Stuart Wood shares how Last Bottle Clothing is changing the apparel industry by making clothing from plastic bottles. He talks about how the company uses closed loop manufacturing to tackle plastic pollution and also addresses changes in consumer preferences.
JJ (the host of the Understory Podcast): Welcome to The Understory Podcast. We're here to feature innovations and innovators who are making a difference to make the world more sustainable. Today, it is our pleasure to have Stuart Wood, who is part of Last Bottle Clothing, to share his story with us. Stuart, welcome to our podcast.
Stuart Wood: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.
JJ: Right off the bat, tell us what you do. What is your company and why did you found the company?
Stuart: I'm one of two founders of Last Bottle Clothing, and our goal is to stop every last bottle from going out into the environment. Very specifically, we're on a mission to tackle plastic pollution and revolutionize the apparel industry. What we do is we make clothing entirely out of recycled plastic bottles and very uniquely, we ensure that our clothes are entirely recyclable.
When our customers are finished with our clothes 5 or 10 years down the road, they can send them back to us. We chop them up, melt them down, and make them into new clothing. It's called closed loop manufacturing. It's part of the circular economy and it's going to be part of what allows humanity to continue with economic development without completely depleting our natural resources and destroying the environment.
JJ: When people hear what you just said, their mind probably goes: “Wow, this is amazing! Or wow, I never thought about this”. Can you go into a little more detail about how do you break down clothing and how do you recycle something from plastic and make clothing? What's the science behind it?
Stuart: Absolutely. There is quite a bit of science behind it. As an economist, I'm not going to delve into the science because I would not be doing it justice. However, I'll tell you literally, we take bottles, we chop them up, we melt them into little pellets, and then we take those pellets and melt them into long, thin strings -- about a fifth the diameter of a human hair. We chop those up and we spin them like you would a cotton fiber. Then we knit them into clothing and voilà! You have wonderful clothes that are made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles but feel like the softest cotton you've ever worn.
JJ: How do you have that conversation with corporations or fashion brands that are starting to think about sustainable fashion? What are the questions they have for you and what other questions do you have for them?
Stuart: The questions they typically have for us is: “Is this for real? Is this something you're actually doing? Is this something you really can do?”, and we absolutely are doing it and we absolutely can do it. I don't ask them very many questions when it comes to the apparel industry. I understand why they do business the way that they do it currently.
The apparel industry is unfortunately the second largest polluting industry in the entire world. In the US alone, there's about 250 billion dollars a year in apparel sales -- it is massive. It's very polluting and I would rather ask the question to the customers of these major brands: why are you continuing to support a business process and business model that is destroying the environment?
For example, we take plastic bottles and make them into clothes. That sounds interesting but the important piece being that they are entirely recyclable. I keep talking about the apparel industry. How are we doing it differently? That is really what I try to get out to our customers. With using the bottles, we use 500 times less freshwater than organic cotton. Regular cotton uses a lot of pesticides and defoliants which causes cancer and birth defects in the poor communities that grow the cotton, so we don't have any need for any of that. Virgin polyester’s raw material for that is crude oil, and that's coming out of the Gulf of Mexico or the Middle East. Whereas our raw material is plastic waste from right here, locally in the Southeastern US. Lastly, we make our clothes in a 100-mile radius here in the Southeastern USA, and that cuts down dramatically on the carbon footprint associated with our clothes.
JJ: When brands hear what you just said, what's providing them to scale the process and operations to do what you're describing?
Stuart: For a brand to do this themselves, more likely than not, it's a large company that owns that brand -- possibly a publicly traded firm. To make even minor adjustments to your supply chain, it results in many millions of dollars of costs and potentially missing your revenue and earnings targets that you provided to Wall Street. Therefore, large brands are hesitant to do it themselves. We don't have those constraints being a little tiny startup, so we don't have to worry about that.
At the end of the day, the apparel industry will end up having to change. We can't continue to kill the environment the way we are just for clothes, just for fast fashion. It's going to be up to the consumers to vote with every dollar, every pound, every euro that they spend on clothes and choose a much more sustainable path for the future.
Quite frankly, the goal here is not to make billions of dollars for us. It really is to create a scenario where the environment that my future grandkids will inherit is going to be dramatically cleaner than the trajectory that we're currently on. We can do that, but we absolutely need the support of consumers that have their eyes wide open and their brains open-minded and understand and care about the environment.
JJ: Do you think the consumers of today are shifting their mindset or are they just talking about it?
Stuart: Yes. About 35% of the US population tries very hard to understand what they're spending their money on and the process behind it. They're very environmentally conscious on every dollar they spend for a good or for a service. You still have about 65% of the population that we have an upside with. But absolutely, people are so much more aware. Right now in the time of COVID-19, I don't think that what we're doing is immediately the most concerning for lots of consumers because they're worried about their jobs and their families and their health. But over the longer term, looking out a year, five years, 10 years down the road, people are going to very much still care about the environment. Right now, we're not getting any cleaner except for when we shut down for COVID-19 and then we saw that the environment can be cleaner, right?
JJ: Let's talk about the business model. It's really interesting. Based on your website, you have a direct-to-consumer model and you also work with brands through a wholesale model.
Stuart: We do direct customers through our website and our focus is not on brands as much as it is on bringing our offerings to major corporations. Think of any large Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 business out there. They all send their employees out into the communities to do team building and community building and school building events, and they always put T-shirts on. These T-shirts themselves are very polluting because of the reasons I mentioned earlier, and this is a great opportunity for them to decrease that pollution and impact that they're having on the environment by buying those shirts. Even more importantly, it's an opportunity for these corporations to stop and educate their employees about their own environmental and sustainability efforts.
When they do that, their employees are then much more empowered to engage the community and inform them how great their own company is because we go back again, there is at least 35% of the US population that does take into consideration the sustainability or the mission of any business out there that they're going to spend money on. It's good to be able to get the word out to the community and your potential customers.
JJ: I imagine those organizations that are talking about climate change or have made climate pledges should be knocking on your door when they create corporate goodies for their employees and that they should consider Last Bottle Clothing as one of the prioritized vendors.
Stuart: I would hope so, absolutely. We have a couple of Fortune 500 companies that are customers right now, but we are working hard to get in more with more large companies and large, medium, and small sized companies. Quite frankly, everybody can use what we're doing. Everybody can make even a small impact by coming to us as a potential vendor for their business.
At the end of the day, the most important thing that Last Bottle Clothing can do as a business is through competition, forcing the big brands to change their business model. If we can do that and we do that by ensuring that customers are either coming and buying from us and not them, or customers are seeing what we're doing and going to the big brands and saying, “Hey, why aren't you doing it this way?”. If we do that and if we're successful in doing that, we will change the environment that the future generations will inherit.
JJ: Tell us where people can find your product and where they can buy it.
Stuart: Absolutely. If they visit us online at www.lastbottleclothing.com, that would be the best place and they can buy individual T-shirts there or there is an option to reach out to us directly to talk about larger bulk orders.
JJ: Stuart, thank you so much for educating us about the end-to-end process of making a T-shirt and its environmental impact. It is super fascinating, and we look forward to more Last Bottle Clothing T-shirts and apparel in the market. Thank you so much again for speaking with us today at The Understory Podcast
Stuart: Thank you JJ. I appreciate the time and good luck.