This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
How often do you see a pair of industry experts defect from high-dollar corporate gigs to make apparel out of plastic bottles? Maybe it’s not unheard of, but it’s definitely not the origin story of every new clothing brand that comes along.
And it’s certainly not the case that everyone who makes shirts out of recycled plastic bottles has an entirely closed-loop product. In fact, most clothing made of recycled plastic or any amount of post-consumer material only diverts waste from a landfill once. A true closed-loop model ensures that waste stays out of landfills and rivers forever, even once a product is past its prime.
The concept of a 100% closed-loop shirt brand is the basis for Last Bottle Clothing, launched in 2016 by seasoned supply chain strategists Stuart Wood and Justin Koehn. From Stuart’s perspective, the transition from climbing the corporate ladder to making a sustainable product with the potential to revolutionize the apparel industry was gradual.
“When I was younger and going to college, I thought I wanted to make a lot of money,” says Stuart. “So right after, I pursued a long career in corporate America. But I was not becoming happier as I moved up the chain, made more money, and got more nice watches.”
Local Sourcing, Global Impact
Stuart met Justin along the way and the two became fast friends—bonding partly over a shared clarity that their sense of fulfillment was not rising with their incomes. “He and I clicked personally,” says Stuart. “We had a common view on life politically, environmentally, and socially. And we talked about starting a business together, and five years after that, we quit our jobs to start that journey, not knowing exactly what we were going to do.”
Stuart notes that even as recently as 2015, when he and Justin began brainstorming, there wasn’t anywhere near the level of awareness that there is now around the scale of plastic pollution. But even then, from their shared supply chain background, they saw a huge opportunity.
“Plastic is clothing, and clothing has been plastic for years,” says Stuart. “A plastic water bottle has the same material as a polyester shirt if you break it down and recycle it.”
From their past careers, they knew suppliers who did just that, but it’s a highly specialized process: There’s one supplier that collects and recycles plastic bottles into fine pellets, one that turns the pellets into a polyester thread, another that weaves the thread into reams of usable cloth, and a final one that cuts and sews the cloth into shirts.
But the Last Bottle founders didn’t stop at merely identifying a supplier for each niche. They went so far as to identify only suppliers within an 85-mile radius of Charlotte, North Carolina, giving a Last Bottle shirt one of the smallest carbon footprints in the apparel industry. And that’s a virtue Stuart and Justin intend to replicate should the market for Last Bottle shirts grow.
“90% of apparel travels more than 16,000 miles before it gets to us,” says Stuart. “Localizing is vital to cutting down on the carbon footprint and addressing climate change. For now, we’ll localize in our small corner of the world. But if we expand globally, we can do that elsewhere. You can cut out so much of your carbon footprint if you do.”
No More Zombie Plastics
Every Last Bottle shirt has a great origin story, but that wasn’t enough for Stuart and Justin, who wanted a strong closing, too.
And that’s where the “closed-loop” part comes in: When a customer is through with their shirt, rather than cast it off, they can send it back to the company, where the polyester gets recycled all over again. The original process removes an average of 13 plastic bottles from landfills, and through Last Bottle’s Take Back program, those zombie plastics only ever resurrect as clothing.
Over time, Stuart and Justin know that the impact will add up no matter what. But their ultimate goal is to force, through competition, the biggest names in the apparel industry to adopt a cleaner manufacturing process.
“It falls on the consumers to demand that they are offered closed-loop products that are sustainable,” says Stuart. “Every time we spend a dollar, we’re voting on a business model. You’re probably not voting for your best interest—environmentally, socially, economically, or otherwise—if you’re not really researching what you’re buying.”
While Last Bottle started out strictly as a direct-to-consumer brand, they hope to fuel consumer-led advocacy and agitation for change in the apparel industry through their wholesale offerings.
“We’re not a t-shirt company. We’re a sustainability company that started with t-shirts,” says Stuart. “Providing closed-loop fabric and take-back programs for companies—both manufacturers and retailers—to return products, that’s a way for us to scale the hell out of our impact.”
In addition to the estimated 13 plastic bottles that a Last Bottle shirt and its take-back model divert from landfills forever, that impact also translates to using about 700 less gallons of water than it takes to make a typical cotton shirt.
Multiply that by the thousands through wholesale orders, add to that a groundswell of demand for closed-loop products across the apparel industry, and it’s not hard to imagine a not-so-distant future when the billions of plastic bottles Americans throw away each year may never have to end up in a landfill.
Spend for good: Visit Last Bottle’s website to place your individual or customized wholesale orders for 100% recycled, 100% recyclable t-shirts. Orders over $50 ship free and volume pricing is available.
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