Most people wouldn't be caught dead wearing a shower curtain in public. Few would cover themselves in spent coffee grounds, or wrap their bodies in old fishing nets -- at least knowingly.
But there's a growing trend among clothing manufacturers who are turning all kinds of trash into fashion these days. Literally. Dated audiotapes. Old signs and office chairs. They're all being recycled into clothes that are sold by well-known retailers.
"Our evolution toward using trash as our supply chain came through our desire to reduce the impact our clothing has on the planet," said Jen Rapp, head of communications and public relations for Patagonia, the California-based manufacturer that is largely credited with birthing, then mainstreaming, the trash-to-fashion trend.
In 1993, Patagonia began recycling plastic water and soda bottles, and then combining them with a small amount of virgin polyester to make polar fleece jackets. Recently, it's expanded the concept with old shower curtains, recycled garments, cutting-room-floor scraps and polyester signs that are broken down to the molecular level, spun into threads, woven into textiles and cut into long underwear, technical gear such as rain jackets and other items that give no hint of a junky past.
Recycling plastics into clothes "is nothing new and it's a good idea," says Gregory Unruh of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management in Phoenix and author of the book "Earth, Inc." "The trick is that the material recovery costs are cost-effective, and usually they are. It makes a lot of sense, and a lot of companies are trying to move in that direction."
Unruh cited Patagonia, Capri Sun and Coca-Cola, the latter of which has long recycled its soda empties into its own branded clothing line. H&M, Sears' suitmaker EcoGir and the handbag line Matt & Nat also use recycled plastic bottle textiles in their designs. According to Unruh, recycling waste uses less energy and creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than sourcing virgin materials.
"There's new technology to make apparel out of recycled products other than plastic bottles," said Harris Liu, president of California apparel broker Caerus & Muse.
Liu is hoping his Asian textile manufacturer, which fuses spent coffee grounds with yarns made from recycled plastic and spins them into athletic gear that controls odor and blocks UV rays, will expand its contract with Starbucks in Taiwan to coffee and fast-food chains in the U.S.
Eco-Panda, of Whittier, Calif., is turning old fishing nets into bikinis. Sanuk, maker of casual footwear, has expanded its recycling efforts (using textiles made from recycled water bottles) to incorporate old tires and yoga mats, both of which are used for soles.
"Instead of ending up in landfills," said Sanuk founder Jeff Kelley, "they end up on the bottoms of people's feet."