Interview with Javier Goyeneche, founder of ECOALF
Where others saw rubbish, Javier Goyeneche saw resources, raw material, the future, a cleaner future for the coming generations, and a clothing brand with style and values. ECOALF was born in 2009, landed in the USA in 2012 and is now established in 11 countries, including Spain where it is present in 60 multi-brand stores. In five years, this brand of sustainable fashion has found itself in the leading edge of the sector…even more so because, as if recycling plastics, tires, post industrial cotton, coffee and fishing nets wasn’t enough, they have now decided to clean the ocean. “In trash we trust”, states his motto “…we trust in Ecoalf”, we could add.
The birth of ECOALF coincides with the birth of your son. Was it clear to you that that was the moment to create a better future for him?
Yes, in fact, the name ECOALF is due to his name being Alfredo. My idea was to create a fashion brand that was truly sustainable and that wouldn’t continue to use the planet’s resources, thus recycling seemed like the best option. When Alfredo was two years old, I began doing some research and the project started to take shape because I realized there were no quality recycled fabrics in the market and the ones that were available, only had a small percentage of recycled material and a very rough texture. So we found ourselves needing to manufacture our own fabric and, from 2010 to 2012, I travelled the world searching for alliances to create this new generation of fabrics, with 70 to 100% of the thread coming from recycled materials and with sophisticated textures.
Will the future be sustainable or not?
We are always concerned, thinking about what planet we will leave our children and I like to say it’s better to worry about what type of children we will leave the planet, and I’m referring to education and conscience. It is evident that we are consuming four or five times more natural resources than the planet is capable of generating and, in light of this, we defend, as our manifesto “Tras(H)umanity”, that you can continue to burn, cover or hide the residue you generate, or you can turn it into something positive, into alternative resources. Every new thing should already be sustainable.
You are a fashion brand, but what lies behind ECOALF is research, research and more research. Is that the main pillar of your work?
It’s true that there is a lot of R&D in our work process and the first two years, our investments in research were far superior than our invoicing. Little by little, as our invoicing increased, the numbers have started to balance up but it is still our main investment as we continue to broaden the number of materials we use, the fabrics we manufacture, optimizing processes…
You started recycling plastic bottles and today you manufacture almost 60 types of different fabrics with fishing nets, coffee residues, industrial cotton… we get the feeling that the process is complicated. Could you briefly explain it?
Every year we make some 15 different fabrics and there is a process with various phases. We could basically say that from the old fishing nets found at port to one of our nylon fabrics, there are seven chemical steps. If we started with crude oil, there would be 16 chemical steps which is why we are saving so much water, emissions and energy. There are many people who don’t know that most fabrics they use come from oil, what we do is return the material to its original state, a polymer, and work from there.
Within the company’s philosophy is the rule of “you manufacture where you recycle”. Is it a question of savings, logistics or proximity and contact with suppliers, implicating them in the project in a more personal manner?
The truth is, it’s a mess, it’s financially absurd and logistically nonsensical, but it works. One example, in the first project we carried out in Spain, with tires from Signus (a waste tire management entity), it made no sense to recycle them and send the tire powder to Asia to manufacture flip-flops as it wasn’t coherent with our message of sustainability. So we forced ourselves to look for the waste, and all partners and alliances in proximity to it, so as to complete the process.
ECOALF works in the USA, Japan and, in Europe, in England, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, Norway, Italy… until now when it has just established itself in Spain. Why is it the last country you’ve reached?
Several reasons. At first, when the company was launched into the market in 2012, Spain was going through a terrible recession and it was a complicated time to launch any brand. We also believed the message of sustainability would be better received in certain countries and we weren’t wrong. In the USA, for a specific social group, it is a message they clearly relate to, the same goes for Japan. In the north of Europe, the message is variably appreciated…
Have Spanish consumers surprised you? They are usually accused of not having environmental sustainability.
But it’s working pretty well because we’re not only geared toward a public who is sensitive to this message. We know well that nobody buys a jacket if isn’t flattering. You can truly like our story, but if the fit isn’t right or you don’t like the color, then you won’t buy it. And, when Harrods asks us for a collection, we know we are competing on the same floor with 50 other brands and we can’t explain our philosophy to the consumer, so we offer products of the highest quality and impeccable design which stand out on their own.
Has everything ECO become a trend?
Let’s hope eco is here to stay. The world is moving in that direction and there is sufficient technology nowadays to opt for sustainable alternatives; if you don’t do it, it’s because you don’t want to. This isn’t questioned any more, and companies which don’t follow it will probably have problems in the future.
Ecological products, however, continue to be luxury articles for a large part of the population. How could this market glitch be solved?
Two of my obsessions since launching ECOALF have been: ending the idea that what is recycled is cheap and creating clothing with prices that wouldn’t detract from choosing sustainable products. Despite the production being expensive and the fact that many agents are involved, we have realized that the more volume we create, the more costs drop substantially. So, with greater volume and more brands working on this, it would be less expensive for manufacturers to get these types of materials and fabrics and the end result would be more affordable.
Consumers are also changing and are looking more and more for brands that define them, make them special. Do you think these added values differentiate some brands from others?
There is a new generation of brands that represent very appreciated social values and with which people relate, that makes them much more loyal, as they feel comfortable. The only true distinction between another product and your own are personal and emotional values to which you relate.
You’ve worked for Marc Jacobs and LVMH, Apple contacted you to create a line of cases and the actress and coolhunter Gwyneth Paltrow wears and promotes your coats… In Spain, for example, you collaborate with Solán de Cabras. What type of product do you develop with the water brand?
We’ve spent years talking with them. The possibility has now arisen for us to present a mini collection for Solán de Cabras in Cibeles, disseminating the message that fashion can be pretty while also being responsible.
You are absorbed in a new project, even more ambitious if possible, which is not only to recycle but to clean the ocean. Tell us a little about it.
Waste management and recovery channels on land are well known and identified, but it seems the ocean belongs to no one and everything that ends up there just accumulates… A plastic bottle can last almost 400 years floating in the sea! There are parts of the ocean where the plastic problem is very serious and it’s shocking to think that the Hawaiian coasts are covered in plastic every two weeks and that the fish we eat now contain hundreds of plastic and chemical particles.
I am a sea lover and I thought the best way to bring this plastic back on land was with the help of fishermen, whose trawls even pull out sunken plastic. We’ve encountered great predisposition on their part and, in the pilot project, in Levante, there are currently 204 boats on board. We are testing the types of containers in each boat, the classifying plants at port… The sea project may be the most special and most complicated we’ve been faced with up to now. We’ve been working on it for a year and still have another year to go before its launch, as we will have the fishermen remove the waste from the sea, it will then be classified at port, cleaned, the PET’s polypropylene will be separated as will the polyethylene from the aluminum, turned into flakes, then into polymer and then into thread, fabrics and products. It’s certainly much harder than going to a fair, buying fabric and working with it, but we like to complicate things.
Text Bárbara Vidal
Photography Lidia Estepa