Here are a few companies — including some in Colorado — that are making outdoor gear out of some surprising materials, going beyond just recycling or upcycling

It used to be that people headed out in the wilderness wearing not much more than cotton and wool. Then, synthetic fabrics replaced some of the classics with promises of being lighter, waterproof, helping the body adapt to changing temperatures and maybe even being more stylish.

These days, companies are looking back to nature as the source material to make the optimum gear for savvy hikers, rock climbers, runners and bikers.

There might be parts of a eucalyptus tree or volcanic mineral or castor oil in your outdoor gear. The possibilities for what can be used to create apparel and gear from the very places people want to explore seems to just be getting started.

Here are a few companies — including some in Colorado — that are making outdoor gear out of some surprising materials, going beyond just recycling or upcycling:


Most sunglasses are made out of plastic and some kind of metal. Zeal Optics, based in Boulder, uses Z-resin derived from castor beans to make lightweight sunglasses. Both the Z-Resin frames and Ellume Polarized lenses in the majority of the company’s sunglasses are made with castor oil as the bonding agent, which replaces petroleum-based plastics.

“The castor plant is a low-water and maintenance plant that grows on arid lands,” said Mike Lewis, director of marketing at Zeal. “We source our castor oil, which is derived from the seeds of the castor plant, from farms in Switzerland, where they practice renewable agricultural and grow the castor on marginal lands in rotation so that it doesn’t compete with food crops.” From there, the lenses are made in Japan, and the frames are made in Italy, Mauritius and Japan.

The company is also expanding more lines of glasses and goggles using other sustainable materials such as Sorona Straps made from a renewably sourced bio-based yarn that uses fermentation instead of chemical synthesis for bonding. This process takes 40% less energy and then reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 56% compared to nylon, Lewis said.

Other frame materials at Zeal include See Grass, which is made from 70% recycled plastics and 30% agricultural grasses.

“The bio-plastics industry is growing by leaps and bounds and we’re seeing innovative new materials coming out all the time,” Lewis said. “At this point, we’re the only sunglass brand that makes all of its products with plant-based materials in the lenses, frames or both.”

Proof Eyewear in Boise, Idaho specializes in making “sustainable eyewear” that uses wood, cotton-based acetate, and recycled aluminum. Proof is best known for its  wooden-frame sunglasses, but it also makes stylish prescription eyewear and a wooden or cork case for storing glasses.

Climate controlled clothing

Boulder-based 37.5® Technology is not an outdoor gear manufacturer, but it’s possible that you have worn something that incorporates its materials.

“37.5® Technology is an ingredient brand,” said Preston Brin, VP of global marketing for 37.5® Technology. “We license our patent technology to apparel, footwear and home goods partners who then use our certified supply partners to create the materials they use in their product lines.”

What’s being licensed is natural mineral technology which is permanently embedded in fabrics, insulations, child car seats and more. And what this technology does is to create “comfortable microclimates” for users. You might have worn a Salomon seamless tee, an Adidas hoodie, Banana Republic joggers, Lill Sport gloves, or some other outdoor gear item with 37.5® Technology woven into the fibers to keep your body temperature just right.

The not-so-secret ingredients to this technology are volcanic minerals and coconut-shell activated carbon. “The particles are permanently embedded within the materials that make up the product,”  Brin said. “They will not wash out.”

Another company, Ibex, also claims to make gear that is thermoregulating thanks to the wool sourced from New Zealand and Australian Merino sheep. Ibex was founded in Vermont over 20 years ago, but after being sold to Flour Brands, was restarted in 2019 out of Nederland. The company can brag that it is a Climate Neutral certified brand, which means they have a “net-zero carbon footprint.”

The product line can have a body covered head to toe in Merino wool, starting with women’s panties, long underwear for both men and women, hoodies  and socks.

In addition to the pure wool, Ibex used Merino Tencel™, a fiber derived from the eucalyptus tree (or more specifically, sustainably-grown Australian eucalyptus wood pulp). The claim is that the combination of wool, Tencel and a little nylon help to keep the body cool when it’s hot and humid outside. Currently, the company’s short-sleeve tees for men and women are made from this combination.

Wool isn’t just for winter with these modern adaptations and blends, making for lightweight and moisture-wicking apparel that can be worn year-round. Next up for Ibex is a performance running collection with a proprietary steam finish to provide even more natural cooling effects. Another “cool” factor? Wool and Tencel are naturally anti-microbial so sweat all you want and it won’t stink up your clothes.

Smartwool®, founded in Steamboat Springs and now part of VF Corporation, started out making merino wool socks and expanded into men’s and women’s activewear for all kinds of sports. It’s transitioned to plant-based dyes in some apparel, such as base layers and tees.

These dyes are made from madder root (pinkish hues labeled as “tea rose” and “rose marble wash”), indigowoad root (blueish hues), and myrobalan (“black marble wash”). Using the plant-based dyes uses less water and energy, and therefore is more eco-conscious, according to Smartwool®.

On your feet and up in space

Tread & Butter, based in Bend, Ore., makes insoles out of cork instead of plastic. As anyone who has been on a backpacking trip can attest, having good support for the feet is critical to enjoying the experience. The cork is harvested from trees in Portugal through a process that does not damage or harm the living trees.

There are now pants, hoodies and jackets made using NASA technology. The founders of OROS, based in Portland, Ore., learned of the aerogel that insulates spacecraft and developed SolarCore, a pliable foam insulation, from it. Instead of keeping the body cooled down during exercise, Oros Apparel promises to keep you warm without the need for bulky coats and pants.

While aerogel might not sound very nature-y, it is primarily made of trapped air.

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