It’s really hard to create buttons, sneaker soles, spandex, and zipper teeth without virgin plastic. Just ask Everlane.
In 2018, the fashion label made a radical commitment to eliminate all virgin plastic from its supply chain by the end of 2021. As Everlane approaches the deadline, the brand has cut out 90% of virgin plastic, but the remaining 10% is proving tricky, as global recycling and manufacturing systems are not set up to address specialized objects (such as zipper teeth).
The plastic problem
There is good reason for Everlane to focus on that last 10%. Creating plastic from oil generates carbon emissions, which accelerates climate change. Once the material is made, it does not biodegrade, so it stays in our landfills and oceans for hundreds of years, breaking into microscopic fragments that end up in our food chain. While consumers tend to be aware of the plastic in their straws, food packaging, or grocery bags, many are not aware that much of their closet is also made up of plastic, since synthetic materials, such as spandex and polyester, are plastic. “We wanted to draw attention to fashion’s plastic problem,” says Michael Preysman, Everlane’s CEO. “But we also wanted to see if it was possible to cut out new plastic from our supply chain, relying instead on the abundance of plastic that already exists on the planet.”
Everlane’s quest highlights a broader problem companies face when trying to reduce their use of plastic. Recycled plastic is better than the virgin kind, but it is still problematic. There is currently no way to recycle old clothes into new clothes at scale, so at the end of its life cycle, a recycled plastic garment is likely to end up in a landfill, where it won’t biodegrade. Everlane’s strategy has been to cut down on its overall plastic usage by swapping out polyester for silk in dresses, for instance. But there are some clothes that absolutely require synthetic materials, such as waterproof jackets and activewear.
Erin Simon, the head of plastic waste at the World Wildlife Fund, says that Everlane’s “last 10% problem” is common in many industries, particularly in creating products that have high performance standards. “The challenge is when you’re a fashion brand creating an outdoor jacket or a medical company creating a heart stent, plastics have certain performance attributes that you can’t compromise on,” she says.
The last 10%
So recycled plastic has been the best, if still imperfect, alternative. In 2018, Kimberley Smith, Everlane’s chief supply chain officer, was tasked with ridding products of virgin plastic. In some cases, it was relatively easy to make a switch. Smith was able to locate high-quality recycled plastic polyester for outwear, for instance. In other cases, it was harder. Smith spent weeks trying to find recycled transparent plastic bags that keep items clean as they’re transported from factory to warehouse to consumer. She eventually found a supplier.
A year after Everlane made the plastic-free commitment, it had eradicated 75% of plastic from its supply chain. And at the start of 2021, it had achieved a 90% reduction in plastic. Smith’s team has switched 45 different materials in its supply chain to either nonplastic or recycled plastic in products ranging from tote bags to down coats. They estimate that this has diverted the equivalent of more than 9 million plastic bottles from landfills.
But Smith says the remaining 10% is proving troublesome. She has found that it is hard to find recycled plastic versions of specialized items, such as zipper teeth, shoe components, and stretchy fabrics. In some cases, such as stretchy fibers, manufacturers make recycled versions, but the quality isn’t high enough for Everlane to use. “They break easily when we put them to the test,” Smith says. “They can’t withstand heavy machinery.”
The reason for this, Smith explains, is that manufacturers can create strong, durable virgin plastic. But to create recycled plastic, they must break down existing plastic and reprocess it. This weakens the material, causing it to break easily. It typically takes a supplier several years to perfect a recycled plastic material by tweaking the formula and manufacturing techniques. But Smith says that in the case of these three items, Everlane has not found any that are up to the task.
So Everlane is taking a two-pronged approach. First, Smith and her team are constantly scouring the market for suppliers that are creating recycled versions of these items. This allows them to stay on top of cutting-edge material innovations and also communicates to the market that there is demand for these products. “Our goal, from the start, was to create more demand for recycled plastic in the fashion industry,” says Smith. “We believed this would spur more suppliers to produce it, which would encourage other brands to use it. We’re going to continue applying pressure to mills and yarn suppliers to develop these materials.”
Everlane is also encouraging others to come up with creative ideas for tackling the plastic problem. This week, the company announced that it has set aside $100,000 for a new program called The Next [Collective], where it will fund “change makers” from the general public who have innovative solutions to ridding the world of plastic. Starting on April 22, the company will begin soliciting applications, and this summer it will officially accept and review the contenders, funding the top ideas. (The actual number of winners has not been specified.) These individuals will also work closely with Everlane’s executive team to learn more about the company’s supply chain in order to better understand the fashion industry’s sustainability needs.
Some experts argue that the best way to rid the world of plastic is to stop using the material altogether, whether virgin or recycled. That’s why some startups are actively developing alternatives: Kintra has developed a fabric that mimics the stretch, durability, and moisture-wicking properties of synthetics but is compostable; Algenesis created a biodegradable algae-based flip-flop. Meanwhile, scientists are developing enzymes that can digest old plastic, turning it into its raw materials.
But these strategies might not be as eco-friendly as they seem. Simon argues that the solution is not necessarily to switch to virgin biodegradable materials, because extracting materials from the earth, such as cotton and hemp, can require a lot of natural resources and carbon emissions. Instead, we should improve the world’s recycling infrastructure, so we create new products from materials that already exist—and in turn recycle those products, thereby reducing the overall environmental footprint. “We need to be investing in systems of recycling and systems of reuse,” she says. “So fashion brands that care about this problem need to be advocating for more circular systems, so they can move away from virgin sourcing entirely.”
That’s where Everlane is hedging its bets. Three years into Preysman’s quest to get plastic out of Everlane’s supply chain, he has discovered that getting to 100% means helping to create materials and infrastructure that don’t yet exist in fashion manufacturing. The company does not expect to reach its target this year, but thanks to the ideas that come in from the Next Initiative, Everlane hopes to get there quickly. “We know we’re not the only ones frustrated by the plastic problem,” says Preysman. “There are many other people who have great ideas for solving it. The only way to move forward is for us to collaborate and work together.”