Fashion Can’t Solve the Ocean Plastic Problem

Business of Fashion

A decade ago, most discourse around marine litter involved turtles ensnared by six-pack rings and dead seabirds with plastic spilling from their bellies. Now, “ocean plastic” is the fashionable term. You can find bits of old soda bottles and fishing nets in sneakers from Sperry, handbags from Rothy’s, bikinis from Reformation, sunglasses from Norton Point, leggings from Girlfriend Collective and trench coats from Burberry. By the end of next year, Prada plans to phase out virgin nylon in favor of “regenerated” Re-Nylon, made in part from reclaimed fishing nets.

In the US, the number of products with “ocean waste” or “ocean plastic” in their name or product description is up 21 percent this year, according to Edited, a retail intelligence firm. The material has struck a chord with consumers at a time when plastic straw bans are the cause of the moment: a 2019 survey by Shelton Group found that 65 percent of US consumers reported feeling very or extremely concerned about plastics in the oceans. Only 58 percent said the same about climate change.

Ocean waste is the “perfect symbol to point out the global plastic problem,” said James Carnes, vice president of global strategy at Adidas, which has cranked out more than 35 million pairs of shoes using yarns and filaments derived from coastal plastic waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets collected by Parley for the Ocean, a nonprofit.

But the question, sustainability experts say, is whether it can ever be anything more than a symbol, or if “ocean plastic” is destined to become another term that helps brands sell clothes but in practice does little to help the environment.

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