Marine Layer, the California brand, known for their laid-back, outdoor-friendly aesthetic has launched a series of new t-shirts that is made of out waste — old t-shirts sent to them by customers.
CEO Michael Natenshon says, “This has been in the making for a long time. It wasn’t easy building the process and infrastructure to make this happen. Recycling clothes is not always as easy as it seems.”
That’s because recycled fibers can lack the strength of their virgin counterparts. Plus, the process of separating blends requires expertise and experimentation — something the Marine Layer team, he says, had been developing for years before launching ReSpun.
Over the holiday season, Marine Layer called for customers to send in their used tees from any brand, not just theirs, and in any condition. They accepted all kinds of materials, barring activewear. Why? “That stretchy spandex is tough to break down. Instead, cut it up and use it to dry dishes. That stuff is like magic,” they advised customers on their site.
“If we did get some spandex, we sent it to be recycled for insulation, for example,” he clarifies.
Blended fibers of polyester and cotton, which is the vast majority of tees on the market, pose a large enough challenge on their own. Could the company create something that was akin to their existing collection? “We didn’t want to put out just a t-shirt, it needed to stand up to what we have in the shop already — the same quality.”
The goal was to get 10,000 t-shirts, Natenshon explains. They hit that goal quickly with 25,000 shirts pouring in the first month. To date, they’ve collected more than 70,000 tees.
The result is eight styles of tees, four for men’s and for for women’s, now on sale on the Marine Layer site, that are made of 100 percent of recycled content, constituting each of 50 percent recycled cotton and 50 percent polyester. The prices range from $50 – $100 (so yes, not cheap).
The material is soft, in line with Marine Layer’s focus as a brand to produce the softest tees possible. This was achieved by “sueding,” a term used in the industry to scrub the fiber against a scratchy surface; the friction, thus, produces a smoother result. Much like exfoliating, one could say.
Marine Layer partnered with Spanish company, Recover, to create this line: a company that’s been in existence for 70 years, dating back to 1947 and upcycling textile waste since then — long before the term sustainability even came into the modern lexicon. “They started doing this during World War II to be more efficient, and repurpose textiles,” Natenshon adds.
He acknowledges that shipping containers of used tees to Spain has its own carbon footprint. But, the challenge, he says, is even finding partners who are willing, interested, and capable of doing this work.
When he started the brand in 2009, the goal was to create the best t-shirt, he says. “We just wanted to create that super soft broken in T-shirt. The odds were stacked us against though. I literally had to charge $20,000 of fabric on my credit card and have it delivered to my apartment in San Francisco. There were so many initial hurdles. The industry is focused on scale and as a new brand, it’s hard enough to survive, let alone think about some of these environmental challenges.”
But now, it’s increasingly on his mind: in the next two years, Marine Layer wants to have Re-Spun fabrics constitute 50 percent of their collection. The initial collection of 8 is retro-inspired; without any new dying processes introduced into the process, they’ve stayed with colors came out of the recycling process.
Ultimately does this model work economically for more companies to replicate?
“So far, this whole process is quite costly for us. I hope it becomes cost effective soon. But we just had to take a leap of faith and invest in it up front,” Natenshon admits.
He’s hoping that it becomes something more mainstream with other brands taking notice though of the possibilities with recycling textile waste. He’s keen to share their process, and make it easier for others in the industry to replicate.
Consumers, he argues, are hungry for solutions. “People want to participate. They want to help, participate. When it comes to the apparel industry, there are not that many options of what you can do to be more eco-friendly, and recycling. Or it’s not very clear.”
Thus, can smaller brands such as Marine Layer lead the way in this research and development phase as the fashion industry tries to cut back on their carbon footprint?