“I always tell kids the same thing: the future has not yet been written.”
Javier Goyeneche believes that children are the future. He was inspired by the birth of his sons to launch a sustainable clothing company that wouldn’t use natural resources in the extractive and wasteful manner of most fashion brands. That company, EcoAlf, has developed hundreds of recycled fabrics, launched an international programme partnering with fishermen to collect waste from the oceans and in the process became the first fashion brand in Spain to achieve B-Corp certification.
As one of EcoAlf’s ranges – Because There Is No Planet B – makes clear, the earth always comes first. Whether that means sacrificing margins, or halting production of a successful product when an environmental impact became understood, bold business decisions and action for the planet are always on Javier’s agenda: “We need to move fast, we need to move together and we need to be united.”
Javier sets out our power to create change, the need for bold businesses and why education is key.
At EcoAlf, we dedicate a lot of time to thinking about what kind of planet we are going to leave to the kids – but we should also be worrying what kind of kids are we going to leave to the planet.
What the planet looks like in 2050 depends on what we do from now on. We are deciding how we want our oceans to be, what our food will be like and what kind of clothes to wear every day.
Everything we put into education is a great investment. Some years the team does over 250 talks and panels.
People have more power than they imagine. Small actions really can make change. When consumers start changing direction, companies need to shift in that direction too, otherwise they are history.
Companies need brave CEOs. Businesses have to get out of their comfort zone and make really bold decisions.
It’s easier for companies like EcoAlf because it was born with sustainability as its core philosophy – and my shareholders let me do what I want! It’s complicated for a profitable 40-year-old company to change their business model and turn the boat by five degrees: the CEO’s job might even be at risk.
We need our legislators to step up and start legislating: they are way behind.
For too long, the business model behind fashion hasn’t been working. Unfortunately, for the last few decades, it’s been very controlled by fast fashion, and that business model is not sustainable.
Fast fashion creates huge amounts of waste: buying, throwing away, buying, throwing away, a new trend every Thursday, discounts, promotions, Black Friday… and on, and on.
We’re burning the forests to plant cotton to make T-shirts for five euros. Each of those T-shirts uses 2,000 litres of water and a big percentage of them will end up in landfill in less than two years.
There’s not enough water, forests or landfills for our future population. There’s going to be 2 billion more of us by 2050, so the first thing we need to change is the business model.
We need to buy less and buy more responsibly. You can’t be an activist on Friday and then on Saturday go and buy five T-shirts for five euros.
We don’t do Black Friday promotions: we do campaigns and actions, like the amazing “On Your Sleeve” from British poet Tomfoolery. The warehouse we work with in Spain (and who works for many top brands) told me they had 62% returns last Black Friday. Six out of every 10 garments that went out came back in: that’s carbon emissions, planes, trains, repackaging, plastic. It’s a disaster.
When I started, I felt very alone. I remember a head buyer in 2012 asking me why anybody would buy something recycled when they can buy new. Back then, people believed that recycled meant poor quality. Nobody would ask that question anymore, which is great.
There is still a gap to close to make sustainable clothes more affordable. Unfortunately, recycled fabrics, natural dyes and sustainable dyeing processes are more expensive and almost everything is more complicated and takes more time.
I never wanted price to be a reason for not buying sustainably. When we started, we had a choice: either sell at 30% higher prices or launch with very tight margins for this industry. I said no to putting the prices up, though thanks to our growth those margins are improving.
Sustainability is the future. The head of a very successful brand in Spain told me that when he does something sustainable, it doesn’t sell. I said that if you do two jackets with sustainable fabric within a collection that isn’t sustainable, then your clients won’t understand: but it’s the right direction, so keep going and don’t get disillusioned.
Even if you are recycling your office coffee cups, it’s not enough; you need to go faster. Three years ago the top buyer at Selfridges told me that they were the most sustainable department store in the world – but just one of the 300 brands on the floor was making organic T-shirts. That’s not sustainable: but luckily things are changing now.
You cannot be sustainable on your own. For me to be sustainable, I need to make sure my whole supply chain is sustainable. That’s why we work with certain factories, certain fabrics, certain people.
My baby is Upcycling the Oceans: that’s a project I really fought for. It started in 2015. We had been recycling fishing nets for many years, but one day I went out with a fisherman to see how much waste gets caught in the nets and I was shocked.
I found the resources to launch the programme myself. There’s a wonderful philanthropist, Henry Pincus, who I met in New York while looking for funding to launch EcoAlf – he told me he didn’t like fashion, but that his obsession was the ocean. I remembered that, and when I called him with this idea, he backed us for three years to get started, and so thanks to him the Foundation and Upcycling the Oceans was born.
We started with three fishermen; today we work with over 3,200 – and our goal is to work with over 10,000 fishermen around the Mediterranean by 2025.
Ten percent of the waste we recover goes into fashion – the PET bottles for converting to polymer yarn fabric. In Spain we collect nearly 200 tonnes per year, of which 68% can be put back into production.
The fishermen I work with do it for free – they do it with their hearts. When I started some asked if I would pay but I said no: you can collect waste every day, throw it back into the ocean, collect it again tomorrow and throw it back again – and you can keep on doing that. Or if you think it’s better to take it to the port, I will give you a container, but it’s up to you. It was amazing how they all started joining the programme.
LISTEN ► Javier in conversation with Clare Press on the Wardrobe Crisis podcast:
We love our stores to have spaces for action: we call them Act Now spaces. We give talks, invite speakers, have discussions. In Berlin it was fantastic the way we created community through gathering with people and talking and debating. I learned a lot from many people.
We got our B-Corp certification in 2018 – we’ve just been reevaluated and have improved further. The biggest concern the first time was that we were very focused on sustainability, and less on people. So we’ve worked hard over the last two years on that.
The big change has to come from the big players. They have the volume, the resources, and the teams. They have everything. They could make the change we need.
If I could have any FuturePower, it would be…. to heal. I’ve seen so much suffering over the last year, so many people who couldn’t say goodbye to their families and friends, alone in hospitals. The power to heal people would be amazing.
AtlasAction ► Learn more about EcoAlf, Upcycling the Oceans, and their actions and innovations for sustainable fashion futures. Javier Goyeneche was in conversation with Cathy Runciman, co-founder of Atlas of the Future.