Raised in an inland city, Huang Ningning longed to see the sea. When she finally went diving for the first time, in Puerto Galera on Mindoro island in the Philippines, she accidentally descended into a depth of 40 meters. Huang was mesmerized.
“The world was noisy, but all I could hear in the sea was the sound of bubbles,” the 32-year-old recalled. “My entire body was filled with peace and tranquility.”
This love for the ocean grew over the years, so much so that when she saw photographs by Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong – showing a mermaid swimming in an ocean of plastic bottles – it impacted her deeply. The photos signaled a clear warning: by 2050, there would be more plastic than fish in the sea.
So, when Huang heard of the possibility of making clothing from recycled bottles, she not only recognised a chance to protect the ocean she loves, but also saw a business opportunity. “The technology was ripe,” she told VICE World News. “But at the time, no one in China wanted to say they make clothes from trash. We wanted to get people to rethink this.”
Compressed plastic bottles are seen at a plastic waste center in Beijing in 2018. Recycled bottles can be turned into fabrics. Photo by Fred Dufour / AFP
Huang is part of a new generation of young entrepreneurs who are envisioning a trend towards sustainability for the fashion industry – one of the biggest polluters on Earth – which churns out massive amounts of carbon emissions, plastic waste and toxic chemicals every year.
Huang was born and raised in the central city of Wuhan, a megacity of 11 million along the Yangtze River. She studied journalism, but joined the e-commerce giant Alibaba after graduation, working in the team that runs the mobile app of Taobao, the most popular shopping platform in China.
Five years of running sales campaigns and hitting ever-growing spending targets made Huang exhausted. “I am not a consumerist person, and that was just not the career for me,” she said. Huang wanted a new purpose, so she quit Alibaba and traveled across America, Mexico and Cuba.
When she came back from her six-month trip, she joined a social innovation curator called BottleDream that got her creative juices flowing. In March 2017, she founded HowBottle. At first, she saw it as a short-term project she could try her luck with before finding a stable job, but after hearing positive feedback from suppliers and consumers, Huang decided to make it her career.
The technology of turning PET bottles into synthetic fibers has been around for a long time, but Huang has made it her personal goal to make more people in China willing to buy it. Her strategy is to combine sustainability with a cool style and interesting stories.
A jacket called “I care” is made of materials from the equivalent of 13 plastic bottles. A bag it launched, together with Coca-Cola and One Foundation, is composed of 24 bottles and fabrics from tents from earthquake relief missions. Another bag designed in collaboration with China’s space program is made of plastic from 27 bottles, plastic packaging people threw away during China’s Singles’ Day shopping extravaganza, and pieces of a retired rocket.
HowBottle's Space Bag is made of plastic from 27 bottles, plastic packaging people threw away and pieces of a retired rocket. Photo courtesy of HowBottle
The fashion industry is facing growing criticism as a major polluter and climate culprit. It consumes some 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, which is enough to meet the needs of five million people, according to United Nations data. One pair of jeans takes 3,781 litres of water to make, a UN estimate shows.
More carbon dioxide is emitted in fashion production and distribution than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Garment manufacturers also generate massive amounts of wastewater that contain toxic chemicals.
The rise of fast fashion, which encourages consumers to keep replacing cheap clothes with new ones, is making the problem worse. Since most of the fabric fibers are synthetics made from fossil fuels, a lot of the shirts, pants and dresses people discard end up in landfills, oceans or mountains.
HowBottle, like a number of young fashion brands globally such as Everlane and Patagonia, have committed to using more recycled plastic in their products.
But some critics say this strategy should not be promoted as the answer, since a series of environmental questions remain unaddressed: Can the supply of recycled bottles keep up with the expanding fashion industry? How can people reduce the microplastics released to the water system from washing these clothes? What should be done after the clothes themselves are thrown away?
“At best, such projects should be seen as a communication tool to raise public awareness about plastic pollution of the oceans but they cannot be regarded as a serious step towards circularity,” Greenpeace said in a comment about using recycled plastic in its 2017 Fashion at the Crossroads report.
Huang Ningning admitted that HowBottle’s supply chain is not a zero-emission one. She recalls a poignant comment from a consumer: “If you are really advocating for the environment, you should stop producing anything.”
But she believes an imperfect fix is better than nothing. By HowBottle’s count, tens of thousands of pieces of shirts and bags it sold in the past two and a half years came from the equivalent of 750,000 recycled bottles. If the same products were made from raw plastic, it would’ve cost 290,000 metric tonnes of petrol and emitted 290,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Huang Ningning, a diving lover, hopes her sustainability brand will help protect the ocean. Photo courtesy of Huang Ningning
After working in the sustainability business, Huang’s own lifestyle has also undergone drastic changes. She was on a vegetarian diet for two years, and rarely buys new clothes or cosmetics. One thing she said she feels guilty about is ordering food deliveries – a habit that’s hard to quit in fast-paced Shanghai.
HowBottle now has a team of ten and an online shop. Huang’s next step is to open offline stores, and include more lifestyle items, such as shoes and umbrellas, into its sustainability product line.
“In the past, a bottle was thrown away after one drink, but it might last five years after we turn it into clothes,” she said. “It is not a perfect solution, but at least it is a solution.”