For the fashion industry, the future may very well be in plastics.

Fashion brands are increasingly rolling out products made from discarded plastics, part of a two-pronged strategy that allows them to build cause marketing campaigns while simultaneously cutting down on the 8 million tons of waste dumped into the sea each year. As the technology to transform plastic into technical fabric improves, these retailers are identifying ways to streamline recycled plastic into production so it can potentially serve as more of a staple than a gimmick.

Adidas debuted its second shoe made from recycled sea waste earlier this month. The shoe is part of a collaboration with Parley For the Oceans, an organization that identifies solutions to cleaning up the oceans. At the same time, brands like Timberland and G-Star have started incorporating recycled plastics into their supply chains, while Stella McCartney just launched a partnership of its own with Parley on World Oceans Day last week.

“Our goal has always been to challenge ourselves and the industry to do better, to continually ask ourselves how we can improve,” Stella McCartney said in a statement. “We want to be responsible and accountable for the items we make and the ways we make them. And we need to start somewhere in order to progress.”

Kathleen Wright, founder of sustainable sourcing company Piece & Co., said such products are promising because of their focus on specific materials, rather than vague sustainability pledges that don’t allow for measurement or tracking. “The more we can replace materials that have a negative impact with those that are neutral or positive, it will make a big difference to the bottom line of our global health. People are starting to see the big opportunity around this; materials are becoming more and more a part of the conversation around sustainability and how we can move the needle,” she said. 

In order to create products made from ocean plastic, fashion brands are tapping the resources of a variety of companies that specialize in producing the reimagined materials, including Bionic Yarn and Aquafil. H&M teamed with the former on a pleated gown made of recycled ocean plastic in February, while Aquafil has helped companies like Speedo and Volcom produce swimsuits using its proprietary Econyl fiber, made from 100 percent regenerated nylon waste from items like abandoned fishing nets.

The challenge, according to Giulio Bonazzi, CEO and president of Aquafil, is raising awareness of his company’s capabilities so other brands can begin using it as well.

“It is apparent that the linear waste stream — in which products are manufactured, consumed, and disposed of — is no longer sustainable,” Bonazzi said. “Many years ago, we realized that we needed to transform our traditional business model into a circular one, in order to fulfill the challenges of a market that is rapidly changing. Now, other brands are recognizing the same thing.”

Despite the progress, Jenifer Ekstein, consultant at Vivaldi, said that, in some cases, these efforts still come off as more of a marketing ploy for conscious consumerism. “Other companies are taking note and see it as a great opportunity, however, it may be used solely as a marketing ploy. For example, H&M has a ‘conscious’ collection that is made from sustainable materials, but by nature of being a fast fashion business, they will never be a sustainable company,” she said.

However, Wright said, from the brand perspective, even one-off products made from recycled plastic are important to encouraging other companies to follow suit. It’s a good time, considering consumer sentiment is growing increasingly positive toward eco-friendly goods.

“A lot of brands think, ‘If I do this for one product, I’m opening myself up to criticism for all other products,'” she said. “That’s not how consumers looking for other sustainable products feel, and brands are starting to take the plunge more.”

Image courtesy of Adidas.