Coffee: It’s as much a part of the Washington vernacular as “rain” and “Seahawks.” According to Smart Asset, the Seattle area now has over 1,600 coffee shops, but the obsession with coffee is not unique to the area. In 2016, Bloomberg reported that millennials aged 19-34 were driving U.S. coffee demands to a record high. That same year, a Tacoma startup recycled 2,000 pounds of coffee to make clothes.
Five12 Apparel is a local activewear brand founded by Brooklynn Gould-Bradbury. Located in the historic Armory Building, Five12 is diverting coffee grind waste from landfills, and raising awareness of traditionally harmful clothing production practices.
“We knew about this process to turn these recycled materials into gear, so we thought … let’s create. Let’s jump onboard and create something that’s highly technical and very specific to what athletes need, but also that’s environmentally friendly,” said Gould-Bradbury.
A former college athlete, Gould-Bradbury began her entrepreneurial endeavor after graduation. When she approached Allison Wood with her idea for Five12, Wood jumped at the opportunity to become director of operations.
“I worked a 9-to-5 job, and I was like, ‘O.K.; there’s gotta be more to life than this because this is horrible. I had benefits. It was good, but this is not what I want to do with my life. I want to do something exciting and something that I’m going to be driven every day [to] go to work,’” Wood said.
Both women had grown up playing on opposing sides of the volleyball court and spent most of their days in athletic apparel. “We’re very particular about our athletic wear,” said Gould-Bradbury. But neither woman had studied fashion or product design; they had to build a business and learn a new industry entirely on the job. Despite their lack of formal training, they took on the challenge of building a sustainably focused apparel company with the help of a small but passionate team.
Five12 uses a unique coffee-based fabric called S.Café that was invented by Taiwanese textile company Singtex. A simple breakdown of the process begins with combining post-consumer coffee grinds with a polyester binder made from recycled plastic bottles. The mixture is then turned into yarn, which is woven into fabric.
Big-name companies like Oakley, Under Armour, and Helly have already incorporated the S.Café fabric in select products or design elements. Five12 strives to create all of its clothing and accessories from either S.Café fabric or other recycled materials. The S.Café fabric benefits from coffee’s natural odor-neutralizing properties, and Five12 helped develop a fabric that is fast-drying, UV-resistant, and has four-way stretch for its Performance Collection.
For the past three years, Five12 has quickly expanded its line from a few women’s pieces to also include menswear and accessories. The Performance Collection now includes several jackets, tops, leggings, and shorts options for women, as well as styles for men. Each piece is sleek in design, functional, and available in tastefully bold colors.
They’ve also developed “shield” bags, ideal for transporting sports gear or camping trips. Collapsible for easy storage, the bags are water-resistant, thanks to a coating derived from recycled windshields. Another popular item has been their “Coffee Tees,” which are a blend of 75 percent coffee fabric and 25 percent cotton. Five12 carries several of its own Northwest-themed designs, but the shirts have become popular with coffee shops, including local hot spot Anthem Coffee & Tea.
Sports teams across Washington and California also use Five12 apparel, but gaining consumer trust as a new company came with its challenges. “People have their brands that they like, and it’s hard to pull someone away who always wears Nike or always wears Lululemon to get them to try something new,” Gould-Bradbury said. “So it’s definitely been a lot of — to be honest — a lot of hard work and putting yourselves out there and approaching people.”
Social media and a widespread ambassador program played an integral role in breaking through a competitive industry. They’ve now successfully built a community of professional athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and bloggers to promote their apparel across the United States and overseas.
“We’ve put in so many hours and late nights and weekends,” Wood said.
“You can’t make something like that work, and you can’t stay motivated if you don’t love what you’re doing (and) if you don’t love the people that you’re working with,” Gould-Bradbury said.
If millennials are responsible for increased coffee consumption and waste, then they also can find a solution. In the next year, Five12 hopes to expand more extensively down the West Coast, and the company continues to seek out other innovative materials such as recycled fishnets to create more ethical products. A physical store may also be in the future, but until then you can shop online. five12apparel.com