When you work with issues impacting every single person on this planet, the weight of the world can feel heavy on your shoulders. Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, knows this well.
“When I started Parley in 2012, the forecast was that by the year 2048 the oceans will die, leading to irreversible damage to our planet. Turns out, this was too optimistic; we actually have 10 years to spin things around,” tells Cyrill, admitting it’s difficult to relax with the clock ticking.
Change comes with pain, he knows, and change is usually met with resistance. But change also needs time, so Cyrill is taking action to end ocean plastic pollution.
The Ripple Effect Sends Waves
A small and agile organization at heart, Parley knew they’d need a strong leader on their side, one equally committed to cleaning up the oceans to save marine wildlife by taking plastic out of the food chain.
“adidas is both structured and flexible, but also confident to let us be demanding, annoying even. Plus, they knew they were producing plastic waste, and were determined to cut it down.”
After the adidas and Parley partnership was announced in April 2015, the message was heard throughout the fashion and sporting industries. A branding and marketing professional himself, Cyrill believes the creative industries have more power than they realize.
“Together we create trends, and trends have the power to shift thinking and behavior – sometimes even overnight. Technology and fashion are perhaps the fastest change agents there are,” he says.
“Comparing the conversations I had a year ago to the feedback I get today, the difference is huge. The major players – consumer brands and polluters – take us seriously. They have adopted our way of talking about sustainability.”
The sustainability adidas and Parley are championing has replaced defensive environmentalism with innovation and design. “Let’s forget the concept of sustainability. We can’t stand still anymore. Eco-innovation is the only answer to the threat we are facing: the threat of extinction,” explains Cyrill.
Following this philosophy, Cyrill calls plastic a design failure; it’s not meant to end up in the stomachs of animals, and at the end of the food chain in humans. Parley’s long-term solution for plastic pollution is to re-invent the material. In the short term, their A.I.R. strategy guides everyone to AVOID plastic wherever you can, INTERCEPT plastic and pollution, then REDESIGN the source of the problem: the material.
Taking Ownership of the Supply Chain
According to Cyrill, major manufacturers have a tendency to act like professional consumers: they buy standard material, put it together in garments in factories they don’t own, then sell the garments.
“Consumers expect brands to act responsibly, but how can companies be responsible for their product when they don’t know how it’s essentially made?” he challenges.
This is what adidas and Parley did by first tearing open the supply chain and putting every part under the microscope. As a result, the innovative Parley shoe made from recycled ocean plastic was born.
“When we look at the yarn we used for the shoe, we can name the people who collected it. We know who shipped it. We know exactly how the material was recycled and where the yarn was spun.”
In addition to the shoe, Cyrill cites the creation of the new supply chain as a major feat in its own right. “Ideas lead to strategies and, by becoming a system, strategies lead to big-scale change,” he summarizes.
Designing the Future Together
Recently Parley partnered up with the United Nations to work with small island states such as the Maldives, Seychelles, and Grenada.
“These island communities are the contrast of beauty and fragility. The ocean is their capital, their right to be. On the other hand, they’re the first ones to observe changes in weather patterns and, consequently, the first ones to suffer from climate change and pollution.
Even if the local governments have the desire to change, they lack resources to tackle the source of the problem: plastic dumped in the ocean.
“Our collaboration is beautiful because we don’t have to disrupt existing structures,” says Cyrill. “Together we can design the perfect system.”
In the meanwhile, the rest of the world might see the ocean as a playground for the wealthy. Most people are also alienated from the sea, thinking their life doesn’t impact the oceans.
“This is wrong,” asserts Cyrill. “Every breath you take, independent from where you are, is generated by the sea. If it’s raining, it’s largely because of the oceans. You also get a lot of your food from the sea.”
Sometimes Cyrill wishes his job would be simpler; the role of an intermediator trying to reconnect mankind with the oceans is stressful. But with influential brands with big platforms shaking things up and raising awareness of plastic pollution, people just might eventually let go of the thought ‘someone out there will take care of my trash’.