Some of the most essential components of garment production are also the easiest to overlook.
While recycled fibers such as Circulose, Econyl and Repreve have quickly become the hero materials of sustainable fashion, their counterparts in zippers, buttons and trims are far less ballyhooed.
It’s easy to see why: They’re small—literally. But they’re also a cinch to “bolt onto” a sourcing strategy without requiring significant changes in the manufacturing process, according to Rob Ianelli, founder and president of Oceanworks, a Los Angeles-based marketplace that traffics in ocean-bound plastic and other eco-friendly materials.
No matter how you look at it, “a four-hole button is a four-hole button,” Ianelli told attendees at a webinar organized by production platform SupplyCompass. “But what we found is that small things can have really big results.”
In 2017, Ianelli reached out to Outerknown, the eco-lifestyle brand co-founded by champion surfer Kelly Slater, to ask if it would “take a risk,” not only with Oceanworks but also trims made from ocean waste. Not long after, the companies delivered the world’s first buttons derived from recycled ocean plastic. After seeing demand for the buttons surge, Oceanworks started offering them for sale on its website in September.
While trims are entering the sustainability conversation, fashion still has a “long way to go,” Ianelli said. “Certainly, new things take time.”
Much of the inertia has to do with how the sourcing machine is set up. Designers are accustomed to doing things in a very specific way in a very touch-driven industry, where a mother-of-pearl button is treated differently from one made of polyamide or nylon.
“When we first started out, it was like, ‘Send me your trim book,’ not ‘How are your trims designed?’” he said. “So when we approached the space, it was just very different from how [brands] were used to doing their buying and laying out their bill of materials.”
Hangers are another thing brands and consumers don’t pay a lot of attention to, despite their ubiquity. Experts estimate that tens of billions of plastic clothing hangers are thrown away globally every year, frequently after a single circuit from the factory to the distribution center to the display rack. At least one company has called them fashion’s “plastic straws.”
Last year, Amsterdam’s Arch & Hook, which dubs itself the “world’s No. 1 sustainable hanger brand,” debuted Blue, a hanger made from a blend of marine plastic, ocean-bound plastic and post-consumer recycled plastic.
“It’s a 100 percent recycled product; there are no virgin materials,” said Gertjan Meijer, chief commercial officer at Arch & Hook. “And it’s possible at the end point to recycle them into new hangers or a different type of product.”
But education remains fundamental, he said. The vast majority of companies prefer to stick to the status quo. “Speaking to customers, we oftentimes will get the remark, ‘Oh, no, we already recycle,’” Meijer said. “But where are these hangers from? What are they made of? And you start finding out they’re made of polystyrene, which you can recycle, but to reach the same structural integrity of a hanger, you need to add virgin materials. So our obligation is to clarify how [the hanger ecosystem] works and what solutions are actually available to them if they are willing to make a change.”
Ocean plastic is an appealing input for a host of reasons: It reduces a company’s reliance on petroleum-based sources, it’s an abundant raw material and it helps divert pollution that may end up choking waterways and poisoning marine life. Plastic collection can offer impoverished communities a source of income. Most of all, it provides a compelling story for consumers at a time when concerns about the environment have never been higher. It’s why brands that cut across a swath of upscale and mainstream markets, from Adidas to Prada to Rothy’s, have incorporated the material into their lineups.
Not all “ocean plastics” are the same, however. Most ocean plastic available on the market refers to ocean-bound plastic, meaning mismanaged waste that gathers on coastlines or the banks of rivers, canals and estuaries. Because they maintain relative integrity, they’re easier to recycle than marine-trawled plastic—what Ianelli refers to as “high seas” or gyres material—which has been buffeted by waves, sand and sun for longer, shows advanced signs of disintegration and can be difficult, though not impossible, to work with.
“The issue here is accessibility: how do you get your hands on material not only that you can collect, but you can still manufacture with,” he said. “And that’s why ‘ocean bound’ has become a really hot topic, because it’s material that is accessible on land.” On the Oceanworks website, the company differentiates between “ocean plastic,” which it describes as plastic harvested less than 32 miles from the shore, and “averted plastic” further than 32 miles away.
“We want to help drive awareness that not all ocean plastic is created equal, let alone plastic itself, as we communicate with our customers and our clients,” he said.
Ianelli says that some Oceanworks products have achieved price parity with virgin, but not all, though he expects costs to come down with time so brands and manufacturers won’t have to face a “great dent in their bottom lines.”
The company is “also a large proponent of blending, which is a great way to bridge that gap… so you can get costs where they need to be,” he said, noting that firms like his need to suggest ways to reduce friction. “In order for large brands and manufacturers to take this on, there has to be a stairway, it can’t be a giant leap across this chasm, because we’re all in the risk business when it comes to sustainability.”
Still, brands can’t wait around for the perfect solution to emerge before they make a change, said Meijer. And ultimately companies like Arch & Hook and Oceanworks cannot resolve fashion’s issues.
“It’s something that brands and retailers will have to do,” he said. “We can only facilitate.”