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. Rothy
Headshot of Diana Pearl

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.”

Rothy’s also had to take its time developing its sustainable-fashion line, spending multiple years creating its shoes before going to market, and finding a U.S.-based third-party partner to supply it with the bottles. But the brand persisted because there was an added benefit in making it work, says Lowenberg: Using these materials helped to differentiate Rothy’s.

“From the very beginning, we thought, ‘What yarn, what material, would give us something that no one else has right now, that would give us a lot of attributes that we thought were really important?’” she says. “And the recycled-water-bottle supply chain was there, but it was definitely not in footwear yet.”

Now, of course, it’s gotten there. There are an increasing number of brands using these materials—7% of polyester was recycled in 2007, compared to 14% in 2017, according to a report from Textile Exchange—opening the door for more companies to embrace them as well. Textile Exchange predicts that 20% of the world’s polyester will be recycled by 2030. As Dinh puts it: “Hopefully, other manufacturers will say, ‘Hey, it’s important for Girlfriend’s customers; maybe it’ll be important for ours too.’”

Great optics

In selling products made from recycled plastic bottles, these companies are appealing to eco-conscious consumers, ostensibly offering a way for them to do something positive for the environment by helping to repurpose some of the billions of plastic bottles that are already out in the world.

“We’re living in a time of thinking, ‘Why don’t we reassess the world that we live in and try to use existing materials and resources that we have, versus this heavy manufacturing?’” says Cristina Dinozo, senior director at ecommerce marketing platform Yotpo, who led a consumer survey on sustainable shopping.

A performance fabric made of exactly what it sounds like—the green substance found in ponds and lakes. Rothy's is moving toward using algae foam in its insoles, and is set to start shipping the material during the fourth quarter of this year. Lowenberg hopes the fabric is able to "take us to the next level of recycling and being a sustainable brand."

Highlighting sustainability efforts is a strategy that makes sense: Consumer habits have changed, with shoppers demanding greater transparency in the marketplace. Today, 66% percent of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, including a whopping 73% of millennials, according to Nielsen. (Many of these recycled products don’t come cheap: A pair of Rothy’s flats will run you up to $165, while Everlane’s ReNew long puffer costs $175.)

As Stuart Ahlum, co-founder of Thousand Fell, notes, “Customer education is already built in. A customer understands what a plastic water bottle is; they see it every day. It’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve used single-use plastics in the past.’ So it’s a pretty easy comparison for customers to make as well, and the marketing naturally leads to that.”

The move toward sustainable fashion also contributes to something called the circular economy, in which resources are continually reused.

“We were wasting some resources and making so much stuff, that if everything just went around and around and around, that would lower our footprint,” explains Greer. “We could still buy the same number of blouses at a place like H&M, but we wouldn’t have to feel so guilty about it, because they were being recycled.”

Brands like Rothy’s are banking on this kind of consumer awareness, while acknowledging the risks involved in pursuing sustainable fashion.

“I always say at the end of the day, we can make this incredible product and have this really responsible manufacturing process and a supply chain full of post-consumer-waste raw materials, but if our product isn’t resonating with the consumer, then it’s sort of all for nothing,” says Lowenberg. “But I know that she’s out there. A lot of women in the United States right now do want to feel like they’re buying better things and higher quality products that they feel really good about.”

Micro concerns

Of course, once a brand takes a values-driven stand, it sets itself up for broader scrutiny. In the case of sustainable fashion, one issue companies need to address to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy is microfibers—which are released when plastic (of any kind) is put in the washing machine. Microfibers eventually make their way into waterways, soil and even marine animals.

Created from sugarcane fibers, bagasse is another fabric that's emerging in the sustainable materials market as a form of rayon. Songer says that while it’s "equally compelling from a customer point of view," there hasn't been enough innovation to sell it at scale just yet. Still, she adds, brands are looking toward the future of alternative materials in general and are "trying to actually build brand equity into all of them.”

To get ahead of this problem, Girlfriend has made a filter for washing machines to collect microfibers. Thousand Fell, on the other hand, explicitly tells customers that its product should not be put in the washing machine. And Rothy’s is made with a tight-knit fiber that’s bound with high-pressure air so that fibers won’t release in the wash. To further alleviate customer concerns, the brand has also recently released a “wash kit” that will trap any fibers that may happen to make their way out in the wash.

Beyond environmental concerns, there’s also a human component in being truly sustainable.

“I can’t stress enough that for environmental prosperity, we need social prosperity,” says Orsola de Castro, founder and creative director of advocacy group Fashion Revolution. “You absolutely need to ensure supply-chain workers are paid a dignified wage. The two things cannot be separated one from the other.”

She says consumer habits need to evolve, too—that ultimately, people need to buy less in general, whether or not the item is made from recycled materials.

“We need to send a very strong signal to the fashion industry,” says de Castro. “We are ready to slow down. We are ready to take care of our clothing. We are ready to mend them when they break. We don’t want 15—we’re happy to have one that’s better made, by better-paid workers. We are prepared to put in the time to ensure that this doesn’t reach a landfill.”

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

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.