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Inside Parley For The Oceans’ mission to protect our polluted planet

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AFW Article Cover (Parley)

Inside Parley For The Oceans’ mission to protect our polluted planet

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed's network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. We're featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

The partnership between Parley for the Oceans and adidas has been heralded as a prime example of “sustainable” collaboration, but this is not a word which Parley founder and CEO Cyrill Gutsch is comfortable using. “‘Sustainability’ comes from a time when people were using their legal departments to defend their practices to the outside world,” he tells me. “I don’t think that’s the motivation anymore. The motivation is to invent better.”

This ethos, with its focus on innovation, is at the heart of Parley for the Oceans. Founded in 2012 with the goal of protecting the world’s oceans, the environmental organisation has since collaborated with an enormous array of brands, scientists, artists, designers and innovators, including, but not limited to, Iris van Herpen, Doug Aitken, Stella McCartney and Pharrell Williams. But its flagship partnership is with adidas. Since partnering in 2015, the two brands have worked together on a highly lauded series of products using upcycled plastic, waste intercepted on remote islands, beaches coastal communities and shorelines,
preventing it from polluting the oceans.

But Gutsch is no longer content with recycling plastic. The problem of pollution is so severe it demands bolder, more dramatic solutions. I caught up with him to find out what the next stage of protecting the ocean looks like, and why it’s time to end our toxic relationship with plastic once and for all.

What inspired your interest in the ocean and the problem of ocean pollution?

Cyrill Gutsch: I grew up in the mountains in the Black Forest in Germany, very far away from the sea, so going to the ocean was super special to me. It was this place where my head stopped spinning, where I just recharged and felt overwhelmed and humbled by this seemingly never-ending force. Then in 2012, I met Captain Paul Watson (founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an anti-poaching group). When he was arrested in Germany, a mutual friend put us together and asked me if I could help to get him out. When we met, I realised that we're in a crisis right now. The oceans are under massive attack, we are at war with the oceans and we're destroying them at rapid speeds. I called my partner in New York and we decided to take a stand, and to not allow a dead sea to become the legacy of our generation.

How bad is ocean pollution at the moment? If you were really trying to convince someone of the urgency of the problem, what would you say? 

Cyrill Gutsch: We are living on this planet because the ocean and the earth are providing the chemistry that allows us to be here. In terms of the oxygen we breathe, seven out of ten breaths we take have been generated by life in the sea. And still we are rapidly killing everything off: plastic pollution is one big piece, climate change is the other and the third is overfishing.

They say by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. I can tell you that I haven’t seen a fisherman open a fish without plastic in its belly. I've done a lot of bets with fishermen and I’ve never seen it. The most remote places on this planet, you land there, and the first thing that welcomes you is this plastic belt on the beach. Plastic is everywhere. It's a threat not only to marine life and sea life, it's also a threat towards us because it causes illnesses. We’re breathing it in and we are drinking it, because it is in the water and it's in our food. They’ve now even found plastic in newborns.

“I can tell you that I haven’t seen a fisherman open a fish without plastic in its belly” – Cyrill Gutsch

Does climate change play a role in the problem of ocean pollution or are they two separate issues?

Cyrill Gutsch: No, I think it's all one thing. All these big environmental issues that we are facing today are caused by economic failure and the way we're using materials. The core of that is really a design failure. We need to move away from toxic and harmful materials. Plastic or carbon emissions right now are the biggest pollutants that we are facing. CO2 in our atmosphere is something we can't afford anymore. We have 2000 gigatons of CO2 emissions that shouldn't be up there and every year we are adding I think around 37 gigatons. 

That’s a lot of carbon dioxide in a place where it doesn't belong and it’s the same with plastic. We are making this material which is spreading around the world at rapid speeds and is very hard for us to catch again.  There’s also a carbon footprint associated with plastic. You actually have carbon emissions when you are making plastic, but then, of course, if you burn it that's also really bad. In a lot of the areas where we are intercepting plastic, it would be getting burned otherwise. For example, we are operating in the Maldives a lot and there is often no other way [to get rid of plastic] than burning it up. We have to build the infrastructure to process it and get it out of the country. 

What are the main things that need to be done to tackle the issue? 

Cyrill Gutsch: We came up with a strategy at Parley and presented it in 2015 at the United Nations. It’s called A.I.R (avoid, intercept and redesign). Avoid plastic whenever it's possible. But there is a certain limit to that: we are addicted to plastic. Really, there's only so much you can reduce from your individual life, or even as a company. And then interception: yes, you can take material out of nature and we should intercept as much plastic as we can, but even that is a band-aid because we will not catch it all. But it is definitely better to satisfy our addiction right now with recycled and upcycled materials than by making more new plastic. 

The third part represents the true solution: redesign. Redesign the material, learn from our mistakes and create a material that behaves more like nature. Plastic is like a zombie walking around the planet forever — all the plastic we’ve ever made is in some form still around. 

“Plastic is like a zombie walking around the planet forever – all the plastic we’ve ever made is in some form still around” – Cyrill Gutsch

Do you think it’s possible to reverse the damage which has already been done or at this stage is it more about mitigating it?

Cyrill Gutsch: Long-term, I think the planet will deal with us and the damage we've done. I think the big challenge is to keep us alive here, because we need the environment and we need the chemistry of this planet to be exactly as it is. We are too sensitive to survive big changes, whether it’s pollutants or drastic heat change. I believe that we humans can invent our way out of this, but this is not done with little incremental steps, it's done with radical, aggressive change. It means some people have to own this problem and can't just say, “oh, somebody else will fix it” or “we've got ten years ahead of us.”

You said before that the future is non-plastic materials rather than recycling plastic. What alternatives to plastic are you most excited about?

Cyrill Gutsch: For the next 10, 15, 20 years, we will be plastic addicts. I need to say that. I have a lot of enthusiasm for alternative materials but we are at the total beginning of that development. I think anybody who is saying that they have a material that is working without plastic, and is totally 100 per cent clean and good for the planet might not be telling the truth.

I think innovation is an on-going pivoting process that means we have to accept that we are entering a hybrid time where we are moving away from fossil fuel-based materials and ugly chemicals, but we can't just end it by turning on a light switch. This idealistic, purist idea that there is a new generation of materials coming in that are just perfect is wrong, and that’s not how innovation happens.  Innovation happens step-by-step. We have to be sceptical enthusiasts.

I think the ultimate benchmark is nature: nature has millions and millions of years of research and development. This is something we humans have to understand: we are not as amazing as we thought. We have to unlock the secrets of nature, and figure out who these little enzymes are in a plant which are responsible for growth or turning sunlight into something or colouring or designing the fur of an animal. Who are these little creatures?

That’s the exciting time we are in now. Lots of people, in start-up companies, laboratories, and universities, are trying to isolate these enzymes and work with them on a cellular level. People are learning from nature by doing DNA sequencing, then going “okay how can I replicate that? How can I grow leather from mycelium, like mushroom roots?” Parley has a very big division now that focuses on working with these innovators and giving them the support they need, as well as testing with them to figure out what the applications of these new materials might be.

How does your work with adidas play into all this?

Cyrill Gutsch: We came to adidas in 2012, right after I met Captain Paul Watson. I realised that the environmental movement as we know it, with its protests and pointing fingers, wasn’t progressing fast enough. I said we need allies in the private sector and realised that adidas would be the perfect company to work with. If we got adidas to collaborate with us, we would touch youth culture, performance and also fashion. If we could get them to become a corporate activist and eco-champion, others would have to follow – there would be no choice. It would establish standards faster than any government could do. And that played out.

In terms of design, do you have any highlights from your time working with adidas?

Cyrill Gutsch: First of all, we had to prove that we could take marine plastic debris, collect enough of it, upcycle it and engineer a premium material that works in their products - whether apparel, accessories, or footwear. Before that, we put a product together in 2015. The original shoe was made in part from gill net, that means like a nylon-based fishing net, and PET and that became a symbol of change. It became the symbol of encouragement that you can tackle a really bad problem in an optimistic way.

“I know we can drop more and more products that actually represent how business in the future could be done and how design in the future could look” – Cyrill Gutsch

What does the future of your partnership with adidas look like?

Cyrill Gutsch: This partnership is only possible because they trust us and we trust them. We trust them that they will really change and that they're doing what they're saying but we also see it. They invite us in, which means we see what they're doing and we see the effort that it takes, the investments they are making and the risks they are taking. It's hard to describe that without giving too much detail but it's not easy to turn such a big company around and they have never given up. Honestly, it's tough because we are demanding, we are nagging, we are annoying, we stress them out every day, trust me. We are a very different breed. We are like “oh, this can be done - why are we not doing it?' 

But adidas are welcoming the challenge and that is what I respect the most about our partnership with them. Looking towards the next chapter with them, I'm just getting excited, because I know that we have a lot of new technologies in the making at Parley and they have a lot of things they're invested in or are working on. In the years to come, I know we can drop more and more products that actually represent how business in the future could be done and how design in the future could look. It's not theoretical. When you're designing something it's real, you're putting it out, people can buy it and with that, we're shaping reality.