Fashion’s plastic problem is bigger than you can imagine—but this brand is finding new ways to solve it

Upstart clothing brand Everlane has a knack for upending—and resetting—fashion-industry norms. Can its effort to wean itself off virgin plastic help move an industry that’s drowning in carbon-intensive synthetics?

Fashion’s plastic problem is bigger than you can imagine—but this brand is finding new ways to solve it
[Source Images: natashin/iStock (texture), foto-ianniello/iStock (shirt), megaflopp/iStock (scissors)]

The Everlane Sustainability Committee gathers in San Francisco on a bright Thursday morning for its weekly meeting. Three dozen staffers take seats around a white conference table in the middle of the company’s open-plan headquarters. Dressed in a white T-shirt, high-waisted jeans, and blockheeled sandals (a variation on the company’s signature normcore-basics look), marketing head Ayni Raimondi calls the meeting to order.


The volunteer committee, which oversees environmental efforts across the company’s offices and stores, takes its responsibilities seriously. Everlane, after all, has a reputation to uphold. The startup clothing brand, which was founded in 2011, waited a full six years before introducing its first pair of jeans, holding out for an ethical manufacturer that recycles 98% of the water used. Last summer, Everlane launched a “clean silk” line of shirts, made in an energy-efficient factory using chemical-free dyes. The year-old committee, which recently conducted a company-wide waste audit, is now focused on educating shoppers, both online and through an in-store speaker series, about environmental issues.

But first, Raimondi has a pressing matter to address. She reminds the committee that Everlane’s office manager will soon stop stocking the kitchen with mini bags of Pirate’s Booty and Boom Chicka Pop popcorn. Raimondi is anticipating an employee revolt. “I would just ask everybody here to take ownership for what’s in the kitchen,” she tells the group, solemnly. “When people are like, ‘Where are the chips?’ you can remind them that they come in virgin plastics.”

Everywhere you go at Everlane’s 150-person headquarters, you find employees wrestling with the plastic problem. In one corner of the airy, white-walled office, Alison Melville, head of footwear, has located a tiny sliver of plastic foam in the sole of the brand’s popular leather Day Heel. How can she persuade the factory in Italy to swap it out for nonplastic foam? She adds it to her list, which also includes retrofitting the company’s rain boots and walking shoes with recycled plastic. Kimberley Smith, who has been general manager of apparel for the past five years and oversees the company’s supply chain, recently spearheaded Everlane’s six-month-old ReNew outerwear line, which uses polyester made from used water bottles. But the coats’ buttons and zippers are driving her crazy: They’re still made from new, or virgin, plastic, and she’s scouring suppliers for an alternative.

Everlane founder and CEO Michael Preysman is eradicating synthetics from his personal and professional worlds. [Photo: María del Río]
If employees are spending their days delving into this minutiae, it’s because Michael Preysman, Everlane’s founder and CEO, has made it their top priority. In November 2018, he publicly committed to eradicating all virgin plastic from the company’s supply chain, stores, and offices by 2021. Though the company’s products—which are largely made of natural materials such as cotton, silk, cashmere, and leather—are only 10% synthetic, plastics have woven their way into everything from outerwear and stretchy pants to zipper linings and bra straps. And then there’s the packaging. “It’s so hard,” Preysman admits. “Every fucking thing comes in plastic.”

2019 may well be remembered as the year the world began turning against plastic. Thanks to the advocacy of environmental groups such as Surfrider and Lonely Whale, which spread images and videos of sea animals choking on single-use plastic straws, cities including Oakland, California; Seattle; and Washington, D.C., began passing ordinances banning them, and a handful of states, including Hawaii and California, have introduced similar legislation. The European Union, meanwhile, is phasing out numerous forms of single-use plastic.


Spurred by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. nonprofit that studies plastic pollution, 250 of the world’s biggest brands and packaged-goods companies, including Danone, H&M, and L’Oréal, signed a pledge last October to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging and use recycled materials instead. A coalition of giant companies, including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, and Unilever, have started working with recycling pioneer TerraCycle to sell products such as Crest mouthwash and Pantene shampoo out of reusable containers that can be shipped back to the brand to be refilled.

Fashion, too, is starting to reckon with its plastic addiction. Every year, the industry swallows 98 million tons of nonrenewable resources and 93 billion cubic meters of water, while spewing 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But the industry’s reliance on synthetic materials may be its biggest problem. An estimated 60% of all textiles used in apparel are derived from plastic, which equates to nearly 3 trillion plastic bottles every year. Many of these clothes eventually end up in landfills or our oceans. Often, clothing companies will burn their unsold stock. “Nature has evolved to take care of organic waste,” says Roland Geyer, a professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “but not plastics.”

Everlane is still a relatively small player in the $1.3 trillion fashion industry, with an estimated annual revenue of $115 million in 2017 (up from $85 million the previous year)— according to PrivCo, which provides financial intelligence on the U.S. private markets. Even so, its efforts to eradicate virgin plastic are significant: The ReNew line alone is on track to divert 100 million plastic bottles from landfills over the next five years. But Preysman isn’t particularly concerned with absolute numbers. He’s more interested in proving to the industry that running a plastic-free business is both economically feasible and a competitive advantage. “Everlane’s voice is way bigger than our impact,” he says.

Preysman has a knack for upending—and resetting—fashion industry norms. When he first introduced the company and its well made basics to customers, he offered unprecedented insight into the value proposition of his garments by charting out the cost of labor, materials, and the company’s profit margin for each item. Today, startups such as luggage-maker Away and online grocer Brandless use similar graphics to illustrate the cost-saving benefits of their direct-to-consumer approach.

A few years later, Preysman brought a similar transparency to Everlane’s 35 factories across China, Vietnam, Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka, Peru, and the United States. Shaken by the collapse of a Bangladesh clothing factory in 2013, which killed 1,134 garment workers, he began posting images and descriptions of his own facilities and their workers on the brand’s website. (As head of supply chain, Smith says she spends much of the year popping into the factories unannounced to check on conditions.) At the time, this level of insight into the supply chain was rare, but today even apparel giants are following suit. Gap began publishing an annual list of the names and locations of its factories in 2016, and H&M’s two-year old Arket brand has a Suppliers index on its website that is almost identical to Everlane’s.


How other brands are tackling the plastic problem

As he pulls back the curtain on what his clothes are made of, Preysman is confident that his customers will respond. “Consumers don’t understand where things come from, and until you educate them, they don’t care,” he says. “If there was full transparency, everybody would know the impact of fashion, and they would make better decisions.” It’s a mission, in other words, built on faith.

On a recent business trip, Preysman found himself eating McDonald’s for breakfast during an airport layover. The slim 33-year-old is more of a kale-and-quinoa kind of guy, but as he hungrily wandered the terminal, he realized that most of the food around him was served in plastic. The Egg McMuffin, however, came wrapped in paper. When I meet up with him in San Francisco, Preysman tells me that he forgot to bring his canvas bag to the grocery store a few days earlier. So he zipped up his jacket and cartoonishly shoved it full of apples and avocados. “I looked like such a buffoon,” he recalls.

Preysman came of age steeped in both the environmental ethos of the Bay Area—he went to the farmers market every weekend in his hometown of Sunnyvale— and the austerity of his parents, computer scientists who emigrated from Soviet Russia in the late 1970s to work in the then-nascent Silicon Valley. “They grew up in a place where you didn’t have that much, so they were never really [tempted by] overconsumption,” he says. He remembers his mother carefully washing and drying ziplock bags. Even now, Preysman’s most expensive possession is the bed in the apartment he shares with his wife. They don’t own a car.

Preysman had a background in finance, not fashion, when he launched Everlane at the age of 25. He didn’t understand how dirty the business was until he started visiting factories. “You see thousands of units a day coming off the factory floor and every single one is wrapped in plastic,” he recalls. “You see the wastage of materials, water, and energy. Then, all of a sudden, you realize that this is just one of hundreds of thousands of factories, and one product of hundreds of thousands of products.”

The world’s dependence on plastic is a relatively new phenomenon. In the late 1800s, scientists created the first plastic polymers from oil, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that humans started mass-producing it. For a while, it seemed like a miraculous material, capable of morphing into almost anything we could imagine, from car dashboards to soda bottles to furniture. It cost very little to produce, which allowed companies to make disposable items. In August 1955, Life magazine featured a family blithely tossing plastic spoons, plates, and wrappers in the air, with the headline, “Throwaway Living.” Half a century later, our kitchens are still packed with single-use containers, grocery bags, and Saran wrap.


In the fashion industry, plastics have been transformative. For much of history, humans fashioned garments out of natural materials, like cotton, wool, and flax. But in the 20th century, scientists invented cheap synthetic fibers—nylon, rayon, polyester—that mimicked natural ones but were imbued with new functionality. Athletic brands in the ’80s made neon-colored aerobics outfits out of stretchy, moisture-wicking Spandex and Lycra, while outdoor brands invented lightweight waterproof jackets and parkas. By the ’90s, fast-fashion brands began churning out synthetic clothes quickly and inexpensively. Today, even a company like Everlane uses synthetics throughout its supply chain.

Everlane’s announcement last fall that it was transitioning off virgin plastic was two years in the making. Preysman and Smith began searching for suppliers of high-quality recycled polyester in 2016. Smith, a manufacturing expert with two decades of experience at companies including Aritzia and Levi’s, tapped into her network of factories around the world. There are currently very few facilities that turn postconsumer plastic into fibers, let alone mills willing to weave them into cloth. “It takes time [to find suppliers] because the materials are not there right now,” Preysman says. “There’s just not a ton of demand for it. And [recycled material] costs between 10% and 15% more to produce.” Smith ultimately had to locate a supplier for the bottles; factories in China and Taiwan that recycle and mill bottles into fabrics; and then a cut-and-sew facility in Vietnam able to turn those fabrics into clothes. Now, she’s working to retrofit every synthetic item that Everlane makes. By the end of the year, she will have tackled rain gear, underwear, and the nylon-wool blend in the company’s blazers and coats.

She also wants to do something few other companies have attempted: eliminate the lightweight, plastic poly bags that protect garments from water and dirt as they make their long journey from factory to warehouse, and then to stores and homes. The fashion industry is a major buyer of the 5 trillion bags produced every year—only 1% of which are recycled. Everlane alone requires thousands of them each month, of varying shapes and sizes.

Smith’s first idea was to bundle several garments together in a bag, to reduce overall plastic use. As an experiment, she asked Everlane’s Los Angeles–based factory to put 50 T-shirts in a master poly bag. But once that bag reached the company’s warehouse in Pennsylvania, workers struggled to keep the shirts clean as they unpacked, shelved, and then shipped them out to customers. “[The shirts] go in crates and bins; they fall on the floor and the conveyor belts that aren’t super clean,” she says. “If a silk blouse falls on the floor in a distribution center, it’s gone.”

Everlane’s head of apparel, Kimberly Smith, is creating the company’s plastic-free supply chain. [Photo: María del Río]
Smith explored reusable bags, but they need to be shipped back to the factory at the end of the process, which is neither convenient nor environmentally sound. She also nixed the idea of bags made of biodegradable plastic or corn when she discovered that they would need to be sprayed with a special chemical in order to decompose: Most waste-management systems are not equipped to do this.


Eventually, after a months-long search, Smith partnered with a manufacturer in China that has the capacity to make 100% recycled plastic bags. The factory requires 45 days to produce them, however, whereas traditional poly bags take about 5 days, which means Everlane needs to calculate demand much further in advance. And while factories traditionally source their bags from nearby suppliers, Smith must ship hers to Everlane’s network of factories around the globe. She admits it’s an imperfect solution, but one that will do—for now.

The company began transitioning to the new bags this past October. They’re somewhat cloudier than traditional ones (but transparent enough to allow customs officers to see their contents during an audit), and in keeping with Everlane’s educational ethos, all are printed with a brief explanation of how they were made.

At the heart of the plastic problem is the fact that the fashion industry encourages consumers to treat clothes and shoes like disposable objects, rather than durable goods. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has found that the number of times an item of clothing is worn before it is thrown out decreased by 36% from 2000 to 2015, and many garments are worn fewer than 10 times before they are disposed of. During this same period, global clothing sales doubled from 50 billion units purchased annually to 100 billion. In the face of such wastefulness, brands well before Everlane have been working to eliminate virgin plastic from their clothes. In 1993, when polyester-recycling technology was still in its infancy, Patagonia released a line of clothes made from soda bottles. “Our very first fleece made from recycled plastic wasn’t the highest quality, and it pilled a bunch, but that was just the start of a longer journey,” says Matt Dwyer, the brand’s senior director of materials innovation.

By fall 2019, 78% of Patagonia’s synthetic materials will be recycled, and Dwyer says the company is working to use only renewable or recycled materials by 2025.

As the quality of recycled fibers has improved, more apparel companies have embraced them. Startups such as shoemaker Rothy’s and swimsuit brand Summersalt have incorporated recycled plastic into their supply chains from the very beginning. Other companies, including Everlane and Adidas, are phasing them in deliberately but quickly. Adidas recently committed to eliminating virgin plastic from its entire supply chain by 2024. With some 800 factories in more than 55 countries, it will be a gargantuan task.


Adidas is being aided in this effort by Parley for the Oceans, an organization founded seven years ago by Cyrill Gutsch, a former brand strategist for clients such as BMW and Levi’s. Parley intercepts marine plastic waste near beaches, coastal communities, and remote islands and turns it into a material called Ocean Plastic. The nonprofit then offers it to brands that promise to reduce their overall plastic consumption, including Stella McCartney, Net-a-Porter, and G-Star Raw. Gutsch says the resulting capsule collections are as much about illustrating the extent of the plastic problem as cleaning up the oceans. “People like to talk about products,” he says, “and [Ocean Plastic] is a way of creating a global conversation about plastic pollution.” Indeed, while Adidas expects to make 11 million recycled-plastic sneakers this year, the company still produces nearly 400 million pairs of virgin-plastic shoes annually.

Many advocacy groups, including Parley, say that recycling plastic for products like Ocean Plastic sneakers and ReNew outerwear is not enough to curb the crisis. Studies show that less than 15% of plastic that is thrown into recycling bins actually ends up being recycled, because it is contaminated with food or other substances. At a deeper level, the University of California’s Roland Geyer believes that recycling might even spur consumers to use more plastic because they think they are disposing of it responsibly. “I have a sneaking suspicion that recycling might actually drive the total consumption of plastic,” he says. There is also growing evidence that washing synthetic clothing, even items made from recycled fibers, releases tiny particles of toxic microplastic which end up in the water system, affecting sea animals and, by extension, humans who eat them.

How Everlane Turn Plastic Bottles Into It’s ReNew Outerwear Collection

Ultimately, the most effective way to address our plastic problem is to encourage consumers to buy less. “There is no good plastic,” Gutsch says. “To solve the problem, we need to break our addiction.”

A group of jeans-and-tees wearing designers at Everlane headquarters is creating prototypes for the fall 2019 outerwear collection, which includes both sporty puffer jackets and classic long wool coats. Members of the marketing team, meanwhile, are huddled around a computer, crafting copy for one of the company’s thrice-weekly email blasts alerting customers to new products and upcoming launches.

Preysman likes to say that Everlane is the antithesis of fast fashion: From the start, his goal has been to create high-quality basics at fair prices, designed to last season after season. But there’s no getting around the fact that Everlane is in the business of creating desire for new clothes. The subject line on a recent email that went out to Everlane’s tens of thousands of subscribers was straight out of a clickbait playbook: “The $50 Sweater You Need Right Now.” Everlane has also mastered the product waiting list as a way to draw in customers. There’s something about discovering that 15,000 people have already queued up to buy a forthcoming shoe that makes you give it a second look.


Preysman acknowledges the contradiction at the heart of Everlane’s efforts. “It’s what you call cognitive dissonance,” he says. “We’re here to improve things, and we’re also selling things. But the reality that I have come to terms with is that we have a choice: We can either sit outside the industry creating policy change as a nonprofit, or we can actually build a for-profit business that creates systems and supply chains that other brands can use.” He is inspired by Whole Foods, which helped shift the food industry toward more organic produce, and Tesla, which has nudged the automotive industry toward electric vehicles.

As Everlane grows and brings more business to the right suppliers, Preysman believes the company will have the power to change the supply chain, paving the way for other brands to create their products more sustainably and ethically. He also wants to use Everlane’s platform—including its stores, newsletter, and 685,000-follower Instagram handle—to educate and inspire consumers. Over time, Preysman believes these efforts could change culture. “More and more consumers are asking questions about where their clothes come from, how they’re made, and what happens when they’re wearing them,” says Francois Souchet, who leads fashion initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “For brands, it’s about finding ways to provide an exciting experience for them.”

When I sit down with Preysman in his office one morning, he is relaxed and enthusiastic as he speaks about his mission. At one point, though, he interrupts me as I’m in the middle of a question. A member of his team is holding a disposable water bottle. He glares at her. “Are you nuts?” he says. “This is a plastic-free office. Do you need us to get you a reusable bottle?” She sheepishly explains that she picked it up at the airport that morning. “You shouldn’t apologize to me. You should apologize to the planet,”
he responds, with a trace of humor.

Her plastic water bottle is just one of a million that are produced every single minute. Preysman is well aware of this. On Everlane’s ReNew product website, there’s a ticker that shows the number of plastic bottles that have been created since the customer landed on the page. In 2019, 500 billion will be manufactured, and only about 9% of them will be recycled.

A few hours after our meeting, while making my way to another part of the office, I happen to see Preysman heading toward the recycling bin in the kitchen, his colleague’s water bottle in hand. He’ll be damned before he lets even one slip through the cracks.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts