How the Plastic Bottle Became the Unlikely Hero of Sustainable Fashion

The beverage industry's castoffs are yielding new products, and fresh marketing opportunities

Crushed plastic bottles
Plastic bottles lend themselves to being recycled into fabric because the fibers made from recycled plastic are similar to those that make up polyester.

Every second, Americans use 1,500 plastic bottles. And despite the prevalence of recycling, 80% of those bottles end up in a landfill or in the ocean. What’s worse: Plastic isn’t biodegradable—those bottles will take up to 1,000 years to break down.

Though still a ubiquitous sight at grocery stores and restaurants, few materials have suffered a worse blow to their reputation than plastic thanks to growing consumer consciousness around climate change. Plastic straws are being phased out by major eateries like Starbucks, plastic bags are banned in Hawaii and California, plastic bottles won’t be sold anymore in the San Francisco airport, and Nestlé is phasing out single-use plastics by 2025.

Plastic bottles, in particular, have faced a unique vilification due to the number of high-quality reusable alternatives that are available—such as water-bottle brands like Nalgene and S’well—while alternatives for plastic straws, like metal and paper, are growing in popularity. When there are so many other options, using a plastic bottle appears to be the epitome of eco-ignorant waste.

While the growing animosity toward plastic bottles is bad news for beverage giants, it has created an opportunity for another industry: fashion.

Manufacturing garments from recycled plastic bottles was pioneered by companies such as Patagonia, which started making fleeces out of recycled water bottles in 1993, and Eileen Fisher, which has long used recycled plastic in its clothes. But in recent years, sustainable fashion has grown into a movement among younger companies. Everlane produces a ReNew line of puffer jackets and fleece sweatshirts. Girlfriend Collective sells sets of workout leggings and tops. And DTC darling Rothy’s makes shoes, as does newcomer sneaker company Thousand Fell, which launches in mid-November.

“Plastics are just so prevalent, and the recycled-water-bottle plastics supply chain has been around. [Making products from plastic] gave us an opportunity to take something that’s aggressive and egregious all around our planet,” explains Erin Dempsey Lowenberg, creative director at Rothy’s. “Clearly, the issue of how we can remove plastics from our lives is something that is front and center in a lot of really great conversations.”

Spinning plastic into fabric

Plastic bottles in particular lend themselves to being recycled into fabric because the fibers made from recycled plastic are strikingly similar to those that make up polyester. “People don’t realize that the synthetic polyester things that they buy are basically the same plastic that’s in the plastic of plastic bottles,” says sustainable-fashion expert Linda Greer. “It is actually just about as easy as chopping it up into pellets, melting those pellets back down and then spinning them out, sort of like spaghetti.” The process of creating this fabric is better for the environment, too: According to a 2017 study from the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, making recycled polyester uses 59% less energy than creating it new.

And from a business perspective, recycled plastic’s similarity to traditional polyester makes it a less intimidating ingredient to work with than other alternative materials, such as mushroom-grown leather or algae foam (see sidebar), both of which are still in the early development stages, says Chloe Songer, co-founder of Thousand Fell, which sources its bottles from mills that get their plastic from local waste streams in Italy, Spain and Southern China.

What hasn’t been so easy, however, is developing entire lines using this fabric. Until recently, there hadn’t been major investments in recycled polyester, making fabric samples tricky to find.

The word leather has been synonymous with the skin of cows, but plant-based alternatives are emerging, most notably muskin, a leather made from the cap of a mushroom. Songer says we're still a few years from muskin becoming a ubiquitous source for apparel brands and retailers, because the fabric it produces is so similar to one manufacturers are already familiar with: polyester. "It's a fabric that textile mills know how to use and know how to work with," she says, "whereas mushroom leather—that’s going to take some time."

“Every time I would ask for recycled polyester samples, there was maybe one option developed, because the end buyers didn’t care for it,” says Quang Dinh, co-founder and general manager of Girlfriend Collective, who notes that it took a year to find a manufacturer and then another nine months to develop its product. Its bottles are sourced from Taiwan, a global leader in recycling, with 55% of its waste recycled. “And we were a really small brand, too, so no one wanted to talk to us.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2019, issue of Brandweek.

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