while outdoor brands invented lightweight
waterproof jackets and parkas. By the ’90s,
fast-fashion brands began churning out
synthetic clothes quickly and inexpensively.
Today, even a company like Everlane uses
synthetics throughout its supply chain.
Everlane’s announcement last fall that it
was transitioning off virgin plastic was two
years in the making. Preysman and Smith
began searching for suppliers of high-quality
recycled polyester in 2016. Smith, a manufacturing expert with two decades of experience
at companies including Aritzia and Levi’s,
tapped into her network of factories around
the world. There are currently very few facilities that
turn postconsumer plastic into fibers, let alone mills
willing to weave them into cloth. “It takes time [to find
suppliers] because the materials are not there right now,”
Preysman says. “There’s just not a ton of demand for it.
And [recycled material] costs between 10% and 15% more
to produce.” Smith ultimately had to locate a supplier for
the bottles; factories in China and Taiwan that recycle and
mill bottles into fabrics; and then a cut-and-sew facility
in Vietnam able to turn those fabrics into clothes. Now,
she’s working to retrofit every synthetic item that Everlane makes. By the end of the year, she will have tackled
rain gear, underwear, and the nylon-wool blend in the
company’s blazers and coats.
She also wants to do something few other companies
have attempted: eliminate the lightweight, plastic poly
bags that protect garments from water and dirt as they
make their long journey from factory to warehouse, and
then to stores and homes. The fashion industry is a major
buyer of the 5 trillion bags produced every year—only 1%
of which are recycled. Everlane alone requires thousands
of them each month, of varying shapes and sizes.
Smith’s first idea was to bundle several garments
together in a bag, to reduce overall plastic use. As an
experiment, she asked Everlane’s Los Angeles–based
factory to put 50 T-shirts in a master poly bag. But once
that bag reached the company’s warehouse in Penn-
sylvania, workers struggled to keep the shirts clean as
they unpacked, shelved, and then shipped them out to
customers. “[The shirts] go in crates and bins; they fall
on the floor and the conveyor belts that aren’t super clean,” she says.
“If a silk blouse falls on the floor in a distribution center, it’s gone.”
Smith explored reusable bags, but they need to be shipped back
to the factory at the end of the process, which is neither convenient
nor environmentally sound. She also nixed the idea of bags made of
biodegradable plastic or corn when she discovered that they would
need to be sprayed with a special chemical in order to decompose:
Most waste-management systems are not equipped to do this.
Eventually, after a months-long search, Smith partnered with a
manufacturer in China that has the capacity to make 100% recycled
plastic bags. The factory requires 45 days to produce them, however,
whereas traditional poly bags take about 5 days, which means Everlane needs to calculate demand much further in advance. And while
factories traditionally source their bags from nearby suppliers, Smith
must ship hers to Everlane’s network of factories around the globe.
She admits it’s an imperfect solution, but one that will do—for now.
The company began transitioning to the new bags this past October. They’re somewhat cloudier than traditional ones (but transparent enough to allow customs officers to see their contents during
an audit), and in keeping with Everlane’s educational ethos, all are
printed with a brief explanation of how they were made.
t the heart of the plastic
problem is the fact that the
fashion industry encourages consumers to treat
clothes and shoes like
disposable objects, rather
than durable goods. The
Ellen MacArthur Foundation has found that the number of times an
item of clothing is worn before it is thrown
out decreased by 36% from 2000 to 2015, and
many garments are worn fewer than 10 times
before they are disposed of. During this same
period, global clothing sales doubled from 50
billion units purchased annually to 100 billion.
In the face of such wastefulness, brands well
before Everlane have been working to eliminate
virgin plastic from their clothes. In 1993, when
polyester-recycling technology was still in its infancy, Patagonia released a line of clothes made
from soda bottles. “Our very first fleece made
from recycled plastic wasn’t the highest quality, and it pilled a bunch, but that was just the
start of a longer journey,” says Matt Dwyer, the
brand’s senior director of materials innovation.
The flakes are melted down, and
the material is sent through
a perforated die to create long,
thin strands. These strands are
cooled in a water bath before being
diced into small crystals. The
crystals are then melted and
extruded into even finer thread,
which is spun into yarn and—finally—
woven into various fabrics.
The fabric is sent to the company’s
factory in Vietnam. It is inspected,
cut into pattern pieces, and sewn
into quilted channels that are
filled with 100% recycled PrimaLoft
insulation. The pieces are sewn
into the final parkas and puffers.
Step 5 Step 6
IS THE ANTITHESIS OF FAST FASHION.
BUT THERE’S NO GETTING AROUND THE FACT
THAT EVERLANE IS IN THE BUSINESS
OF CREATING DESIRE FOR NEW CLOTHES.