Ecoalf's business model is based on recycling PET bottles, which many experts currently criticize as unsustainable. Plastic bottles are best left in their own cycle. In addition, the problem of microplastic abrasion remains, as does the waste at the end of use. Carolina Blázquez, Director of Innovation and Sustainability at Ecoalf, explains in this interview how her company is dealing with the growing criticism.
How do you view the criticism of your business model in general?
The problem is the current business model of the fashion industry, which doesn't work. It encourages continuous production and consumption, which leads to huge amounts of unnecessary waste that ends up in a landfill: Buy, throw away, buy, throw away. The industry needs to shift to a circular model - starting with eco-design to ensure the longest possible life of a garment, through a transparent and fair supply chain with the highest quality materials, to the consumer. We need to offer consumers, services to close this loop, for example via a repair service, resale or recycling. This is exactly what we have been working on and we plan to launch Re-Sell early this year.
The fact is that synthetic fibers do something that no natural fiber can do. For example, if you want to hike in cool areas or climb a mountain, recycled wool or cotton is not enough to protect you adequately. You need a high-performance jacket. That's why most of our outerwear is currently made from recycled polyester. At Ecoalf, we started with outerwear and use recycled polyester when that strong protection is required. But since we have moved into new categories such as pants, sweaters, dresses and shirts, we use eco-friendly materials or recycled cotton and wool to continue to protect our natural resources and offer services that close the loop, such as repair, resale and recycling.
Nevertheless, the polyester problem remains with the abrasion of microplastics and the residual waste that remains in any case and, in the worst case, ends up back in the oceans.
Have you changed your collection accordingly?
Yes, we found that continuous fibers are better than staple fibers. So we started using continuous fibers in our collections. Fabrics with short fibers like polar fleece emit the highest amount. When we found that out, we immediately removed polar fleece from our collection in 2015, even though it was a bestseller. But it didn't make sense to us. Because recycled nylon produces the lowest amount of microplastics, we started a partnership with Nylstar to develop our new sports line.
How is the collaboration with the Technology Institute going?
Nylstar is at the forefront of innovation, researching materials that combine feel, quality and sustainability. To permanently improve performance and functionality and reduce or eliminate the use of water, energy and chemicals in downstream processing, they have developed the Zero-Microplastic Release yarn made from recycled nylon, which uses advanced technologies and hydrogen bonding to seal all microfibers in the yarn and minimize microplastic pollution. But of course, we also need to “educate” consumers to take proper care of their products. For example, people can wash less or use wash bags to avoid the release of plastic as much as possible.
What other technical innovations is Ecoalf currently testing?
We have several exciting innovations and projects in the pipeline. After more than a decade of research, development and expertise in sustainable fashion, we are about to launch Ecoalf Sports. We have deliberately selected and developed innovative recycled materials with cutting-edge technology that combine the best performance and technical properties, preventing microplastic pollution and minimizing the environmental problem. We have carefully designed each garment according to ecological criteria and tailored to its function: Ecoalf Sports has been designed for all those who want to practice and develop sports - and do so consciously.
What materials do you use for Ecoalf Sports?
This sportswear line is made from the highest quality recycled nylon: the synthetic fiber with the lowest release of microplastics. On average, it releases six times less microplastic than other synthetic fibers. The collection also features the 0-microplastic release yarn, the sustainable cellulose fiber Tencel Modal and 100% recycled cotton that can be recycled over and over again thanks to cutting-edge technology: a revolutionary breakthrough that closes the loop. This line represents a new generation of sustainable sportswear that uses innovative materials to offer consumers flexible, comfortable and durable clothing that maximizes their performance and minimizes their impact.
Between 10% and 12% of the waste we collect is actually PET bottles that can be used to make our ocean yarn. In recent years, we have produced more than 40 tons of our ocean yarn. Overall, all the material we collect is processed in waste management facilities. The waste that can be recycled, such as packaging, other plastics, as well as the other waste, is handled according to the country's regulations.
And of the 700 tons of waste pulled from the sea by more than 3,000 fishermen in Spain, Greece and Italy as part of the Upcycling the Oceans project, what amount remains trash?
We don't have specific data for everything that is recycled, as this depends heavily on the type of waste and the market - whether companies are willing to buy the waste as a raw material, for example. In general, the amount that cannot be recycled is very small, about 2% is landfilled. The rest is treated and sorted based on national policies and regulations.
How do you respond to accusations such as those made by Greenpeace in its report on the "Myth of the sustainability of PET bottles recycled into clothing"?
We are aware of this, and the reality is that the textile industry is not progressive enough to achieve this. The biggest challenge is that the process is chemical for textiles and mechanical for PET. We have incorporated this type of material, which comes from textile waste, into our f/w 2022 collection, and the plan is to continue to increase this percentage as we grow and technology advances in this area.
Thanks to our partner in Spain, all collected packaging can now be recycled. That's 35% of all collected waste. The rest depends on the properties and degradability of the materials.
Here, too, research continues and many things that were previously considered sustainable are now classified quite differently.
Yes, a great example here is the circular economy - we've been trying to close the loop for a long time. We are often asked why we don't collect the clothes and give them a second life or offer a second-hand service. The reality is that many of the services offered by brands lack transparency and traceability. And for us, traceability is very important to make sure that the old clothes don't end up in a landfill.
And what is your strategy here in concrete terms?
First, we focus on working with the highest quality materials to ensure a long life cycle for the garments. Then the garments have to be ecologically designed and made from a single material so they can be recycled. And we need to find partners who have the technology and traceability to transform our garments into new garments. In 2023, we are ready to launch two major projects: the resale service and the recycling service. In the spring, we will launch our first collection made from 100% recycled cotton that can be remanufactured into new clothing. This project is called Made To Be Re-Made, and its goals are to prevent textile waste from ending up in landfills, to reduce our environmental footprint as much as possible, and to adopt a zero-waste philosophy.
These are all fine goals. But consumers, politicians and NGOs are asking more and more specific questions. Are you afraid of greenwashing accusations?
We believe that clear, honest and simple communication is key. I think companies are making great efforts to be more responsible. This also means that we are more aware of what we are doing, which in turn is a way to receive more criticism, but also to inform. It's not just what you do, it's how you do it and how much waste you create! At Ecoalf, we know we're not perfect; we're working to get things right.
Honesty and transparency are key - we have a very close relationship with our German customers, agents and partners since we started working together. We are very close, we always share our thoughts, concerns and challenges and listen to their views in order to move in the right direction and support each other in the best possible way. We are aware that we have a long way to go, that we have many things to improve, that we are honest and transparent, and that we try to find a solution that is consistent with our goal: We exist to protect our natural resources and create a sustainable lifestyle brand that makes a difference with every product.