From discarded bottle to timeless style—
Imagine it. A desolate beach, waves crashing in the distance. On the shore washes up a most unseaworthy vessel, a sight not properly found in nature: a plastic bottle, briefly home to a carbonated beverage, used once and then thoughtlessly discarded, only to reappear in Haiti, or in Taiwan, or some other spot far from where the bottle originated. Across the world, more than 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute worldwide, and it’s virtually impossible for recycling efforts to keep pace. The end result is a swirl of plastic in the ocean, with mountains of wasted bottles piling up on beaches far and wide.
In this bleak scenario, Ian Rosenberger saw an opportunity to help. He was in Haiti, assisting cleanup efforts after the earthquake of 2010. Well-intended organizations had donated bottled water for those affected by the disaster, but that had the unintended consequence of a vast increase in plastic waste, which overwhelmed the island nation’s sanitation services. Heaps of trash wound up on Haiti’s beaches. “If Haiti could turn trash into money, that = good,” Rosenberger wrote in his journal at the time, and he immediately went about making that thought a reality. His concept? Employ local people to collect the waste, and then turn that waste into something useful—like fabric.
He called his organization First Mile, which has diverted 4,702,550 pounds of plastic since its launch. This isn’t just good for the planet, it puts resources into the local economy as well. And it’s this company that Polo has turned to for its groundbreaking Earth Polo shirt, first released last year and now available in 19 colorways for men, seven colors for women, and nine for kids, not to mention print options.
The shirt began with a deceptively simple concept: Remake the iconic Polo shirt with as little environmental impact as possible, while preserving the quality and feel that made it an icon in the first place.
The First Mile initiative refers to the so-called first mile of the supply chain—essentially where fabrics are sourced. Even companies that use recycled fabrics might not disclose who is collecting the materials, which tends to be a dangerous job—and one done by the most impoverished members of a society. As First Mile’s director of partnerships explains, this focus was an obvious opportunity. “Within business case studies, a lot of attention is paid to the last mile—getting products to the consumer,” says Kelsey Halling. “And in fashion, a lot of attention is paid to cut-and-sew facilities [where products are made]. As you get further down the supply chain, there are so many steps, it gets removed from the brand’s level—even in recycling, if you know where the material is coming from, you wouldn’t know how it was collected. So that’s where we invest our time and energy: running impact programming to ensure a social safety net for people who are working with us.”
Specifically, First Mile commits to total transparency as to where and how materials are sourced (and by whom)—with The Earth Polo, Polo could even, in theory, tell you the individual who collected the bottles. First Mile also offers workers a living wage, and even offers loans to partner companies to ensure they have the financial stability to succeed. Through its business, it can also create demand where previously there was none—again, using Haiti as an example, what once was a problem (excess plastic trash) becomes an enterprise opportunity (selling that plastic to companies that will convert it into something useful). For better and for worse, it’s a source that promises to be around for awhile. “People often ask us, ‘What happens when you run out of plastic?’” says Halling. “I just don’t think that will happen in my lifetime.”
In the case of The Earth Polo, First Mile sourced plastic from its partners in Taiwan. This plastic was turned into a soft mesh good enough to surpass Polo’s exacting standards for quality. (Indeed, some members of the Polo team were unable to determine which fabric was which in a side-by-side comparison.) Each shirt is made from on average 12 plastic bottles, and even the labels and hangtags are made from recycled materials. It’s also made to be fully recyclable if and when you’re ready to part with it. Adding to its eco-friendliness, the shirt is dyed using a unique carbon dyeing process that uses no water in the application of the dye.
And while it might seem daunting to take on an icon like the Polo shirt, the team at First Mile felt like it was an obvious winner. “Typically you don’t want to innovate with something that already works,” says Halling.
“That was a very cool decision on the part of the brand. One reason sustainability gets tripped up is that it gets put into niche products or small capsule collections. It’s not like this is a new weird hippie sustainable product; it’s an iconic one.”
The next challenge: Deciding which other Polo products should get the Earth Polo treatment. The brand has committed to saving at least 170 million bottles from polluting our planet by 2025, in addition to converting the use of all virgin poly-fiber to recycled poly-fiber and achieving at least a 20 percent reduction in total water use across its key operations and value chain by that same date. “Plastic waste is a major issue threatening the environment—we want to be part of the solution and utilize an innovative approach to create something valuable,” said David Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s chief innovation officer. Our sources are tight-lipped on what might come next, but judging by the standard set by The Earth Polo, it will be worth the wait.
PAUL L. UNDERWOOD is a former editor at Ralph Lauren. He is based in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Images courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation and First Mile.