Ecoalf: the company trawling for climate-change solutions
The ocean is often thought of as earth’s thermostat, storing and redistributing heat energy and directly impacting the climate globally. But it is being choked by around 14mn tonnes of plastic per year, much of which ends up on the sea bed.
Javier Goyeneche is the founder of Ecoalf, a pioneering Spanish fashion brand that has worked on turning refuse into T-shirts since 2009. His question? “Instead of collecting the waste that washes up on the coast, how can we get to the stuff on the seabed?” He found one solution in Alicante, home to one of Spain’s largest fleets of trawler boats, whose fishermen are plagued by plastic waste that clogs their nets.
Ecoalf Foundation launched Upcycling the Oceans in 2015 with the aim of cleaning up the Mediterranean by 2025. The fishermen separate rubbish they collect in their nets into containers provided by Ecoalf, which is then recycled or turned into “Ocean Yarn”. “We don’t pay them, because we want to avoid creating a system in which if the money stops, they stop,” Goyeneche explains. “But I say to them, ‘If you think the right thing to do is to throw that waste back into the sea, fish it out tomorrow, throw it back again, and keep on doing that for the rest of your life, that’s up to you.’ It’s been amazing: they all got on board. The fishermen do it because they love the ocean, and they understand what’s going on.”
Ecoalf currently works with more than 3,500 fishermen in Spain, Greece, Italy and France with plans to involve a further 10,000 from Croatia to Turkey. “This is my life – many of us don’t know how to do anything else,” says Nacho Llorca, head fisherman in Villajoyosa, Valencia. “I’m very worried about my future, that of my children, those that come after me – what are we going to leave?”
Plastic pollution not only harms marine life, threatening the fishermen’s livelihood and delicate sub-aquatic ecosystems. It also releases toxic chemicals, transports pollutants and releases greenhouse gases when exposed to UV light. “Nowadays, microplastics are ubiquitous in the global ocean and particularly in the Mediterranean Sea,” says Martina Capriotti, a marine biologist, National Geographic explorer and researcher at the University of Connecticut. “As a highly anthropised, semi-closed basin, the accumulation of these tiny pieces of plastic material is likely to be higher. Involving fishermen in the process of the ‘reduce, replace, recycle’ process is a wonderful step, because they are the first to witness the presence and impact of plastic pollution, and more than others can help clean the sea.”
On discovering that one of Ecoalf’s bestselling products was shedding 20,000 microfilaments with every wash, Goyeneche took it off the shelves, and now uses a fabric that only sheds 0.000362 per wash. Said fabric is the core feature of Ecoalf’s new premium collection, labelled 1.0, which channels 12 years of research and development and includes vegan leather made from grape waste, fabrics made from Kapok (which saves around 375 litres of water per shirt), and fibres made with byproducts of corn crops.
Ecoalf was the first Spanish fashion brand to become a certified B Corp in 2018, signifying verifiably high standards in its sustainable approach to every aspect of its business model. Following in the footsteps of labels such as Allbirds, Finisterre and Mud Jeans, it also helped pave the way for French label Chloé to become the first B Corp luxury fashion house in 2021. “We need the big players to join us – they have the volume and the resources to change the industry,” says Goyeneche. When it comes to the textile industry’s environmental impact, fast fashion contributes the bulk of the waste. “But it’s the fashion industry’s business model itself that is failing us,” adds Goyeneche. “Seasonal collections, fleeting fads, a linear economy.”
Unlike many brands, Ecoalf eschews trends, instead focusing on collections that are less high-fashion and more everyday. By integrating innovation with smart design, these are simple, sustainable staples that set a new precedent for what consumers can expect from their basics.