How eco-fashion brand Naeco fights plastic pollution in style

Water sports enthusiast Zak Johnson started an in-demand e-commerce eco-fashion brand that takes plastic found in the ocean and transforms it into luxury swim shorts and corporate clothing.

I’m not an eco-warrior and you won’t see me on protests. However, plastic pollution in the ocean is a bugbear of mine, and I wanted to do something about it. I’d been director of e-commerce for a couple of large brands. While working in Bournemouth I would often take time to go kitesurfing along one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the U.K., and see everything from fishing nets to carrier bags in the sea, and loads of plastic washing up on the beach. It ruined the experience for me.

I’d regularly clean up a stretch of the beach and put the plastic I’d collected out for recycling. But then I discovered that just 9% of the plastic we use actually gets recycled, while the other 91% is burned, sold or put into landfill. So I thought: “What if we could turn the plastic polluting our seas into something positive?” I built an extrusion machine that recycles plastic into yarn and, from that, began making luxury swim shorts using plastic fished from the ocean. I created an e-commerce platform, put a small team together and, in 2017, launched Naeco – which is “ocean” spelled backward. There’s been high demand for our products, which now include sustainable corporate clothing for some amazing brands. Key to our success is that we make luxury garments that happen to be sustainable, rather than making sustainable garments that happen to be luxurious.

FACT: Naeco takes plastic waste from the ocean, cleans and crushes it into plastic flakes and, through a mechanical process, converts these into rough polyester spun fiber. This recycled yarn is then used to develop its fabrics

Thinking global, acting local

In September we won DHL’s Fashion Potential Award, which included prizemoney of £20,000 ($26,000) as well as logistics and e-commerce mentoring. It’s always great to get money for your business but, for me, the mentorship DHL provided was invaluable. One of their best pieces of advice was “think global, act local,” so we’re no making sure our website is available in different languages and accepts multiple currencies. Even though I have a background in e-commerce, getting an outside perspective was vital.

Fashion is one of the largest polluting industries in the world, behind oil and gas.  I think fashion brands are realizing they need to do better and, thankfully, today’s consumers – who are extremely socially aware – are demanding change. Longterm, fashion will have to be sustainable to survive. — As told to Tony Greenway

Published: January 2020

Images: Naeco