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Why brands are making new clothes out of old plastic

Turning used plastic water bottles into fabric is a sustainability effort that consumers can readily visualize.

A model wearing a mustard yellow fleece pullover stretches her arms overhead.
A model wears one of Everlane’s ReNew pullovers.

Rendered in a muted color palette of mustard, olive, and navy, Everlane’s new collection of puffer jackets, fleece pullovers, and streamlined parkas is going to be catnip for fans of the brand’s understated aesthetic. And for the environmentally-minded, the line has an added enticement: It’s made from recycled plastic bottles.

With millennials willing to pay a premium for more sustainable products — and at a time when we’re receiving dire, time-sensitive warnings about our devastating impact on the planet — a growing number of clothing and shoe companies are producing collections with materials made from plastic that might otherwise end up in landfills or the ocean.

Generally speaking, it’s a process that involves cleaning the plastic, chipping it down, turning those chips into pellets, and heating those to create yarn that can be woven into fabric.

For some young companies, recycled plastic is central to their brand. Rothy’s, a shoe brand that went into development in 2012 and launched four years later, sells flats, loafers, and sneakers made from old water bottles. Girlfriend Collective introduced its line of colorful, minimalist activewear, also made from plastic bottles, in 2016; it’s since been picked up by Reformation, the foremost “cool girl” brand for millennials.

A model wears a yellow Everlane parka.
Looks from Everlane’s “ReNew” collection.
A model wears a white Everlane puffer jacket. Everlane

For organizations like Timberland and Adidas, it’s just one part of the operation — though in some cases, it’s a growing portion. Adidas has a goal of using recycled ocean plastic in all of its products by 2024, and Everlane’s “ReNew” collection of outerwear is the first step in a wider push to entirely eliminate virgin (or newly made) plastic from its operations by 2021. That will involve substituting all of its synthetic fibers with renewed alternatives, replacing the virgin plastic bags it ships products in with recycled bags, and getting rid of single-use plastic in its stores and offices.

“Obviously we need to reuse the plastic we’ve already created. We need to stop making new plastic,” says Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and CEO of the consulting firm Ocean Collectiv, in an interview with me. “So the question is, what are we making it into?”

The rise of recycled plastic fabrics

While more brands seem to be investing in materials made from recycled plastic, the practice isn’t new. Patagonia, a sustainability leader in the apparel world, has been making recycled polyester out of plastic water bottles since 1993.

The upshot to sourcing fabrics made from plastic bottles is fairly clear: It gets something harmful out of the environment and repurposes it into something usable. That’s especially true of plastic gathered on shorelines and in the ocean, because plastic products of all sorts are determinedly bad for marine life.

“We’ve seen whales beaching with hundreds of plastic bags in their stomachs. Whether [animals] suffocate, drown, or starve because they’ve ingested plastic, that’s obviously problematic,” says Johnson.

“There’s also research showing that for corals, which we know are struggling already, when they come into contact with plastic, the incidence of coral disease goes up by 89 percent,” she adds. “The thought is that they’re scraping the corals and making them more susceptible to infections.”

And once plastic is out in the ocean, it acts as a magnet for other pollutants, says Imogen Napper, a researcher on plastic pollution in marine environments at the University of Bristol.

As far as sustainability measures go, making clothing out of plastic bottles has the advantage of being relatively easy to communicate to shoppers. Everyone who’s buying Everlane’s new puffer coats has bought a plastic bottle at some point — probably they’ve bought many in their lifetime. When Everlane says that its first batch of products was made from 3 million bottles, you can grasp that scale. You may even feel partially personally responsible for it.

It’s smart marketing, as is a brand aligning itself with environmental causes in the first place. But that doesn’t mean we should write it off, says Napper.

“Whether companies are using [recycled plastic fabrics] for marketing or because they believe it’s the best way of cleaning up the ocean, it’s creating a lot of discussion,” says Napper by phone. “Discussion is education, and education creates change.”

The bigger picture is more complicated

This story isn’t as simple as buying a pair of Girlfriend Collective leggings and giving yourself a pat on the back. While recycled plastic clothing helps keep waste out of the environment and reduces the amount of virgin plastic that’s produced for use in clothing, it also has the potential to re-pollute the ocean in the form of microplastic fibers.

When synthetic clothing goes through the washing machine, it releases tiny bits of plastic, which get swallowed up by marine creatures like fish and oysters and, in turn, by humans. While research on the health effects of plastic exposure is still a relatively new field, there is cause for concern that it can mess with our hormones in damaging ways.

Before you throw up your hands and turn your back on recycled plastic clothing, there’s a huge caveat here: Microplastic fibers are shed by all kinds of common synthetic fabrics — like polyester, nylon, and acrylic — and not just materials made from old soda bottles. And many of the synthetics we wear every day are made from new, rather than recycled, plastic.

A model wears a green parka.
Everlane’s “ReNew” collection is part of a longer-term effort to eliminate virgin plastic from its operations.

The point is that minimizing plastic pollution doesn’t end with repurposing it into products like T-shirts and sneakers. Brands and washing machine companies are working on a variety of ways to intercept microplastics before they reenter the environment, including microfiber-trapping bags that you put your clothing in before it goes in the wash, balls that go in the washing machine and catch microfibers, and filters that you install in the machine.

Patagonia also advises its customers to wash their clothing less and keep it in rotation for as long as possible, though the brand will take back unusably old products for recycling. This gets at another part of the puzzle: It matters what we do with our clothing once we’re done with it. If we simply dispose garments when we grow tired of them, in accordance with the fast fashion mentality that has pervaded the clothing industry, buying a recycled plastic garment is only delaying the inevitable.

Some brands that use recycled plastic materials further orient their manufacturing process around reducing waste. The footwear brand Rothy’s knits to shape, so rather than cutting each shoe part out of a larger swath of fabric (and therefore creating excess scraps), it only uses the yarn needed for each component. And instead of producing full runs of particular styles — which could end up as landfill if it doesn’t sell through — Rothy’s uses its seven-day turnaround time to manufacture according to demand, says Roth Martin, the brand’s co-founder and chief creative officer.

We’re talking about ecosystems here. It’s not just about a T-shirt saving a certain number of plastic water bottles — though that’s one way to visualize the ties between human industry and the environment. It’s also about how that T-shirt was made, how we care for that T-shirt after we buy it, and what we do with it when it’s run its course.

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