Marc Jacobs, Gwyneth Paltrow and will.i.am have two things in common. Well, three, if we include their passports. They are American, they are considered icons of style, and they are clients of a Spanish brand named Ecoalf.
In five years, this fashion company specializing in apparel, footwear and accessories made from recycled materials has risen to the top of the sustainable fashion sector, while also managing to carve out a niche in the general industry.
And it’s all thanks to a plastic bottle, the first type of waste that founder Javier Goyeneche, 44, managed to transform into a fabric and then into a handbag.
In 2009 we thought we would find sustainable fabrics on the market, but most only contained around 15-percent of recycled material, and they felt awful to the touch"
Javier Goyeneche, Ecoalf founder
Later would come an entire textile range made from discarded fishing nets, worn-out vehicle tires, post-industrial cotton and coffee grounds.
Ecoalf’s products are being sold in 11 countries and are just beginning to get distributed in Spain, where turnover currently represents nine percent of the total.
The United States is the company’s main market. In just a year-and-a-half, Ecoalf has created seven strategic alliances there, including one with actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who has helped Ecoalf design a winter jacket that sold out two days after going on sale on her own website, Goop.
Ecoalf has also developed a sustainable fabric for designer Marc Jacobs, and part of the first collection by Ekocycle, a new brand that partly uses recycled waste and is owned by the musician and entrepreneur will.i.am and by Coca-Cola. The project will be presented on February 5 at Harrod’s, the London department store.
But its first US partner was Apple, whose distribution director got in touch with Ecoalf after finding out about them on a Japanese coolhunter website.
“We couldn’t believe it,” recalls Goyeneche. “She ordered a line of computer cases that can now be found at 250 US Apple stores.”
This partnership opened the doors of the international market, and it did so at the right time. It was May 2012, and a month earlier the Madrid entrepreneur had just finished a fundraiser to give Ecoalf a much-needed push.
“In 2009 we thought we would find sustainable fabrics on the market to start developing our concept. But most fabrics only contained a very small percentage of recycled material, around 15 percent, and they felt awful to the touch. Se we were forced to make our own: we use three types of 100-percent recycled PET to make a handbag collection that never stops selling,” he adds.
PET is short for polyethylene terephthalate, a chemical compound used industrially to make synthetic fibers (polyester) and plastic bottles (PET).
Goyeneche spent nearly three years after that seeking providers, producers and investors. He also devoted time to liquidating and selling Fun & Basics, the brand he had founded at age 24, which was into its second meeting of creditors at that point.
“In 2006 we began expanding too fast, opening stores and paying thousands of euros in rent a month,” the entrepreneur recalls. “A hedge fund came into the picture. Then the crisis hit. Banks cut import lines. Sales dropped and we found ourselves with a huge working capital problem.”
Lesson learned: Ecoalf has a single boutique in Madrid, although it has a presence in over 330 stores that carry multiple brands.
But the businessman admits that he “adores complications.” After the PET bottles, Goyeneche signed deals with two Korean ports to use their fishing nets, made with 6.6 nylon –“the best in the market.” This material helped them develop more texture for their products.
The founder of Ecoalf insists that design is just as important as sustainability.
“No matter how pretty the story you tell them, people will not buy that bathing suit if it doesn’t look good on them or they don’t like the color,” he notes. “Pattern and quality come first. Our philosophy comes later, because we want to compete on equal terms with the, let’s say, normal brands.”
This entails significant research into potential materials. After the nets, Ecoalf began treating post-industrial cotton and made a deal with Taiwan’s 7-Eleven stores to recycle their coffee grounds.
Goyeneche also follows another rule: manufacture in the same place where you recycle. Ecoalf now has manufacturing processes in 14 countries, including Portugal, Spain, India, Mexico and Japan.
The company’s latest venture involves using consumer waste found in the sea that can be turned into fabric: polypropilene, which is used in fruit packaging but also in textiles; PET bottles, and plastic bags made of polyethylene. Ecoalf has signed a deal with fishermen associations on the Mediterranean coast to recover waste of this nature that gets caught in their fishing nets.
“Ours is not a financial company,” says Goyeneche. “If you analyze this latest venture from a purely mercantile viewpoint, it is clearly not profitable. Why take the PET out of the sea if you can find it on land? Nobody does that. That’s what Ecoalf is all about.”