Turning Plastic Water Bottles Into Clothes—Is This Addressing the Problem in the Right Way?

A friend asked while referring to a recent article* about bottle2fashion initiative of Danone-Aqua and H&M Indonesia, “Is this addressing the problem in the right way?”

Danone and H&M have partnered to turn used plastic bottles into children’s collection under Cleaning-up for the Future campaign, which they plan to sell online. The question asked here is indeed simple, and the answer could also appear simple. But it is not as simple as it seems, it is rather complicated due to many surrounding misconceptions, ideas, and beliefs. So, I decided to break it down into parts to examine it from various perspective:

From material utilization perspective: It is turning food-grade plastic water bottles (which has the least risk of contamination) into lower grade plastic—neither a good solution nor a right way to address the problem. 

From microplastics pollution perspective: Turning a secondary source (bottles) of microplastics pollution into a primary source (Textile) of microplastics Pollution—neither a good solution nor a right way to address the problem.

From Waste management perspective: this approach of Danone to deal with the waste created by its product can be divided into two parts and reviewed form the waste management perspectives respectively. 1) it stops plastic from going to landfill or in the oceans and from that perspective it is indeed an excellent solution 2) it has partnered with H&M to convert the collected water bottles into textile which is downcycling of material. The selection of this solution by Danone appears to be done without the exploration of available better solutions (bottle to bottle recycling) and consideration of the hierarchy of waste management** to ensure value maximization from the resources. Implementing a solution without the review of the entire process and the potential negative impacts negates the right intentions, and that is why it— could be termed as a partially good solution, but it is not. It is not the right way to address the problems.

 From consumption perspective: clothes made of recycled material and sold by a fast-fashion brand as sustainable fashion is indeed an oxymoronic situation and it won’t be wrong to call it greenwashing. The use of recycled material for a fast-fashion product only makes it less of a devil but not a sustainable brand or product— could be termed as a partially good solution, but it is not. It is not the right way to address the problems.

From the use of Recycled material perspective: The only long-term solution to plastic and microfiber problems is not to create new at all and use only recycled plastic to fulfil the essential needs. There is no doubt that there are better solutions available to replace plastic, but it is also true that we have already created a lot, and we got to deal with that first. So, the best solution is to first maximize the value (economic, social, and environmental) out of what we have already created before creating or using new materials, be it the biodegradable material. We must also remember that recycling is the right solution if it considers all the impacts and aims to maximize value by following the hierarchy of waste management. The case referenced here, doesn’t seem to explore all the potential better options and follow the hierarchy of waste management to maximize the value out of the material before downcycling it, so it is—neither a good solution nor a right way to address the problems.

From the efforts of the business perspective: three cheers for Danone for taking the first step but criticisms for not thinking through and utilizing the vastly available better solutions to ensure the value maximization from the resources.  As far as H&M goes, they are not perfect, but I would give them a lot of credit over a lot of other brands for their efforts and positive impact on the industry. Their efforts have resulted in shifts in the industry approaches at broader levels. I would also give them the due credit for using, and initiating, promoting and funding the development of new and sustainable technologies and concepts in the fashion industry. In this case, they seem to be concerned about reducing their impact, which in isolation is commendable but as a whole—not the right way to address the problems.

A probably well-intended partnership like this one shows that without a holistic view, even the efforts with right intentions end up accelerating the other problems and can cause more harm than doing good. It is worth noting that something is not always better than nothing and all the efforts are not worth appreciation.

*https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2020/09/01/aqua-hm-join-forces-to-turn-plastic-waste-into-clothes.html?utm_term=Autofeed&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1598959278

**1) rethink/reimagine, 2) reduce, 3) recreate/redesign, 4) reuse, 5) upcycle, 6) recycle, 7) downcycle (Conversion into lower-value material, product, or incinerating it to produce energy), and 8) if any of the above is not possible, then landfill (safely))

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