Sustainable threads

Clothes made from plastic waste aren't just a gimmick.

A large supermarket recently contacted me to tell me about its commitment to sustainability and the earth in general. It is going to make clothes out of its plastic waste. Yippee, what a great supermarket! How great that it cares about us and the earth so much that it will do this!

Naturally, what with it being so altruistic and progressive, the supermarket won't mind if I do not name it. Only a real cynic would think that its efforts were made largely for publicity or as a smokescreen for how supermarkets mostly - I say - encourage people to take cars to shop for very little; often care not hugely, at best, about the welfare of the animals they sell as meat; and are responsible for generating gazillions of plastic bags that are used, on average, for just minutes at a time. (This particular supermarket, last time I used its online service, delivered the shopping - 20 items - in 20 plastic bags. It says it doesn't do that any more.) Anyway, it has now addressed this by saying that it cares; therefore, it must be a good guy now.

Well, a genuinely progressive and responsible company called Patagonia has been making clothing - really fantastic sports clothing - out of recycled plastic bottles for the past 15 years. In the first 13 years alone it saved more than 92 million bottles from landfill. I have several of its fleeces and base-layers and they've given useful, sterling service for over ten years. I have worn them fishing, cycling, walking, running and just being. In 2005, Patagonia launched its Common Threads Garment Recycling scheme, whereby you can return some of your worn-out Patagonia items and Polartec fleeces from other manufacturers for recycling. It does tonnes to lessen its impact on the world while still running a profitable business, yet it does so without ceremony.

The point is, the first people to know that something needs to be done about our environment are those who spend time in it: Patagonia's co-founder is a now 70-year-old rock climber, fisherman and surfer. People who spend a lot of time in shareholder meetings or in boardrooms start to care about these things only once it's a bandwagon they know they must get on, and it becomes about profit (come on! Convince me otherwise). Over the years, Patagonia, a small firm by supermarket standards, has given $29m to environmental causes, quietly and without fuss.

For nearly a quarter-century, since before it became trendy to care, Patagonia has donated 1 per cent of the value of its sales towards "preservation and conservation of the natural environment". Just for any supermarket bosses reading: it created a business alliance called "1 Per Cent for the Planet" - its co-founder informally calls this "earth tax" - encouraging other businesses to do the same

Big-name supermarket: do you really care? Show us that you do.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it