Originally published on April 14, 2016. When Pharrell Williams became co-owner of G-Star Raw in February, he certainly wasn’t the first celebrity to get really cozy with a fashion brand in some high-level, partial-ownership capacity. But the always-fashionable, multi-hyphenate superstar’s role — he's technically co-owner and head of imagination at the Dutch denim brand — comes off as pretty legit. Williams has been involved with the company for three years, and not just as a campaign face: He specifically got in involved with, and helped launch, the company's sustainability-focused line, Raw For The Oceans. Refinery29 was recently invited to tour G-Star Raw's sleek, Rem Koolhaas-designed Amsterdam HQ (a.k.a. the "Raw Factory") along with Williams. There were also surprise celeb cameos on the tour: Williams' pals, Miguel and A$AP Rocky. The duo seemed just as jazzed to be there as we were during the lengthy walkthrough of the company's 35,000-piece-strong archives, denim design studio, and research lab. (A$AP Rocky was especially effusive, punctuating various legs of the tour with, "That's dope!") G-Star Raw first paired up with Williams and NYC-based startup Bionic Yarn in 2013. (Williams is actually the creative director and cofounder of Bionic Yarn.) “They put a very interesting proposal on the table,” said Thecla Schaeffer, G-Star Raw’s CMO. That proposal involving incorporating recycled ocean plastic that’s integrated into Bionic Yarn’s patented threads (Bionic Yarn makes various, high-tech yarn types) which are then turned into jeans.
Raw For The Oceans was born a year later. “We decided, let’s do it, let’s make the first jeans ever, in the world, made with recycled ocean plastic,” Schaeffer says. “We had a radically short research period — it’s not like you get a nice, clean package of plastic bottles; we had huge containers [of ocean debris], filled with Barbie heads and lighters, and we had to figure out how to turn that into jeans.” There is a fairly B.S.-free factor to how the brand lauds (or, really, doesn't make much mention of) its eco-minded offerings. “Here’s the thing, we’re not shoving it in your face — if you’re wearing it, you’re supporting our issue to be sustainable — [the cause] in the clothes,” Williams told Refinery29 amid a couple photo ops in a massive denim tepee that he designed. “We think the best billboards for people aren’t the ones up in the air, because those get changed out. It’s the ones you’re going to keep for a long time: You keep your denim. Even when you’re not thinking about it, when they’re hanging in your closet, that’s a statement right there in your closet." Since Raw For The Oceans launched two years ago, there have been four collections, which have been comprised of approximately 10 tons of plastic per collection. Last year, the brand used an estimated two million plastic bottles and 1,000 tons of plastic debris in its products. “Companies don’t want to make virgin polyester anymore, because that contributes to the carbon footprint. What we’d rather do [at G-Star Raw] is sustain what we have,” Williams explained. “Instead of using virgin polyester, which is a form of plastic, we just use recycled plastic that’s been around the block a few times, ya know what I mean? It’s much better.”
The brand now wants to expand the sustainable aspects to its entire collection, instead of keeping it relegated to a special capsule line. “It’s been great, but it’s not good enough yet...we have to take the next step: We’re integrating Bionic Yarn in our main collection,” Schaeffer said. If all goes to plan, the innovative technology will be used in all of G-Star Raw’s products by the end of 2016. “This smart, sustainable [Bionic Yarn] material therefore replaces traditional, virgin polyester in all of G-Star Raw’s pieces — it’s a continuous process of 'better,' and we try to be super transparent about it.” she says. G-Star Raw’s sustainability ambitions aren’t broader than recycled ocean plastic: “Cotton is quite a difficult material to work with, because it uses a lot of water and pesticides, so we’re always looking for replacements,” Schaeffer says. “We have looked into using the stinging nettle plant as a replacement, and also closed-loop development, which basically means your jeans never become trash.” As for how other denim brands (and the fashion industry in general) are chalking up in terms of sustainable initiatives, Williams doesn't really want to view things competitively. "We’re not saying we’re better than anyone else," Williams says. "We’re actually welcoming the other brands, not only to use Bionic Yarn, but to be cognizant of what we're doing."