Roderick Bradley, co-founder of PlayerLayer, talks about the importance of innovation and R&D when taking on the major players in the industry – and instigating sustainable change
‘Fast fashion’ is a term that has crept into the English language in recent years, with retailers generally embracing cost-efficient measures to produce the latest trends for consumers. Despite being hailed as a triumph for consumer choice, this strategy is responsible for a huge amount of waste. Inexpensive garments are often disposed of as quickly as they were put together – even if they are still functional.
According to The Economist, consumers keep each piece of apparel for only half as long as they did 15 years ago, with more than half of ‘fast fashion’ items thrown away in less than a year.
Global clothing production also doubled between 2000 and 2014, so it has become a significant source of waste across the planet – as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the fashion industry is responsible for around 5% of all man-made emissions.
Another environmental issue within the fashion industry is the material clothing is made from. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, are used to produce a large proportion of our clothes. Although cheap and versatile, these plastic-based materials are contributing significantly to the ocean plastics crisis, with millions of tiny fibres being sent to the sea via our washing machines.
Per wash, it is estimated that 496,030 fibres of polyester are released into the ocean.
Sports garments, particularly football shirts, are overwhelmingly produced with this environment-damaging substance. So when Forest Green Rovers – the first UN-certified carbon neutral football club and champion of sustainability – had to find a new kit supplier, it was faced with a choice: maintain the status quo with a traditional sportswear company, or find a more sustainable alternative.
Following a period of exploration, the English League Two club – chaired by renewable energy entrepreneur Dale Vince – came across PlayerLayer, which uses “high-level research” to create “durable products from environmentally-responsible sources”.
It seemed like a perfect match. And after agreeing a deal during the 2018/19 season, PlayerLayer started to produce the Forest Green Rovers kit – including a striking blue third kit for the 2019/20 season, of which all sales proceeds are donated to marine conservation charity Sea Shepherd.
The kit produced for the current season uses only 50% of the amount of polyester needed for most football shirts, with the remainder of the garment made from bamboo charcoal, which has a lower environmental impact. Not to be confused with bamboo viscose, bamboo charcoal is derived from the plant once it has been broken down into nanoparticles, which, according to PlayerLayer, is essentially far less harmful as it does not require any bleaches.
“Going back a few years, we started to use recycled polyester in our playing kits, and this was really well received,” Roderick Bradley, co-founder and creative director of PlayerLayer tells The Sustainability Report. “I suppose it was one of the reasons why Forest Green wanted to work with us, and it helps to spread the sustainability message that the club supports.”
PlayerLayer’s strength, says Bradley, lies in its small size relative to other sports apparel companies. While some of the bigger names in the industry might look to prioritise cost cutting and efficiency, PlayerLayer has kept innovation at the forefront of planning and remained “true to its core values”.
“There’s about a 10-15% difference in terms of [higher production] cost,” Bradley says of the Forest Green shirts. “The biggest cost is research and development, but we now have bamboo charcoal kits for every sports team that plays at Edinburgh University, for instance.”
Their university links run deeper than just Edinburgh, too. PlayerLayer provides kits for the sports teams at Cambridge, Durham, Manchester, and Exeter, to name just a few. This collaboration with higher education institutes is a symbiotic relationship: each university uses and trials new products for the company, as well as wearing their well-established garments, and their work together could potentially open the door for grants and support to aid with research.
Without the budget to compete with Nike, Adidas, or other big-name sports brands, PlayerLayer places a huge emphasis on research and development so that it can stay ahead of the industry by discovering the next cutting-edge breakthrough. Bradley explains that the company is working on a number of innovative projects, including an “eco-friendly training range” that will be on the market soon.
“We’re trying something very new, but it’s arguably one of the most ground-breaking materials used for a football shirt,” Bradley adds.
The Nottingham, England-based company is also attempting to diversify its product range by moving into rugby. Bradley acknowledges, however, that rugby is a totally different sport to football, and a lot of research will be undertaken to discover which sustainable materials create a suitable end product.
PlayerLayer’s ultimate goal is to achieve sustainability through longevity – creating a product that lasts a long time and, as a consequence, is less likely to be discarded by customers. And that philosophy is not likely to change, even if the firm’s new-found fame sees it grow beyond its current 50-person operation.
“Our mission statement is to use sport as a driver for change,” Bradley says. “Sport is a cultural platform, like music and art that can drive change without the use of politics. And we’re going to continue along that bend.”