Recycling fabrics is a good start to produce clothes that are more sustainable. However, there’s more steps in the value chain that need to be re-thought. Founder of label Ecoalf Javier Goyeneche is doing just that.
Last Wednesday, the Madrid based label opened their first German store in Berlin – of course, in an eco-friendly building with recycled materials. The sourcing for the product starts on coasts around the world where Goyeneche asks fishermen to bring back the waste that gets caught in their nets. This is how waste that otherwise would go back into the sea is brought back to life and ends up as jackets and bags in stores like La Rinascente, KaDeWe or Lane Crawford.
Javier Goyeneche talks to HFT about re-imagining the value chain, giving up margin and fighting windmills.
(Looks in header image from a collaboration with designer Sybilla)
What is the idea behind Ecoalf?
The idea was to create a truly sustainable fashion brand, to save resources, to make a new generation of recycled products that are like any other product regarding design and quality, so that we don’t need to keep on digging for more petrol and produce more waste. That’s how it started in 2010.
I wasn’t able to find cool and properly recycled fabrics back then. The percentage of recycled fibre in all the fabrics I could find was below 15 percent and they were not fashionable. So I spent three years traveling the world to develop the recycled fabrics that I like. Our fabrics are made from 100 percent recycled materials.
The company was then launched in 2013. We have developed 180 fabrics so far and we’re developing up to 35 more per season. We recycle different types of waste, plastic bottles, fishing nets, cotton, wool, even coffee grounds.
Are there parts of the value chain that are sustainable other than the material?
We try to make it all the way around. The materials in the new shop here in Berlin for example are recycled. In terms of the supply chain we tend to only be working with factories which we believe are cutting edge in both social responsibility and sustainability.
You’re very clever with the sourcing.
The fishermen collect all the waste while they’re out fishing anyway. Nobody goes out extra to collect the waste. That project started in Korea and one day our government said why don’t you recycle the nets in Spain? Because the problem is not the nets but the technology to recycle them and I hadn’t found it in Spain. Now we have it.
One day a fisherman asked me to come out with him to see how much waste gets caught in the nets. Every time he pulled one out it was full of cans, aluminium, and plastic. We started with 160 boats and containers in 11 ports, now we are operating on all the coasts of Spain. 3,000 boats taking 150 tons out of the ocean this year and now we’re doing the same thing in Thailand. The fishermen do it for free. They don’t get paid. We basically help them to keep their fishing grounds clean. Before, they’d throw the waste back into the water.
Producing sustainably is more cost intensive than traditional production, isn’t it? Usually, somebody has to give up some margin.
Yes, us. We’ll have to compensate by shifting more volume.
We collect the waste and we need to separate the different materials which are being taken to different facilities. This process can take months. We can only use 9.5 percent of the waste for fabrics, the rest we need to take care of. We pay for everything, transport etc.
But you recycle where you collect, right?
We do everything where we collect the waste, yes. We recycle wheels in Spain where we also make the filament of it. We recycle the cotton in Portugal where we also manufacture the final product. We don’t move the waste around. That doesn’t make things easier as in every location we need to start from scratch. However, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense.
Critics say that recycling also involves using up resources and in the end it is the same as producing products from new resources.
That is simply not true. From petrol to the kind of fabric we use it takes 17 chemical steps. From an old fishing net to the same fabric it is only 7 steps.
When you recycle you have a lot of advantages. First of all, you’re cleaning up waste, which does exist. We don’t burn any more resources. Or, in the case of cotton – to make a kilo of cotton you use 2,500 litres of water! The water is then going back into the system, in Africa for example, full of chemicals, and full of pesticides. When we recycle cotton (we take the leftovers of the factories) we save 2,500 litres of water per kilo and we basically clean up the waste from the factories.
Who do you see yourself competing with?
With everybody. We are a fashion brand. I went to Harvey Nichols the other day to check up on our merchandise and at the end of the day it’s a product on a hanger like every other product. It doesn’t scream „sustainable“ so we’re competing with all the other brands. The customer needs to like the garment and it needs to fit and they need to accept the price – just like they do with all the other merchandise.
And that’s also the idea behind the brand, to have a product that fulfils all the criteria of a fashion brand aesthetically and if you don’t know the story you wouldn’t know it’s made from recycled materials.
Entering the fashion market with a new label is such a risky business. Why did you make that decision?
I keep asking myself the same question every day. I have no idea.
Aren’t you fighting windmills sometimes? You have to convince the fishermen, the yarn and fabric manufacturers.
We told the fabric producers that this is the future and if they work with us they will be ready for the future. Now they’re happy that they have done it.