Sustainable fashion: Javier Goyeneche

Javier Goyeneche’s address to the OECD Secretary-General and staff

Javier Goyeneche is the founder of ECOALF, a fashion brand that turns discarded fishing nets, post-consumer plastic bottles and coffee into clothes. He visited the OECD on 19 October 2016, giving a talk on his sustainable fashion company. Part of the Coffees of the Secretary-General series, you can read the complete transcript of Mr Goyeneche below.

Thank you for the invitation, I am very honoured to be here. ECOALF is a small and young Spanish company. It was born with the idea of creating a truly sustainable fashion company. I thought that the most sustainable thing to do was to not use natural resources, so we focused on recycling — to create a new generation of recycled products with the same quality and design of the best non-recycled products. In this way we could demonstrate that there is no need to keep on digging deeper and deeper to get petrol; but to instead transform what other people call waste into amazing products. So ECOALF’s vision and mission are to stop using natural resources.

Before talking about the company, let me give you a few details of what is going on because sometimes we do not stop and realise what is happening. Over 500,000 million plastic bags are used every year. The problem is that nearly 60% of them have a useful time lifespan of less than 30 minutes. In addition, 650,000 tonnes of plastic fishing nets are left at the bottom of the oceans. Unfortunately fishermen have to change their nets every 5 or 6 years and they have to pay to leave those nets in the ports. The nets however are often very big, sometimes 1km long, there is no space in the ports and fishermen do not want to pay. So they are thrown in the ocean and as a result they are creating a lot of damage, particularly to marine life. In addition, 85,000 tonnes of electronic waste is generated every year and this number is growing rapidly. We used to have 1 or 2 electronic devices and now we have 5 or 6.

This waste is growing and it is very difficult to recycle. A crystal bottle will last 700 years in the ocean, a plastic bottle over 450 years and a aluminium can over 200 years. That means that when we throw something away, our grand granddaughter will probably see it!

About a year ago I received a call from a lady working for the plastic lobby, who was quite upset with me. She told me that I spoke very badly about plastic — I told her I do not speak bad about plastic, but about its use. The problem lies with certain products like plastic cups. People go to the gym and use 5–6 plastic cups while training and do not realise that that is creating a lot of damage. In some supermarkets we use plastic packaging for fruit and natural products. I see this a lot in the United States. It seems we are too lazy to peel the fruit and so it is peeled for us and packaged in plastic!

We have this sensation that when we throw something away, it is picked up — and that is true for countries where large waste management organisations operate like here in France, in Germany, in the United States and in Spain. But 200 million plastic bottles are not collected every year around the world. If you visit places like India and Southeast Asia, a lot of that waste ends up where it is not supposed to be, in the oceans. We speak about ocean gyres, places where plastic is getting stuck because of the currents — there are already 7 in existence. An additional problem is that this plastic is micro plastic and it is being eaten by fish. A recent study estimated that in the US, 32% of fish ready for human consumption contained plastic and that number is growing. In September of this year I was invited to speak at an ocean conference in Washington where it was repeatedly stated that if there is no change by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. To provide a perspective: 40% of coral has disappeared in the last 25 years; we are seeing mountains of waste fall in the sea in Beirut, and plastic wash up in places like Hawaii and in Los Angeles — supposedly the most sustainable city in the US. There is waste on Everest where there is no human life, 7,000 meters above sea level — we are the only animal on earth that creates waste that cannot be absorbed by the planet in a natural way. This is the overall truth!

Let me now talk about ECOALF. We basically started out wanting to do something about this situation and asked ourselves ‘how can we start working with that waste?’ Waste is only waste if you waste it. But we have to think of waste as something that has value.

So what do we recycle at ECOALF? We recycle discarded fishing nets, and a big percentage of those nets are made of nylon 6 (the best quality nylon you can get in the world); plastic bottles; used tyres; post-consumer coffee; post-industrial cotton; and postindustrial wool. In the past three years, we have developed over 98 different recycled fabrics which are exactly the same to the touch as a normal fabric that comes from oil. We basically need 70 bottles to create 1 meter of fabric, and one of our jackets needs 80 bottles to be made.

Regarding used tyres, this is a project that we started in Spain to create flip-flops. It may seem quite simple to create them but in fact we developed a 2-year R&D programme — which received 3–4 innovation prizes — and we tried over 20 different types of tyres but its development only worked with one particular tyre which came from a lorry.

The tyre was converted into powder and then it was bound together by heat — we used no conglomerates and no glue. This was in fact another big project that we developed with a technological shoemaking centre located in northern Spain.

We also have an agreement with a large coffee chain in Thailand. We collect coffee leftovers every morning. They are dried, converted into powder and mixed with plastic polymers. Coffee is amazing, it has many natural properties — it is fast-drying, it has odour control and UV protection. We have been able to make a lot of fabrics from coffee. Timberland is actually using it for most of its boot liners.

As I mentioned, a large number of discarded nets are made of nylon 6 polyamide. There are in fact 7 chemical steps to create one of our fabrics from an old fishing net; from petrol to the same fabric it would take 17 chemical steps. And because our steps are fewer, we save a lot in terms of water, energy and emissions.

The most difficult thing we recycle is in fact cotton. We basically receive leftovers from factories and consumers. We put all the cotton together, mix it and separate the colours, then we cut it up and get a short, uneven and unstable thread. It is very difficult to work with. Everyone speaks about organic cotton, but to me that has the same problem as virgin cotton — it is water intensive. You need around 2,500 litres of water for every kilogramme of cotton you produce. You have probably read about natural disasters because of cotton plantations. One example is the Aral Sea which dried out in only 2 years when the Russians decided to provide water to the cotton plantations in Kazakhstan.

The good thing about recycling cotton is that it is a mechanical process using zero water. We just produced the uniforms for the Swatch group and its 5,000 stores around the world and we saved millions of litres of water. We produced a quality fabric made of 80% recycled and 20% virgin cotton; we in fact saved 80% of 2,500 litres per kilogramme — a big save!

Let me now turn to our most ambitious project ‘Upcycling the oceans’. This idea was born after I went on a fishing trip with a fisherman. He wanted me to witness how much waste gets caught in his finishing nets. So we decided to put this trial project into practice on the east coast of Spain, in Alicante, Valencia and Castellon. All the fishermen agreed to participate and we placed plastic containers in the ports where they could put all the waste they caught in their nets. The slide on page 7 shows how we collect the waste every 10 days and the full cycle until we create our products. By the summer of 2017 we will be working with over 50 ports, over 900 boats and over 4,000 fishermen involved across the whole of the coast of Spain from Girona to Huelva. Two weeks ago we also signed an agreement with the government of Thailand to replicate the project there in Phukhet, Ko Samui and other areas which have a lot of plastic.

More importantly, we are now starting the second phase of this project called ‘upcycling the rivers’. Our aim is to prevent plastic from entering the oceans in the first place. Basically, we know that 8 million tonnes of trash enters the oceans every year. But 80% of this trash comes from land and only 20% is actually thrown into the ocean. So we aim to collect the plastic before it enters the oceans and is converted into microplastic. Hopefully we will be able to make trials in Spain if we are provided with the necessary support. We are designing nets that will collect the trash from the surface and allow the fish to pass below.

To end, let me say that in the past 18 months we have made a number of important collaborations with big companies including Apple US, Barneys New York, Starbucks in their flagship store in Seattle, Goop, Good Hunting and among others. Lastly, let me point out that our flagship store in Spain is completely recycled. Thank you.

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