Ecoalf: sustainability with sincerity and style
There are few more overhyped words used in fashion today than sustainability, though one brand that sincerely walks the ecological talk is Ecoalf.
The Madrid-based marque has been recycling since its inception a decade ago: first with Korean trawlers gathering waste plastic in the sea, and today with over a 3,500 fishermen in the Mediterranean who weekly gather detritus off the sea floor.
Its slogan, 'There Is No Planet B', has been copied frequently, yet it forms the basis of Ecoalf’s particular and unique ethos. Notably, one key element in Ecoalf is that the brand regularly forgoes getting a heftier bottom-line in order to respect its ecological credo.
Last month, Ecoalf took over a prime location in Pitti – the world’s best organized fashion fair, based in Florence – this week we caught up with brand founder Javier Goyeneche. He got the name for the brand from his two sons, Alfredo and Alvaro, when he had the initial idea of creating a totally sustainable fashion brand.
“I thought the most sustainable thing was not to keep on using natural resources. So, recycling was the solution. But while making the same quality and design as brands that were not recycling,” explains Goyeneche, inside Ecoalf’s airy new Marais 150-square-meter boutique, whose pale gray walls and floors are made of a blend of recycled cotton and cement.
Back in 2009 there were no cool recycled materials readily available, so Goyeneche and his team began developing their own. His holy grail began with a retired lady in Taiwan, recycling plastic bottles into carpets, then moved to Korea, where he began creating fabrics made from discarded nylon fishing nets.
By 2013, he finally launched the brand with just six jackets and two backpacks. Today Ecoalf retails in over 2,000 sales points internationally.
“Since our first collection, we have gone on to develop over 500 different fabrics,” explained Goyeneche, whose knowledge of textiles and new materials oft makes him sound more of a scientist than fashion executive.
Surprisingly, many of the fabrics have a very agreeable “hand,” like the recycled cotton T-shirts that are soft and a tiny but spongy. Ecoalf have also managed to prevent recycled polyester looking too shiny and made it look practically mat. Seen in some natty puffer gilets and coats inside the Paris stores.
Their recycled cashmere is post-industrial, generally scrap, and most of their wool comes from Prato, the nerve center of Italian garment recycling outside Florence. Inside the store, there’s even an Ocean Room, an installation with videos and testimonies of their Mediterranean project.
“Our biggest program is upcycling from the ocean. With our program we started with a few fishermen. Now we have over 3,500 fishermen we work with; and over 1,000 tons of waste recovered from the bottom of the ocean,” explained Goyeneche.
One key sponsor is Kingspan, which takes the leftovers of the waste to be used in insulation panels. The Ireland-based Kingspan predicts it will upcycle one billion bottles into insulation by 2025.
Movie-star handsome, Goyeneche is forthright, and outspoken. When one suggests that when sustainability is often just PR spin, and brand washing by luxury marques, he responds directly.
“Yes, it probably is. Nobody is 100% sustainable that is the first thing to realize. Many people in fashion say, ‘we plan to use 100% sustainable fabrics.’ But I say the problem with you guys is that your business models in not sustainable. It’s not just fabrics, it has to go much further. You have to take real decisions. That’s why we don’t do promotions at Ecoalf. We don’t do discounts. We don’t overproduce. Which means we lose a lot of sales as we don’t overstock,” he explains.
Back in 2014 Ecoalf discontinued their best-selling item – a polar fleece. “Because it is the worst material in the world. Why? Because it is made of broken filament. So, every time you wash a polar fleece you put 20,000 tiny filaments back into water.”
Now, Ecoalf only works with continuous filaments, and does not mix materials, which makes things more complicated.
“We began by making T-shirts in recycled cotton and recycled polyester, 50/50. But then we realized that this was a disaster for the circular economy, so from 2016 we stopped that. You have to accept that certain decisions are not commercially positive in terms of profitability. But you have to take them,” underlines the eco entrepreneur, who speak fluent English, albeit with a powerful accent.
"I was in Uniqlo in London recently, and they had a wall that said the most sustainable denim. But for me it was not. Because their denim was made from a company whose denim has an inside yarn of polyester surrounded by cotton. So, it can never be recycled. And on the opposite wall, you have 30 meters of polar fleece, claiming they save so much water, but in fact it is the worst thing for the water you can have!", he says, his face darkening.
Goyeneche notes that cotton from recycled jeans is that it is often very weak – which is why people put in polyester. But that means that the material can only be recycled up to 15%. So Ecoalf does not produce denim.
Despite, the ethical restraints on certain product categories, Ecoalf is booming. Last year, sales totaled 39 million euros, and Javier predicts over 50% growth in 2022.
Ecoalf opened its first store in Madrid in 2013, with the backroom as Goyeneche’s office. Now, they have six – including Barcelona - with plans to open in Milan this year. While their latest visit to Pitti, saw them boost Italian retail sales point to over 200.
They own no plants and like to manufacture garments where they collect the waste. Like nylon nets in Spain, or recycled cotton in Portugal, explained the CEO, showing off recycled fishing nets made into smooth midnight blue swimming togs, and a great chic belted raincoat with a stiff finish.
“I love polyamide and I even prefer it to polyester!” he enthuses. “The problem is that we don’t have enough fishing nets, even working along the Spanish Mediterranean coats, around to Cadiz and even in northwest Galicia on the Atlantic. Next month, we start working in France, we already are in Greece and Italy. Before when fishermen pulled up their nets, they used to throw the waste back in ocean. Now they save it for us!”
Once a week, Ecoalf trucks gather the waste from scores of ports, and then take it to categorization plants, allowing 68% of the waste back into their system. Besides recycling, Ecoalf uses all sorts of unexpected materials. There is even a charming fabric made from the dead fruit of India’s Kapok tree, used in their new premium Ecoalf 1.0 collection. While their labels come with QR codes, providing precise information on textile composition in multiple languages.
Defining its DNA as innovation, sustainability and design, Goyeneche shows off key looks, from great puffers to beautiful Indian linen shirts. Ecoalf may not be terribly very fashion forward; but its silhouettes are certainly flattering; its materials intriguing and its goals worthy.
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