From Nylon Waste to Fashion: How The ECONYL® Brand Became A Pioneer Of The Circular Economy

Made from waste and infinitely recyclable, Aquafil Group’s ECONYL® regenerated nylon has been a key ingredient helping the fashion industry pivot towards a more circular system. We spoke with Chairman and CEO Giulio Bonazzi to find out why it’s time to move away from linear product lifecycles, and the role of consumers in this essential shift.

“When I used to tell people about ECONYL® when we were just starting out, many people thought that I was crazy,” remembers Giulio Bonazzi, Chairman and CEO of Aquafil Group.

Fast forward to 2020 and his trademark regenerated nylon has been used by historic fashion houses such as Gucci, Prada and Stella McCartney, as well as a whole host of up-and-coming ethical brands. Made from ghost fishing nets and other nylon waste, it provided a sustainable solution to designers just when the conversation around the industry’s environmental impact was beginning to intensify.

Yet the ongoing impact of ECONYL® nylon extends far beyond simply recovering waste from the Earth. Through its ability to be recycled over and over again, the material has made designing for a circular fashion system an accessible reality. “Normally, we think about recycling something once or twice,” Bonazzi explains, touching on a particularity of the single-monomer fibre that renders it infinitely reusable. “This circular potential gives endless possibilities to designers.”

As the fashion system begins to evolve from its infamous ‘Take, Make, Use, Dispose,’ model, ECONYL® nylon is, as ever, at the forefront of this transition. Here, Bonazzi shares his expertise with us about the solutions needed at a manufacturer, designer, and consumer level to keep up momentum, and how to set the industry on the path to a future that is truly sustainable.

Can you talk us through the closed loop lifecycle of ECONYL® nylon, from its initial creation to its potential for ongoing recycling and reuse?

The ECONYL® regeneration system is a revolution; we have not only created a technology that can turn waste into beautiful products, but these products can then be recycled an infinite number of times. It starts out with us travelling around the world, finding fishing nets that have been used and discarded in the oceans and organising the reverse logistics to take them back. We also go to the US to organise the collection of carpet waste, ensuring it does not go into landfill. We use other types of waste too, focusing on materials that the plastic industry is not already recycling. We have created a finished material that can then be recycled over and over again, thanks to its unusual ability to return back to the original monomer; the building block that has created the fibre. The product is absolutely identical to the petroleum-based version, but made entirely from waste, without taking raw material from the planet. We are taking on the second journey to complete circularity, and this is something we are incredibly excited about.

Today, ECONYL® nylon is an established solution for the fashion industry. What were the main obstacles that you encountered along the journey?

It has certainly been an incredible adventure. The beginning was not without its difficulties; we were making things in a very different way, and sometimes even the legislation was not in our favour. This might sound odd, but the first problem was to actually find and collect the waste. I knew that there was plenty out there in the world, but to actually understand the products properly and break down their lifecycle wasn’t easy, because everything is made in a linear way. We first had to understand where the fishing nets might have been discarded at the end of their life, and then we had to organise the logistics to recover them.

ECONYL® nylon has not only been used by a multitude of new, purpose-driven brands, but even by historic fashion houses such as Gucci, and most recently, in Prada’s Re-Nylon dress for Mathilda de Angelis’s GCFA 2020 look. What are some of the most exciting and innovative creations you have seen over the years?

I love all my babies, so it’s hard to pick favourites! If I have to mention one of them, Kelly Slater’s brand Outerknown was among the very first to adopt ECONYL® as a principal ingredient. To have a person like Kelly visiting our warehouse and saying that ECONYL® is its flagship product was incredibly rewarding. I also must mention Stella McCartney. It’s difficult to admit this coming from Italy, but Great Britain has been a pioneer in this movement of trying to produce things in a more sustainable way and make the world a better place. So, when Stella decided to change her Falabella bag and use ECONYL® instead of fabric coming from recycled bottles, for me that was very exciting.

What do we need to move beyond ‘Take, Make, Use, Dispose,’ and start designing with a different, more circular model?

I believe that we should have asked this question ten years ago. When I was used to tell people about ECONYL® when we were just starting out, many people thought that I was crazy. But today, I think we should be focusing on those who don’t want to change; the ones who are using excuses to try to keep doing what they are doing. We were the rebels of the past, but they are the rebels of today because they are still using a product that they justify as being just a little bit toxic, or that is releasing tiny microfibres. Today the solutions are out there, and it’s a matter of do or die.

Beyond working with brands and designers, what role does the consumer have to play in the circular fashion economy?

There is no doubt that brands, designers and manufacturers have to provide solutions and not problems, but we are around eight billion people on this planet. If only a few of us are trying to change the world then we have a problem and will never make it. We need each individual to start acknowledging that it is their responsibility, and not someone else’s. The behaviour of every single individual really makes the difference, however small or big the action. This is why consumers are the most critical element of this equation.

An IBM report released earlier this year states that sustainability is important to 77% of consumers. How can we turn this interest into action, and provide better solutions for the conscious shopper?

I think that we are still at the beginning of this journey. While 77% of consumers care about sustainability, they still likely consider the price, the performance, and the aesthetic of the product first. In the past, sustainable products were sometimes considered boring or unfashionable. Through ECONYL® nylon, you can now make beautiful products, and that is the very first step to providing sustainable solutions for the consumer. In my opinion, the aesthetic is the very critical point that we have to focus on to nurture this consumer demand for sustainability and keep the momentum going.

Do you think we need more consumer education around sustainability and circularity in order to truly revolutionise the linear fashion system we currently work to?

If we really want to change the world, we need three basic things: a good legislation, an education, and eco-design.

Why legislation? Because legislation is always important, especially at the beginning of a revolution like the one that we need in the coming years. There are incredible examples of extended producer responsibility that, through proper legislation, has created that real circularity. Take plastic bottle legislation in Norway, which has resulted in a 97% recycling rate, just to name one. Then of course consumer education, because if someone is well informed and has had the possibility to go to school, that in turn has the potential to increase the living standard of every single person on the planet. They will have more defences against us manufacturers that are trying to bombard them with ads and communications that are sometimes very confusing. Lastly, we need eco-design, because collaboration throughout the value chain allows us to make things in a very different way. There are examples today, like the Napapijri Circular Series Collection just to mention one, which are incredibly different from what we have seen so far.

With circular fashion solutions in mind, what three things should consumers look for when making a purchase?

Take inspiration from the food industry. When you go to the supermarket and want to buy something, you tend to read the label of what you are buying. While that label is often harder to find on clothes, consumers should always check this to find out how the product is made, how many different fibres are used in it, and if there are is other information available. Then of course there’s the reputation of the manufacturer, which is the most important asset we have. If we behave wrongly, we lose our reputation, and we lose the trust of the consumer.

How do you think, through working together as manufacturers, designers and consumers, we can transform fashion into a force for good in the world?

I believe that fashion has a great power to create awareness. It’s an art, at the end of the day. Yet if nothing changes in a few years, we will be the most polluting industry in the world. This, of course, cannot come to be. The right legislation ought to block us from producing in the wrong way wrong, and consumers could start buying other things, if fashion were not sustainable anymore. Yet this problem that the industry is now confronted with can instead be turned into an opportunity. Everyone is interested in their own aesthetic, and fashion really does have many possibilities to drive action. But it isn’t about possibilities anymore; we have an obligation to change.


For more, tune in to Aquafil’s IG live series with key industry figures in sustainability, fashion, technology, innovation and design. Follow @econylbrand for updates.