It all begins in Taiwan with plastic bottles. Once derided as Garbage Island, Taiwan now recycles 55 percent of its waste, compared with 35 percent in the United States. It’s also where husband and wife team Quang and Ellie Dinh went to source the raw material for their activewear line, Girlfriend Collective.
The process of transforming plastic bottles to recycled polyester is fascinating. At a government-monitored facility the post-consumer plastic is sorted, stripped and cleaned. From there it’s shredded into chips and sent to a spinning mill, where the chips are heated, processed into strands, chopped into pellets and then finally spun into thread.
Quang, who went to school for mechanical engineering with a capstone in sustainability, says they started using plastic for fabric simply because it’s the right thing to do. “Recycled plastic polyester has been around since the ’70s,” he says. “Brands don’t use it because it’s more expensive and much more time consuming, which affects the bottom line.”
The Dinhs realized they could set their business apart by pursuing an alternative path and creating activewear brand that’s also a clarion call to the fashion industry: We’re harming people and the environment to make a profit. Quang, who says he launched one of the first organic, fair-trade denim brands more than 10 years ago, said the couple was inspired to create clothing for “the everyday feminine woman who isn’t aspiring to be a marathon runner or Olympian.” Girlfriend Collective debuted in 2016 with one pair of black leggings, sold as a promotion for the price of shipping from their Vietnam factory.
And the brand doesn’t sacrifice comfort for sustainability, claiming their soft leggings mold to a wearer’s shape. Online reviews tend to agree, with users gushing that the leggings are the best they’ve ever owned.
“Businesses can make the choice to be sustainable and treat workers fairly from the beginning,” Quang says. “We want to prove to folks that we can build a long-term brand and win customers by doing things right as a core value.”
Choosing cheaper fabric isn’t the only way big brands churn out fast fashion. Factories in Bangladesh have polluted rivers and canals, even dyeing them purple or blue depending on the color of the season. Girlfriend Collective’s wastewater is treated in a nearby facility to prevent it from escaping into the environment. Certified safe dyes and fibers are separated out, and the treated water is measured and approved by the Taiwanese EPA before being discharged into waterways. Their dye mud—a substance that typically ends up in landfills—finds new life as a paving stone material.
The company has also rejected the idea of peddling clothing stitched by underage workers. According to the United Nation’s International Labor Organization, there are around 170 million child laborers —those working jobs unacceptable for them either because of their age or the working conditions—with many toiling in the fashion industry. Some laborers are as young as six or seven, according to UNICEF, and work 12 to 16 hours a day.
Their clothing is fabricated in a SA8000-certified factory, which includes strict rules around child labor, forced labor, safety, unions, working hours, discrimination and payment. Social Accountability International laid out the SA8000 Standard back in 1997, and today, accredited facilities are certified for three years with multiple surveillance audits during that period, including at least one unannounced audit.
“Our facility in Vietnam is owned by a generational family from Denmark. Valuing people and workers are table stakes for them, versus other facilities who get certificates to appease customers,” says Quang.
The Vietnamese factory offers perks you might expect at a well-funded Silicon Valley startup. Employees are treated to guided exercise breaks and catered lunches. Along with free health check-ups every six months, and their health insurance is covered.
Girlfriend Collective starts employees at 125 percent of local minimum wage, although Quang says their average worker earns more. “It’s important to us because they’re people, and people need resources to get out of poverty in developing countries,” he says. While the cost of living is lower, he says, “brands take advantage of these low wages at the expense of workers’ rights to unionize or improve their lives through healthcare and education. You then start seeing issues like child workers, where parents can’t afford to send their kids to school, so instead they’ll work because the wages are low and aren’t providing sufficient income to take them out of poverty.”
What difference can one small women’s activewear company make? Girlfriend Collective recently released a full collection online, with leggings, bras and T-shirts ranging from $28-$86. Quang says they’re here to prove businesses can manufacture products sustainably and still make a profit.
“I think if we make a big enough wave other brands will see what we’re doing and jump on the train and make an impact with us,” he says. “What we’re doing is a very tiny drop in the bucket compared to what we can all do collectively.”
Really, he adds, consumers need to ask more of the fashion industry. “If consumers demand recycled polyester and brands are willing to pay for it, water bottles will start to have real value. There will be recyclers who fish this stuff out of oceans and landfills because there’s a dollar to be made.”