The oceans are choked with discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets, that are estimated to kill 300,000 whales, dolphins and seals each year. It’s a grotesque and avoidable toll on nature, and one that Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, hopes to reduce using an unlikely ally – fashion.
The Italian firm is pioneering the use of “ghost” or discarded fishing nets to make a synthetic fabric marketed under the name Econyl that’s currently being used by several apparel brands, including Speedo and California surfer Kelly Slater’s Outerknown.
Last year, Aquafil regenerated more than 5,000 tons of discarded nets at its factory in Slovenia. With the exception of some fish farming nets, which are coated with copper oxide to prevent algae and cannot be used, the company receives the majority of its nets directly from fishermen, or through partnerships with two firms, Healthy Seas and Net-Works.
By breaking down the nets to a molecular level, the plastics are then recreated as yarn in a process the sustainability industry calls recommercialization. “If they know us, they contact us and we pay for the waste. They have to have a motivation to contact us. So they call us from all over. From California, from Australia. We take them from all over the world,” says Bonazzi, a former scuba diver.
The environmental problem of discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets, is well-documented. Some are accidentally lost during storms, or dumped deliberately. By some estimates, ghost netting and other discarded fishing gear makes up 10% of all marine litter. The cost to marine life is devastating.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reports an average of 11 entangled large whales per year from 2000 to 2012 along the US west coast. Between 2002 and 2010, 870 nets recovered from Washington state alone contained more than 32,000 marine animals.
Other initiatives include Fishing for Energy, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) Marine Debris Program, Covanta and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Schnitzer Steel to collect old fishing gear and reuse it either in recycling or to produce energy.
Aquafil’s proposition is to turn ocean waste into higher-value products. “If you can reach people with higher income then they’re always ready to pay something more for a product that responds to their needs and to their desires. And everybody wants some kind of exclusive product, and they feel that wasting is no longer connected to luxury.”
But fashion is fickle. Currently the fashion for nostalgia, and for an era before the advent of mass luxury is more apparent than ever. Warnings of a slump have been issued recently by luxury goods companies including Hermès and Richemont and there are fears that the industry could be forced into a fundamental shift in values.
The big question for the luxury market, say analysts, is whether the values of fashion and luxury can begin to acquire values that align with sustainability in a meaningful way.
Of course, the cost of the material is also a factor. And it depends which cost is most important to you. Recommercialized nylon is up to 6% more expensive to produce than new nylon. But creating fibre from recycled nets and carpet waste produces 50% less CO2 than typical, petroleum-based fibre production.
As the luxury industry reports a gloomy outlook, many companies are looking to reconfigure their notions of luxury to meet new consumer ideals around the ideas of recycling, repurposing and reclaiming.
“The more the fashion industry hears about us, the more they call when they need nylon as raw material,” says Bonazzi. Slowly, he says, “we are becoming more conscious and more aware. Of course, we all want to be rich but we also want to live.”
Some of the spirit of “ethical fashion” was on view at the periphery of New York’s fashion week last month where men’s clothing designer Heron Preston staged an event in a department of sanitation salt shed to draw attention to ways New Yorkers can reduce landfill waste, in this instance, by “upcycling” department uniforms into designer clothes.
Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution and a leading campaigner for sustainable fashion, says any effort to reduce the environmental cost of clothes production and steer toward closed-loop technology in which 100% of fibres are recycled must be embraced.
“We have created an environmental crisis in the oceans of spectacular degree so any solution that helps us begin to redress the imbalance is a good solution,” she says.
But, she continues: “We’re coming off 25 years of product, product, product. And this is what people understand. It all needs to be seen as a part of a concerted effort to clean up to embrace technology to allow us to enjoy clothes again without necessarily feeling that it’s at the cost of the Earth.”
*This story first appeared on The Guardian
Learn more about the impact of fashion on our oceans here