For a man who works in fashion, Michael Preysman thinks an awful lot about the world's oceans. He thinks about the stuff that runs off and pollutes the coastlines, the plastics that slide down the drains and choke fish. When he founded Everlane, the minimalist clothing brand that promises "radical transparency," Preysman didn't just want to make cashmere sweaters and wide-leg pants that would constitute the a certain kind of Silicon Valley uniform. He wanted, in some small part, to make clothes that wouldn't destroy the ocean.
Preysman, now 33, brings this philosophy to everything at Everlane. When it introduced its first denim collection last year, the company focused on making jeans that lessened water pollution from the dye and chemicals. When it started selling silk shirts, Everlane branded its material as "clean silk," made without toxic dyes; someday soon, Preysman says, that silk will be made with 100 percent recycled water.
Head to Everlane's flagship store in San Francisco, push past the cocoon coats, and you'll find the brand's next initiative: clothes made from recycled plastic. It comes in the form of a new outwear collection called ReNew which has rescued some three million plastic water bottles (so far) from landfills and beaches, repurposing them as synthetic fabrics.
The line of plastic parkas and puffer jackets follows a trend from companies big ( Adidas ), small (Rothy's), niche ( Girlfriend Collective ), and mainstream ( H&M ), all of which have recently incorporated recycled plastic into their wares. Some, like Kelly Slater's Outerknown line, repurpose all kinds of shoreline waste as clothing. Others, like Timberland, focus just on water bottles.
"Plastics live forever," says Preysman "Once you create them, they never go away."
But water bottles—collected, chipped, melted, and spun into yarn—can have a second life as yoga pants, a puffy jacket, or a pair of sneakers. Brands like Patagonia have been doing it for years . Lately, though, more companies are turning to recycled materials as a way to reduce their environmental impact, or maybe just to earn kudos from their customers. In October, following a United Nations initiative, 250 major brands pledged to cut single-use plastics from their supply chains and replace them with natural or recycled ones.
For Everlane, the ReNew collection represents more than just a hop onto the bandwagon. The company has also made a commitment to remove virgin plastic from its supply chain completely within the next three years, replacing all of the plastic packaging, zipper pulls, and synthetic fabric in its clothes. Preysman sees it as a chance to take recycled plastic clothing mainstream—not just in workout clothes or outdoors gear, but in the kind of fashion basics people wear everyday. That starts with sewing the sustainability message into the product itself.
Polyester, lycra, and nylon—the materials that afford stretch in activewear and durability in outerwear—are derived from plastic, meaning they won't biodegrade. When these synthetic fibers are washed, tiny amounts of "microplastics" break off and wash down the drain, spilling plastic particles into oceans.
"Our goal is not to add synthetics to the line, but as we add more categories, that naturally happens," says Kimberly Smith, Everlane's head of apparel. When the brand launched its first collection of outerwear three years ago, it used some synthetic fleece and polyester. "When we found out there was [demand for outerwear], then we were like, now we've gotta do this the right way."
The ReNew material has been in development ever since. Everlane partners with groups in Taiwan and Japan that collect recycled plastic water bottles. The bottles are sorted by color (only clear ones can be used), stripped of their caps, sanitized, and then sent to a giant grinder, where they're pulverized into chips, melted, and spun into a fine yarn, which is stuffed and sewn into clothes.
Lauren Yarmuth, a portfolio director at IDEO who focuses on circular economies, says brands like Everlane have sensed "a shift in the expectations of customers." There's value in buying from companies with a clear set of values, and the story around recycled plastic makes for an easy sell: This was once a water bottle, now it's a parka . Last year, Adidas sold one million pairs of shoes with recycled plastic in them. Other outfitters, like Reformation and Rothy's, have also won over huge audiences by only using recycled materials in their products.
Sustainability marketing obviously earns brands street cred. What's harder to understand is exactly what impact these measures have on the planet. When they go through the washing machine, clothes made from recycled plastics may still shed microplastics that end up in the ocean. Plus, Yarmuth says, sustainability initiatives should think not just about how to recycle bottles into clothes, but how to recycle those clothes into something else, allowing the plastic to live many lives before it ends up in a landfill.
The WIRED Guide to Climate Change
Good On You, a shopping app that gives ethical ratings to brands (based on labor, animals rights, and sustainability), rated Everlane "not good enough" last year. The review pointed out "big gaps in the information Everlane provides to the public," and that its eco-friendly materials have yet to stretch across its full range of products. Even Everlane's many biodegradable materials—leather, wool, cashmere, and cotton—have high energy and water costs, which can strain the environment.
Gordon Renouf, the co-founder of Good On You, says he's in the process of updating Everlane's rating to reflect the introduction of ReNew. "The several initiatives they have announced in the last year or so are all commendable but fairly limited," Renouf says. So far, the ReNew outerwear collection includes eight styles for women and five for men. "They could do a lot more to use eco-friendly materials more generally."
Preysman says the company has plans to expand the ReNew material beyond cold-weather outerwear to items that can be worn year-round. "There are so many pieces left," he says, noting that ReNew marks the brand's "first major sustainability commitment."
It's also a learning experience, both for Everlane and for its consumers. Right now, Smith says it costs 10 to 15 percent more to make clothes with recycled water bottles than to use synthetic fabrics. The company is banking on the fact that people will pay more to buy sustainably, and that as more brands incorporate recycled plastic into their designs, it will eventually cost less to turn that plastic into usable thread.
"Companies are responsible, in our opinion, for doing the right thing," says Preysman. "If they're not making changes to their supply chain, then they're actively choosing to put profit over the planet."
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