Sustainable Fashion by Pharrell Williams - Bionic Yarn

So much of what we consume and produce is made with plastic. While it may be an effective, hygienic material that's cheap to produce, it also has a ton of environmental consequences. Plastic and sustainable fashion have a complicated relationship. 

Plastic and the Environment

Plastic is costly for the environment for two reasons. The process of creating plastic relies heavily on petroleum (or oil) based technologies. According to the American Chemistry Council, plastics are produced by converting chemicals that are derived from oil, natural gas, or coal. Depending on the type of plastic, it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in the natural environment.

Plastic materials are also dangerous for our oceans. Experts believe there are currently over 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean today. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch located in between California and Hawaii is estimated to be twice the size of Texas. Items such as single-use plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic cups and package wrapping, easily fly away and wind up in the sea.

Combatting Plastic Pollution

So how do we combat such a huge problem? Thanks to creative minds and advances in technology, some engineers have figured out a way to create sustainable fashion using recycled plastic. Just only a few years ago Pop musician and style icon, Pharrell Williams, joined a company called Bionic. It has a mission to reap more from the waste that we have sown. The company was originally co-founded by Tim Coombs and Tyson Toussant, and uses recycled plastic from the ocean to create reliable and stylish clothing. In just three years, Bionic Yarn has transformed an estimated 7 million plastic bottles into fashionable clothing items.

  Recording Artist and Creative Director of Bionic Yarn Pharrell Williams speaks at an event to announce 'RAW for the Oceans', a long-term collaboration between Bionic Yarn and G-Star turning ocean plastic into Denim, at American Museum of Natural History on February 8, 2014, in New York City.

Recording Artist and Creative Director of Bionic Yarn Pharrell Williams speaks at an event to announce 'RAW for the Oceans', a long-term collaboration between Bionic Yarn and G-Star turning ocean plastic into Denim, at American Museum of Natural History on February 8, 2014, in New York City.

The New York City company developed several types of synthetic yarn that use a combination of materials named 'HLX, DPX, and FLX'. The HLX material is a combination of three layers made up of natural or synthetic fibers (such as cotton, wool, linen, or nylon), recovered plastic, and a core. The DPX uses only natural or synthetic fibers plus recovered plastic, while the FLX uses recovered plastic only. Using a natural or synthetic fiber as the external sheath means you don't have to compromise on texture.

But plastic bottles don't just automatically turn into denim. After the plastic bottles are collected, they have to be refined into chips that are heated and pulled apart into fibers, then spun into yarn. If creating denim, the plastic fibers have to be combined with cotton in order to create the same feel.

Bionic's first product hit the market in 2014 when Toussant joined designer clothing company, G-Star RAW, to create the "RAW for the Oceans" line in partnership with style icon, Pharrell Williams. Pharrell was so enthusiastic by what the company was doing that he offered to become their creative director. The company has since landed deals with Timberland, the Gap, and other major fashion players.

The RAW for the Oceans line included a range of denim products sewn from the synthetic plastic yarns with its most iconic item being a pair of blue jeans. The campaign was created with the notion that most people don't go out of their way to purchase sustainable clothing or volunteer in ocean cleanups. However, they do wear a lot of blue jeans. This surreptitious concept was a way to get consumers to take initiative and for some to participate in environmental stewardship without having to sacrifice on style.

In an interview with WIRED, Toussant explained how he believed this was the only way to get people's attention. 

"I had to face the fact that the only way people are going to move is if it appeals to their vanity," he said. "After they buy into that, you let them know, 'Hey, you can look good and ignore the companies that don't make sustainability a priority.'"

Toussant was inspired to enter the recycled fabric industry after Patagonia came out with its first recycled polyester sweater in 1993. Patagonia was the first company to create fleece from trash, but Toussant was critical of the product because he thought it was just a creative marketing ploy. If this material was so great, why didn't Patagonia make everything out of it?

Toussant and Coombs eventually learned that making clothing out of recycled materials wasn't as easy as it sounds. Recycled fabric is inherently weaker than your standard wool or cotton, so creating something that has an equal standard involves a lot of research and requires many iterations. Not only is recycled fabric inherently weaker by design, but it's also hard to create a product made of multiple materials that hold dyes in the same way. 

  The anatomy of the yarn (credit: Bionic yarn)

The anatomy of the yarn (credit: Bionic yarn)

After Pharrell joined the company in 2015, he started campaigning around the world to raise the company's profile. The campaign even made its way to South Africa when Pharrell joined forces with grocery giant, Woolworths, to raise awareness about the cause. The two collaborated on a t-shirt design competition where students submitted creative artwork to be printed on Bionic yarn t-shirts. The shirts were sold at Woolworths around the country and the winner took home a cash grand prize.

According to the Huffington Post, Bionic has recently worked with companies outside of fashion and created products including boat covers, furniture and more. But even if every single material from this point forward was made from Bionic Yarn, we would barely make a dent in ocean plastic pollution. That's why it's more important now than ever to recognize that our daily decisions have long-term impacts. Next time you're at the beach and see a plastic bottle in the sand, take it home and recycle it. You never know - you could be wearing it next season.