Solving the Earth’s problems through design

Tim Hamilton isn’t after hearts or minds—his battle with throwaway culture is in the studio, where he leads The North Face’s design team in creating clothing to last a lifetime.

Solving the Earth’s problems through design

Tim Hamilton isn’t after hearts or minds—his battle with throwaway culture is in the studio, where he leads The North Face’s design team in creating clothing to last a lifetime.

When people think about the fashion industry’s effect on the planet, they often think about landfills. Indeed, every second, a garbage truck’s worth of textiles is dumped in a landfill or burned. But consider the ocean. That’s where about two-thirds of the plastic microfibers used to produce clothing each year could end up, if we don’t change our habits.

“The garment industry needs to take a stand,” says Tim Hamilton, head of global design at The North Face. “We are one of the biggest polluters in the world. We have to come together collectively to solve these problems.”

That’s something Hamilton actually does every day. At The North Face headquarters in Denver, Colorado, he collaborates with a talented team to make a real impact through sustainable design. His work includes the new Eco Heritage Collection, which encompasses some of the most iconic clothes from The North Face, now made with 100 percent recycled fabrics, and the Bottle Source Collection, which includes products crafted from single-use plastic.

Hamilton wasn’t always focused on sustainability. A few years ago, he made a dramatic shift from the fashion industry to the outdoor industry when he gave up designing his own label in New York to join The North Face, initially in Vancouver, British Columbia. The change of scene was huge for him, and reminiscent of another big turning point in his life. That was after college, when he finally left Iowa and saw the ocean for the first time.

“I remember distinct colors of turquoise and green, and it was like, Wow. I didn’t realize that there’s this whole other world,” he says.

The youngest of seven, Hamilton was raised by a single mother in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He says his “humble beginnings” made him strive to find his place in the world through creative outlets. His mother had traveled when she was young, and the two of them spoke often about exploring new places, experiencing new cultures, and seeing the world. She passed away when he was 19.

“It was a troublesome time,” Hamilton says. “You go through that sadness but you learn a lot from it.” He honored her by seeing the world. After a trip with friends through Europe, he landed a job at Ralph Lauren in New York. His 20-year-career involved building shows from New York to Paris. After being nominated three times, he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Swarovski Award for Menswear in 2009. But despite his success, something wasn’t sitting right.

“It just felt like more and more product being put out there. It felt more momentary, more reactionary. Why are we forcing things on the consumer that they don’t need? You do get to a point where, I don’t want to be a part of that,” he says.

The fashion industry is taking a massive toll. Dyeing and treating new textiles contributes to 20 percent of industrial water pollution worldwide, and scientists predict that if nothing changes, emissions from the fashion industry will rise by nearly 50% by 2030.

Hamilton’s first visit to British Columbia was an "a-ha moment.” He reveled in the mountains and beaches and forests. This was actually what he’d envisioned as a child dreaming of a better life. “It was like detox from 20 years in New York,” he says.

When The North Face approached him to lead their design team, he had that leaving-Iowa feeling again. He was ready to take his next leap. But more than that, he embraced the opportunity to make a positive impact. Increasing the number of times clothes are worn before they’re discarded could be the most powerful way to capture value, reduce pressure on resources, and decrease negative impacts. “The most sustainable you can be with a garment is to make a garment that lasts a lifetime,” Hamilton says, quoting Hap Klopp, a former CEO of The North Face.

Beyond longevity and sustainable materials, designing and producing clothes of higher quality also helps shift the perception of clothing from being a disposable item to being a durable product. Designers, after all, are trend-drivers.

They are also problem-solvers. Hamilton has always believed that, but now he has a harder problem to solve, and a higher purpose in solving it. For his team at The North Face, this means sourcing recycled and high-quality textiles, designing for contemporary performance needs with a classic look that will outlast trends, and testing clothing in the field to make sure technical elements are on point.

“I still love to design, but put a different importance behind it—things that you need for function, rather than things that serve a momentary want,” Hamilton says.

When he’s not in the design studio, Hamilton is often outside—hiking, trail running, or biking. He loves being immersed in nature, and never takes it for granted. He also tries not to get lost in the “doom and gloom” of the climate crisis.

With the Eco Heritage Collection, sold exclusively at REI, The North Face is reducing the garment industry’s environmental impact by the equivalent of 79,951 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle—enough to go around the world three times—and 61,366 kWh of electricity—enough to power five homes for a year, as measured by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

Individual consumers can also make a positive impact by buying less and buying better, meaning investing in high-quality, low-impact clothing that’s made to last, even in used clothing. REI inspects and resells their best-preserved used gear, and The North Face Renewed refurbished products come with the same quality and performance as new gear.

Just getting outside more can also help put things in perspective. “We’re here now. What changes can we make now? That’s my approach,” Hamilton says. “There’s still a lot of beauty on Earth. There’s still a lot of beauty to see. There’s still a lot of beauty to protect.”

To learn more about Tim's story and others in this series, visit NatGeo.com/RewindNature.

Inspired by The North Face's Eco Heritage Collection, The North Face and REI have joined forces to launch REWIND NATURE, a series that springs from our desire to roll back time—to when the Earth was cleaner, cooler, and wilder. The series, created in partnership with National Geographic, spotlights changemakers who are taking a step forward to reverse the damage we’ve caused to our planet, and brings to light actionable ways to make small changes that have a big impact.

This content is brought to you by our partner. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic or its editorial staff.