Building a “sustainable” brand almost 10 years after starting on Kickstarter

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Zack Helminiak co-founder Nomadix almost a decade ago, and got it off the ground with a successful but sloppy Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $70,000 to create an all-in-one towel made from recycled materials. Now they’re innovating beyond the beach-meets-yoga-meets-travel towel that has gained a dedicated audience (and enabled interesting collaborations with creatives), and are slowly adding new products.

Last fall, Nomadix launched a puffer blanket that aims to be as versatile as their flagship product with clip-on details that keep it from slipping, he notes, and a bandana towel that’s great for athletes looking to collect their sweat. With their products in over 1,000 stores nationwide, including popular outdoor stores like REI, they’ve grown from a niche brand to one that’s more mainstream.

But behind these products is a commitment to rethink manufacturing, says Helminiak. This spring, the California-based company released its 2022 Social Purpose Corporation report.

“Reimagining the way textiles are made is no small feat, but the health and sustainability of our planet will remain our number one priority,” he says.

Becoming a Social Purpose Corporation was a deliberate decision for the Nomadix crew. A Social Purpose Corporation produces a hybrid structure between a for-profit and a non-profit organization, allowing the company to focus on its broader mission beyond selling outdoor travel items. “It’s been pretty important to us from day one that we were indeed selling towels, but how?”

In the report, Nomadix highlights a number of progress points: switching their headquarters to 50% solar energy, reducing air freight by 45%, phasing out 90% virgin plastic with recycled materials and making all their paper products and packaging FSC certified.

While this may seem obvious, in dealing with a global supply chain and the surprises the pandemic brings, Helminiak notes it’s a balancing act. “We’re always thinking about how we can do things in a more environmentally friendly way, but we also have to keep in mind that it’s a business.”

And producing responsibly, he says, can be more expensive. “If you used non-recycled material, you could price your product at a completely different (lower) price level. So it is a significant additional cost.”

While many brands increased their prices during the pandemic, Nomadix has kept their flagship towel at $40 despite higher production costs and inflationary pressures in recent years. “We love that award. We think it’s a good price for a product that will last for years and do more than just a regular towel. Moreover, it is made from recycled materials.”

It also requires them to take a little more initiative. For example, with the puffer blanket launched last fall, Nomadix wanted to avoid PFAS, or chemicals, forever. These are commonly found in insulated products and many outdoor brands are making efforts to reduce their use of PFAS. Commonly found in DWR, a chemical finish that helps fabrics repel water, PFAS is part of a growing national conversation as lawmakers have begun to investigate all sources of PFAS. Of course, says Helminiak, Nomadix wants to be part of the movement to move away from using these chemicals. So they opted for a plant-based DWR, which they implemented together with manufacturers.

Helminiak points out that the problem is actually overconsumption. “The biggest problem with sustainability is consumer consumption, the idea that you always need a new pair of pants, shirt, etc. We’re building a business that you can use this one towel for a lot of things — and it’s not silly, it’s cool,” he adds.

In fact, the company’s origins are just that: When Helminiak and his co-founders were getting ready for a cross-country trip together in their 1998 Subaru, they had to figure out what to take with them. It was too much gear and we wanted to simplify it, he says. Hence the desire to build a product that can be used for so many things and dries quickly.

Although Nomadix uses recycled plastic bottles and a closed loop production process and has opted for plant-based DWR, there is still work to be done, Helminiak admits.

“We have a laundry list of things we would like to do. And we continue to make progress on that. We’re not perfect. We’re just trying to provide you with a better solution. Over our lifetime, and we are in our 30s, plastic and textile pollution has visibly worsened, so we wanted to divert as much of that waste away from our waterways, oceans and beaches as possible.”