LONGMONT Feb 29, 2008 - Coconuts call to mind frozen drinks, sunscreen and tropical islands for most, but for one Colorado-based company coconuts equal clothing. Cocona Inc. uses activated carbon extracted from coconut shells - a waste product of the food industry - to create a fabric that is both easy on the environment and high performing.
"We buy what would have gone into the landfills and turn it into a product that dries quickly, releases odor when washed and provides UV protection for the wearer," said Jon Erb, chief marketing officer for Cocona.
Cocona fabrics swept onto the commercial athletic clothing scene two years ago, and it partnered with companies such as Marmot, Pearl Izumi, Cannondale and IZOD. Cocona fabrics now appear in 50 different brands. Everything from base-layer shirts and outer shells to running shoes and sleeping bag liners incorporate Cocona fabric, Erb said. The Colorado-based company has its headquarters in Boulder and a research lab in Longmont. The manufacturing is primarily done out of the country.
Cocona plans to open a retail store on Pearl Street in Boulder in March.
Originally named TrapTek for the odor trapping properties of the fabric, the company changed its name to Cocona after an influx of investor capitol in late 2007. The microscopic spongelike structure of the material captures odors, but unlike some fabrics Cocona releases the odor when washed in hot water, Erb said. This keeps clothing smelling fresh. These odor-trapping properties last for the life of the product, too, rather than washing out like some treatments or coatings. Cocona inventor, Gregory Haggquist, originally thought odor reduction would be the primary selling point, Erb said, but Cocona users quickly changed that by pointing to the fabric's rapid dry time as the most noticeable quality.
"We dry 52 percent faster than polyester," Erb said - this fact that has been tested by Cocona as well as labs at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Brad Poorman, Cocona's chief executive officer, attributes Cocona's rapid growth to the fast dry time and good timing.
"Once we showed how fast it dried at trade shows, and then confirmed with athletes, it really opened the floodgates," Poorman said.
The industry was thirsty for a new high-tech fabric for users interested in high performance. Products like Gore-Tex and Coolmax emerged years ago with few new or unique performance fabrics entering the market since then, Poorman said.
"The marketplace has been looking for something to differentiate their products, and this came along at the right time." Former professional triathlete Nicole DeBoom took notice of the Cocona fabric right away.
"It wicks moisture better than any product that I've used," DeBoom said.
DeBoom liked the fabric so much she decided to use it in a line of clothing for her company - SkirtSports Inc. SkirtSports makes athletic apparel with an eye toward fashion as much as function, DeBoom said, and the feel and look of the fabric factored heavily into her choice of Cocona.
"Our consumers have just been blown away by the way Cocona has been incorporated into the line," DeBoom said, something she attributes not just to the fabric's quick-drying feature but also to the soft, silky feel of the material. While DeBoom said the price of Cocona fabric is slightly higher than similar products, Cocona's environmental integrity makes it worthwhile.
"I think it's very important for business owners to make decisions with the bigger picture in mind," DeBoom said, and environmental sustainability is part of that bigger picture. Making clothing from waste products isn't the only way Cocona may help the environment, Erb said. The reduction in the time it takes for a dryer to rid Cocona products of moisture is significantly less than for traditional cotton or polyester clothing. Erb said this could lead to a big reduction in the clothing industry's carbon footprint.
"Most of the carbon footprint is not in the manufacturing. It's in the care, the washing and the drying (of clothing)," Erb said.
When clothing made with Cocona fabrics is dried with traditional materials it takes the whole load less time to dry.
"The part of this we find real interesting is not only the dollar savings but the reduction in the carbon footprint," Erb said.
Decreased energy use for clothing care would impact household drying times but could have a grander impact for commercial laundries, such as places cleaning sheets, towels and uniforms, he said. Cocona plans to expand into home and bath products with the release of a new technology in summer 2008, Erb said. The new product, made from volcanic minerals, will complement the coconut-derived fabric and will be pure white. Current Cocona products all have color.