The fashion industry has made progress in recent years toward becoming more sustainable. But the data shows the movement hasn’t been enough to mitigate negative effects, and most companies so far are only looking at the front end of the supply chain.
That’s according to Stuart Wood, a former supply chain strategic for Home Depot who felt disillusioned by the lack of attention paid to environmental issues in the corporate world.
“I traveled all over the world seeing all sorts of stuff, but the thing I kept coming back to plastic pollution,” Wood tells Hypepotamus.
He teamed up with fellow supply chain veteran Justin Koehn and they decided to tackle the problem through the apparel industry.
It makes sense — apparel is a massively polluting industry which accounts for a fifth of global water pollution and a third of all microplastics in the oceans.
That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
So when Wood and Koehn left their corporate careers for startup life five years ago, they looked at the gaps where the fashion industry wasn’t aligning with sustainability incentives.
It came down to something simple: clothes, even those made from recyclable materials, cannot themselves be recycled.
“At the end of the day, it’s not even so much that it’s making sure that it’s made from recycled product, it’s making sure that it’s recyclable,” says Wood. “It’s this whole closed loop system that’s very revolutionary for the apparel industry.”
The duo established Last Bottle Clothing, a startup that has developed a complicated manufacturing process to create clothing from recycled plastic, while maintaining the integrity — what Wood calls the “purity” — of the material. Once a customer is finished with their Last Bottle shirt, the idea is to return it right back into the system.
“We take ownership of the product for its entire life cycle,” he says.
Wood and Koehn projected that the R&D process would take a year, and raised a little over $20,000 in a Kickstarter campaign for their first product, a men’s and women’s t-shirt.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be far more complex than anticipated. R&D ended up taking a full three years, and the first shirts will be delivered to pre-order customers and select retailers next month.
Each t-shirt is made from 7-15 plastic bottles (depending on size). Every supplier in their multi-step manufacturing chain is in the U.S., most from a small region in the Carolinas to minimize the carbon footprint.
The process begins with raw plastic bottles, which are chopped up and melted into long thin strands. They are then chopped into short fibers and spun like cotton to get a soft, entirely-plastic yarn.
The yarn then goes to a knitter responsible for turning it into clothing.
“You’d think knitting would be straightforward, right? But getting it to where it feels soft and desirable, that took a lot of effort,” says Wood.
Once the initial few thousand shirts begin to sell, the team has plans for additional shirts, tanks and long-sleeves, and even simple dresses and cardigans, all recyclable.
“The key piece is that [the fabric] is very, very pure, so it can go back into the recycling stream,” he says.
The startup went through Comcast’s The Farm accelerator last year to hone their customer discovery process and reach investors, as they are looking to raise about $750K in an open funding round.
Other than the small investment that comes with The Farm acceptance, they have largely bootstrapped the manufacturing-heavy business.