Creative activism—using the arts to advocate issues—is an effective way to raise awareness and has become the go-to method for clothing labels, brands, and celebrities looking to help enact positive change. In the 21st century, a time of mass consumption and disposable convenience, now known as the Plastic Age, sustainable clothing is (finally) seen as a desirable option. At the forefront of this effort is Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organization that sources as much as 120 tons of plastic waste from the seas each month and turns it into fibers that can be used to create clothing.
Founded in 2012 by Cyrill Gutsch, a designer and environmental strategist, Parley now counts NASA, American Express, the UN, and the Maldives among its many collaborators. And far from operating in a blame-and-shame cycle, Parley’s big task is to “question materials, question design, and question economy,” says Gutsch.
Since Adidas first partnered with Parley in 2015, the sports clothing brand has been set on transforming marine plastic pollution into high-performance sportswear. In 2017, Adidas launched its new swimwear range made from a technical yarn fiber called Econyl, which is made from waste deposited in coastal areas. Offering the same properties as regular nylon, it is also used by champion surfer Kelly Slater in his menswear label, Outerknown.
In 2016, Adidas collaborated with British fashion designer Stella McCartney to create shoes that integrate Parley Ocean Plastic, which is sourced from localized cleanup operations based in the Maldives and along 1,000 coral islands off the western coast of India. This included three new versions of Adidas’s UltraBoost trainer made from 95 percent post-consumer recycled plastics. Fast-forward to September 2019 and demand for the eco footwear, which retails for $170 per pair, is growing exponentially.
“With Adidas products made from recycled plastic, we offer our consumers real added value beyond the look, functionality, and quality of the product because every shoe is a small contribution to the preservation of our oceans,” says Adidas’s global brands executive Eric Liedtke. “Therefore, after one million pairs of shoes produced in 2017 and five million in 2018, we plan to produce 11 million pairs of shoes containing recycled ocean plastic in 2019.”
In 2017, Stella McCartney announced her second project with Parley called Ocean Legend, which uses upcycled marine plastic instead of woven or recycled polyester for existing products, such as the Falabella Go backpack. And Parley supplies numerous other brands with its ocean plastic, including beer maker Corona, for both its beverages and a range of limited-edition sunglasses exclusive to designer retailer Net-a-Porter. But it’s no longer just about raising awareness, says Gutsch. It’s about taking action and implementing strategies that can end the cycle of plastic pollution for good.
“Eco innovation is an open playing field,” he says. “We signed a 10-year contract with Adidas five years ago. They decided to become the first sports brand on the planet to go anti-plastic. They didn’t say that out loud, but I know it because I signed the contract. And then we agreed on a strategy with them: ‘Parley AIR,’ Avoid. Intercept. Redesign. Avoid toxins, intercept them from nature, and redesign materials and products. The stock value of Adidas went up, they already have a $2 billion product with a Parley logo on it, and by 2024 they will have switched to purely recycled material.”
The production of one pair of Adidas Parley shoes prevents approximately 11 plastic bottles from entering the oceans. Collaborations between heavy-hitters outside of the Parley sphere continue to crop up, too, such as the initiative between G-Star RAW and singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams. Named RAW for the Oceans, the business transforms recycled ocean plastic into the world’s first recycled plastic denim. Fair Harbor board shorts, Girlfriend Collective athleisure wear, and Karün sunglasses also use plastic-based materials. But the key to all of this, says Gutsch, is the ability to communicate in a totally different way about what environmentalism is.
“Parley works by raising awareness, but you don’t want to go out and preach,” he explains. “If you’re making a shoe, it allows people to buy into the concept and fly a flag. Suddenly it becomes this ‘trust seal’ for a different way of looking at things, and for a different way of leading. From the beginning, working with Adidas was like going into the middle of a crossroads and tapping into youth culture, sports, fashion, even music. Every partnership, every collaboration is a key to a very specific network, and that’s how we see product design.”