Sustainability Infrastructure

How Pharrell and Bionic Yarn turn ocean plastic into fashion

Pharrell Williams Parley Adidas
Andrew White

Story at a glance

  • Music star Pharrell Williams serves as a creative director of Bionic Yarn, a company spinning plastic waste into high-grade textiles.
  • Bionic Yarn has partnered with several leading brands to release innovative products, including blue jeans.
  • Others in the fashion industry are experimenting with similar ideas, often driven from the top down.

Each year, 8 million metric tons of plastic waste winds up floating around in our oceans. Pharrell Williams wants to do something about it.

Five years ago, the Grammy Award-winning music artist joined Bionic Yarn as a creative director. The material engineering company aims to produce high-grade textiles and polymers from coastal and marine plastic. It has collaborated with major brands such as Timberland, Burton and H&M. It also has partnered with G-Star RAW in an initiative to make classic blue jeans out of ocean plastics.

From 2015 to 2017, the company turned an estimated seven million plastic bottles into clothing items.

“Fashion is certainly a huge part of everybody’s lives. You wear it every day, and for some people it’s a status symbol, or a statement of how much they have spent on clothes, or it’s a means of expressing their identity and who they are,” Williams told Women’s Wear Daily in 2014, when he first partnered with Bionic Yarn.

“We’re trying to infiltrate the entire spectrum of fashion, high-end and low,” he said. “It’s a part of sustainability, and the cause is to never throw anything [plastics and trash] into the ocean again.”

Bionic Yarn is not alone. Outdoors company Patagonia — the inspiration for Bionic Yarn’s co-founders Tyson Toussant and Tim Coombs — has long led the charge, having launched its first polyester made from recycled soda bottles in 1993. And you can now buy Rothy’s shoes made entirely out of plastic water bottles. Gucci has even started using 100 percent regenerated nylon made from recycled fishing nets in its men’s outerwear.

“This material is going to stick around for the next 300 years if no one harvests it and does anything with it,” says Toussant. “Fashion is one of those areas that could and is, benefiting from using this otherwise discarded material.”

For many of these companies, the choice to operate sustainably was originally driven by the top founders or leadership rather than consumer demand, says Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons School of Design, “because they think it’s the right thing to do.”

On top of that, Bionic Yarn “tells a great story,” Rissanen said, which can help captivate and introduce consumers of all styles to sustainable fashion. And with this can come greater consumer demand.

The product had to ensure the customer wasn’t sacrificing anything, Toussant explains on their website. “It couldn’t be a step down. We had to meet [the customer] where they were at already and then slip in through the back door and say, ‘This is also helping the environment.’”

Indeed, echoes Rissanen: “In and of itself, no material solves the issues of unsustainability in fashion. What the material can do, however, is be a tool for change. They can certainly be entry points into bigger systems change conversations.”

And materials made from recycled plastics are definitely having their moment. Bionic Yarn has since expanded into architecture, furniture and other industries — it hopes to bridge the gap between manufacturing, fashion and sustainability.

But the larger plastics issue within fashion right now can’t be ignored either.

Currently, about 60 percent of fashion products rely on polyester — a petroleum-based product. Substituting this with recycled plastics is a great first step. A product like Bionic Yarn, said Rissanen, is “particularly great for displacing or replacing virgin plastic, like virgin polyester, in the system.”

It’s probably not helping with larger environmental issues, though, if this fiber is being used for an entirely new product, he noted. Ultimately, we just need to be producing less stuff, Rissanen argues, acknowledging this can be an unpopular opinion.

Plus, the more we use plastics in our fabrics, the more microplastic pollution is created. Microplastics are found everywhere from the ocean to Arctic sea ice and even rainfall. These microscopic plastics can be released when washing your nylon or polyester garments. According to one estimate, a single wash can release up to 700,000 tiny synthetic fibers — sometimes visible to us as lint — into freshwater systems.

“This idea that we keep making clothes out of things that don’t break down in the environment…I don’t think it’s part of the future,” said Rissanen. “But, in the short term, looking at the next 10 years, I do think that recycled plastics including Bionic Yarn are part of the future.”