plastic for 30 years," Tepfer says. "So we partnered with a company which could execute that method and spent 2010 focused on our new business model."
Soon, they were using 20 different fabrics to make a line of 50 products and had one customer — Babson College.
"Babson prides themselves on innovation and alumni support," Bogoian says. "They helped us with both and really allowed us to get started."
Today, the company serves more than 24 clients, and conducts research and product testing at their Needham, Mass., facility. They collect raw material via contracts with several landfills who provide them with the recyclable plastics they use to make their garments. Only certain types of plastics can be used; specifically, those numbered one through seven. From there, the process can begin.
"Our plastic No. 5, for example, is sent to a mill where it is chopped up, cleaned, and flaked. It's then melted and formed into strings like spaghetti," explains Tepfer. "From that, we can create a fiber which is identical to polyester."
Colleges and universities are ready supporters of the concept, making up a large chunk of Kenai's customer base. Bogoian says that ordering their athletic wear, t-shirts, jerseys, shorts, and other school apparel from his company is a win-win, allowing the schools to offer quality pieces while representing a commitment to green practices.
"A lot of universities we talk to want to raise the bar on sustainability but need guidance. They tell us they want to go green, but don't know how," he says. "We give them that opportunity."
Along with every order shipped, Kenai sends out an impact statement, outlining exactly how much waste was saved through that particular purchase. Bogoian says that sort of tangible, quantitative information is something colleges can share with students to demonstrate that they have progressive values.
Corporations are eager to make and highlight sustainable purchases as well. At a recent Boston area golf tournament, Kenai was able to show sponsors that an order of shirts purchased for the event used an amount of recycled plastic equal to 630,000 golf balls, or 30,000 square feet of trash.
"When we approach a new client, there first needs to be a lot of education as to why sustainability matters. We address that before we talk about fabric," Tepfer says. "Our driving focus is our commitment to being a beacon of sustainability in the areas we serve."
In addition to doubling their collegiate client base each of the past few years, Kenai is expanding beyond the university market. They are currently in the process of making polo shirts for the Peabody, Massachusetts police department's bike patrolmen, using a new reflective material, and hope to make more contacts with municipalities in that state, as well as in Connecticut. Offerings for these customers include sustainable uniforms for police, fire, and EMS workers.
Tepfer and Bogoian are proud to say that everything they make is produced in the United States and Canada. To further promote the reduce, reuse, recycle message, the company also employs what they call a closed loop process.
"Our customers can send clothes back to us once they don't want them anymore, and they will receive a discount on future purchases," Tepfer says. "Their cast-offs are then broken down to be recreated into something else."
Looking to the future, Tepfer and Bogoian say they will continue to focus on expanding relationships within the university and government marketplace, while branching out on some new ventures as well.
In May, the company launched a "Kickstarter" campaign to support the rollout of consumer-targeted styles, such as yoga pants produced from No. 5 plastic — found in things like yogurt cups and toothbrushes — and coconut shells.
According to the campaign's website, the project will utilize ten football fields worth of plastic trash and "upcycle" it into the garments, which will come with a ten-year warranty.
Plastic and coconut yoga pants sound strange to you? Not at Kenai, where making top quality apparel and actively reducing landfills go hand in hand every day. H