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How A Clothing Company Successfully Turned Salvaged Trash Into Fashion

Creating a denim line from plastic debris, not to mention spearheading a huge collaborative effort, takes some work to say the least.

[Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

There’s nothing fashionable about the millions of tons of plastic trash fouling the earth’s oceans and littering her shorelines. But a revolutionary denim clothing line called G-Star RAW for the Oceans is bringing the ocean’s salvaged plastic debris, from algae-covered drink bottles to doll heads, center stage. The result is a denim line that not only helps clean up the world’s oceans and shorelines but also is desirable to customers, says the company's chief marketing officer, Thecla Schaeffer.

The idea behind the line came about last year after ocean conservation nonprofit Parley for the Oceans founded The Vortex Project, which brings together a group of scientists, environmentalists, creators, and brands to tackle the massive challenge of plastic debris in the oceans.

Pharrell Williams, creative director of Bionic Yarn, which makes fabrics primarily from recycled plastic bottles, approached G-Star RAW and suggested that both companies could work together to turn the ocean’s plastic debris into a high-end denim clothing collection. ". . . The idea resonated with us immediately," Schaeffer recalls.

"(Our board) told us: ‘We believe in you. You can do it.’ Of course, we all then felt quite a bit of pressure because, at that point, none of us knew how we would do it," Schaeffer says.

Parley for the Oceans helps Bionic Yarn source ocean plastic in the right way, and it also invests its research into debris-cleaning methods. Part of the revenues from G-Star RAW for the Oceans then go to Parley to support ongoing efforts, Schaeffer says. And G-Star’s designers work intensively with Bionic Yarn designers to formulate and test fabrics sourced from ocean plastic.

"These discussions were very complicated because we had so many technical people involved," Schaeffer says. "We had to really work to understand each other."

Few companies would attempt to fashion an entire new clothing line with fabrics sourced from plastic junk. Fewer still would succeed at such a collaborative effort. G-Star proved the exception because it exhibits the three principal attributes of a culture of purpose:

Openness

G-Star willingly engaged with Parley’s scientists and environmentalists and embraced a radical idea pitched by someone coming from outside its industry, Williams. G-Star then welcomed Williams’s advice in practically every aspect of creating the new line.

Williams’s kinship as an artist helped sway G-Star’s creative team to get on board. "Pharrell didn’t just put his name on this line. He has a tremendous sense of style and has been a true creative partner to us," Schaeffer says. Williams helped shape everything from the color of the buttons to the size of zippers to the marketing and events strategies. "It’s been great to see how different kinds of creative people can bond in pursuit of a goal like this," says Schaeffer.

Energy

A mere 12 months after G-Star’s initial conversation with Williams and Bionic Yarn, the RAW for the Oceans collection will launch in early September. The new clothing line includes a vast array of items, from T-shirts to bomber jackets, and given the complexity of the task, it’s clear that a lot of people pushed themselves very hard, day after day, to reach their goal this quickly.

Resilience

"We ran so many tests with Bionic Yarn trying to find a denim, sourced from plastic bottles, that we truly loved and that our customers would love," Schaeffer says. "There were nights when I would lay awake, wondering if we could actually pull it off."

She recalls the day G-Star’s fabric specialist returned from a trip to the factory and announced, "We got it!" She says it was such a relief to hear; it was only then she says they knew for certain the denim line would work.

G-Star RAW and Bionic Yarn, both proven innovators, were driven by their shared purpose to achieve what could be considered the ultimate innovation—proving the viability of a new, more sustainable source material while also helping to clean up the oceans.

Bionic Yarn estimates that the new collection launched by G-Star this fall employs an estimated 10 tons of recycled marine debris. But focusing on that number—10 tons—misses the point on two counts. First, it is not only 10 tons pulled from the oceans, it is also the footprint of growing and harvesting cotton this material replaces. Second—and reflective of G-Star’s own purpose as an innovator in denim—Raw for the Oceans represents a new way of looking at the apparel supply chain, with relevance far beyond a Dutch denim maker.

As important, G-Star never lost sight of the vital truth that success in such an endeavor wholly depends on offering a product the marketplace wants. "I don’t expect every consumer will understand how our product is made or why it is good for the oceans and the world," Schaeffer notes. "Most will buy it just because they really like it and feel good wearing it. That comes first."

That is a lesson every sustainability-driven business should take to heart. After all, even a product that has a very small footprint and helps clean up the environment will not have much positive impact if it is not also a commercial success.

—Christoph Lueneburger, author of A Culture of Purpose: How to Choose the Right People and Make the Right People Choose You, founded the sustainability practice and currently leads the private equity practice at Egon Zehnder, the world’s largest privately held executive search and talent strategy firm.

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