Trawling for trash: the brands turning plastic pollution into fashion

Stella McCartney, Gucci and Adidas among companies inspired by ‘Blue Planet effect’

Fishing nets and discarded plastic are finding their way into wardrobes around the world thanks to a rise in the number of fashion designers using materials made from recycled ocean waste.

Brands including Gucci, Stella McCartney and Adidas are increasingly partnering with organisations such as Parley for the Oceans – which raises awareness of the destructive effect of ocean plastics – and sourcing materials regenerated from companies such as Aquafil, the textile manufacturer that transforms ocean waste into sustainable materials such as Econyl.

Last month, 4,000kg of discarded fishing nets were recovered from waters off the coast of Sicily by Healthy Seas, a joint-venture by non-governmental businesses, before being sent to a recycling plant in Slovenia. It is there that Aquafil spins it into sustainable material for use by the fashion industry.

Richard Malone, a former Central Saint Martins fashion student and now rising star in the designer world, is a leading adopter of Aquafil’s materials. His most recent collection for London fashion week, available early next year, featured outfits made from Econyl and was praised by Vogue as “changing all the conversations about who buys and why”.

A fishing net recovery mission off the Aeolian islands.
A fishing net recovery mission off the Aeolian islands. Photograph: Carmelo Isgro

“The fishing nets were extremely exciting,” Malone said. “Tonnes are discarded in our oceans every year and [Aquafil’s process] create an eco-nylon yarn that can be broken back to yarn again and again and reused, as well as create really beautiful, functional fabrics like sportswear and washable jerseys.”

The growing trend for recycling ocean waste and turning it into fashion is, according to the Future Laboratory researcher Rachael Stott, “a definite Blue Planet effect”.

“The series reached and impacted millions of people and highlighted how our everyday habits as consumers were causing horrific damage to wildlife and the ocean, and in particular our resilience of single-use plastics.”

At Moshi Moshi Mind, the Danish fashion brand that opened its first UK store last month, the star of the season is a £255 winter coat that looks and feels like a traditional down padded coat yet is made entirely from plastic bottles retrieved from the sea. “The fabric is very fine and that has its own [design] challenges, but the idea is to learn and get better with time as we believe this is a long-term strategy,” said the label’s owner, Jenny Egsten-Ericson.

The newly launched RiLEY Studio uses Econyl to create its exercise wear. “The idea that sustainable fashion must be of lower quality, made from less durable materials, or is generally less attractive is an outdated concept,” its founder, Riley Uggla, said.

Previously a niche area of the fashion industry, advances in technology have enabled the production of recycled fashion at scale, said Eco-Age’s Harriet Vocking. “It now makes business sense to use the more sustainable option.”

A model wears a Moshi Moshi Mind coat on a beach
Moshi Moshi Mind has created a padded winter coat made entirely from plastic bottles. Photograph: Moshi Moshi Mind

Despite these advances, Greenpeace warns that the plastic mountain problem is unlikely to be diminished in the near future.

The Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge said: “We’re grateful to anyone removing plastic waste from our oceans or beaches. However, it’s not possible for us to remove the truckload of plastic waste we’re currently adding to the ocean every minute, just as it is not possible for us to recycle the volume of plastic we are currently producing.

“The only real way to prevent ocean plastic from becoming a massive ecological catastrophe is to massively reduce plastic production, which, unless we act, is set to quadruple over the next few decades.”

While Stott also worries that some corporations “won’t act responsibly if they know their waste can be reused [making them] less inclined to work on developing plastic alternatives”, it is a big step in the right direction.

“The demand for environmentally conscious clothing is there, with 72% of Generation Z women stating that it is imperative to buy brands that are environmentally friendly,” Stott said. “Brands need to recognise that by changing their supply chains to integrate recycling, they are future proofing their customer base.”


Scarlett Conlon

The GuardianTramp

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