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Plastic-Free July: How Apparel Brands Are Leveraging Recycled Plastics

Contributor: Kaleigh Moore



Created in 2011, Plastic-Free July is a worldwide annual initiative from the Plastic Free Foundation aimed at reducing the use of single-use plastics and encouraging consumers and businesses to find more responsible alternatives.


The need for awareness around this issue is heightened this year with new data from the nonprofit As You Sow, which focuses on corporate social responsibility. 


Their report Waste & Opportunity 2020, which grades on an A to F scale, found that of the 50 large-scale U.S. consumer-facing companies they studied in the beverage, quick-service restaurant, consumer packaged goods, and retail sectors, the highest grade was a B-. 


Twelve companies received ‘C’ grades, 22 received ‘D’ grades, and 15 received ‘F’ grades. 


“The report concludes that companies are far too slow in adopting responsive actions and promoting reusability, recyclability, or compostability, and failing to shift away from wasteful packaging toward circular models that prioritize absolute reduction,” said Conrad MacKerron, As You Sow’s Senior Vice President and lead author of the report.


Plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050, yet only 13% is recycled in the U.S, which greatly contributes to climate change: By 2050, report data shows that greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach up to 13% of Earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.


“There’s a massive amount of work to be done,” said MacKerron. 


This begs the question: Are other companies making steps toward being more responsible when it comes to single-use plastics?


It turns out, there are—and legacy brands like Adidas leading the way.


Adidas shared that this year, 50% of their polyester will be made from recycled materials, and that by 2024, their goal is to use only recycled materials where a solution exists.


In 2020, Adidas will produce a record 15 to 20 million pairs of shoes made with plastic waste in partnership with Parley for the Oceans, which works to intercept plastic waste from beaches before it enters the ocean.


Other retailers in the apparel space are getting on board as well.


GlassesUSA.com recently announced its SeaClean collection, which is a 100% sustainable eyewear collection made from upcycled plastic bottles. For every pair sold, they’re also donating $5 to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation.


Another eyewear brand, Genusee, was founded on the principles of doing good for people and the planet in response to the Flint Water Crisis.


When founder Ali Rose VanOverbeke started volunteering with the American Red Cross delivering cases of bottled water door to door in Flint, the surplus of plastic waste she saw firsthand was shocking. 


She started exploring what kind of product of purpose and need could be made from the recycled plastic from the water bottles (using rPET) and landed on eyewear, as it’s a fashion product as well as a much-needed medical tool.


While Genusee has only been in business for 20 months so far, they’ve already upcycled more than 38,000 plastic water bottles. 


For retailers, using recycled plastic isn’t just a way to be more environmentally responsible, either.


If you ask Adrian Solgaard, founder of sustainable travel gear company Solgaard, it’s also an opportunity for important storytelling.


“Using recycled plastic as a medium for accessories is great, as it allows the person using it a chance to tell the story of how the product got to them,” he said.


“Our products are all made from ocean-bound plastic, and we share that story—and this invites the customer to share it with others anytime they wear or use the product, too.” 

This isn’t the end of the discussion around recycled plastics, however. Using recycled materials like plastic (namely rPET) are only a piece of the larger puzzle.


The newly released Nature of Fashion report from the Biomimicry Institute (funded by The Laudes Foundation) explains that looking forward, all apparel industry loops require circular economic infrastructure to enable highly efficient consumption and extraction of all available usefulness from materials. 


This includes thinking about how the products and materials will still ultimately enter the waste system when they’re no longer used and discarded.


“For the fashion industry, embracing decomposition may be the inspiration for the innovative new solutions we so desperately need,” the report says.

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