For the people behind Bionic®, a company that creates fabrics and polymers from recovered plastic pollution found in marine and coastal environments, a decade of research, development and marketing comes down to four words:
Bionic®, a raw material manufacturing company, led by co-founders Tyson Toussant and Tim Coombs, linked with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance, the world’s largest nonprofit focusing solely on clean water, to begin work on a plastics recycling center in Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula.
For Toussant and Coombs, the mission was clear. “We wanted to present a movement,” says Coombs. “We moved to the front line of the problem to set up operations in developing nations where there’s no infrastructure to deal with the single use plastic.”
The statistics are terrifying and go beyond ideology. In 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, with a garbage truck’s worth of plastic currently getting dumped into the world’s oceans every second. “Corporations keep on pushing their products into the community , knowing there’s insufficient recycling infrastructure,” Coombs says. The company uses their expertise to build coastal recycling operations that recover plastic from shorelines and sets up recycling stations at beaches, schools, hotels and town centers, donating profits to the local Waterkeeper who runs the day-to-day operations. “It’s the first major strike back at industry on environmental pollution,” adds Toussant.
“It became evident that [Bionic®] was a working, functional financial model and something that Waterkeepers could help organize and participate in even in remote areas,” Kennedy says, noting that the project created numerous local jobs and invested in local environmental education. “Recycling is always a chicken and an egg problem. You can convince a government to do it but they’ll say, ‘We’re going to create all this supply but where’s the demand going to come from?’ That’s a really difficult dilemma to solve. Bionic® comes in with this turnkey solution where they help build and manage industrial facilities and then they work with us to create the demand.“
The company is already building off its success in Costa Rica, using the model as a pilot program for other regions around the world and adhering to its ethos. “Stronger Thread” demonstrates both the strength of their product and beneficial aspects for the environment. “Greater Good” embodies the tangible, financial incentives and benefits to workers, communities and companies that partner with Bionic®.
In 2007, Pharrell Williams was performing at the Live Earth concert when he learned about Bionic®. “It blew my mind,” he says. “The average person could be wearing something containing sustainable fabric without ever feeling the difference or looking like it’s different. I didn’t look back from there.” Williams was so impressed, he became the company’s creative director three years later. “They live it every day,” Williams adds, his voice rising with excitement. “This is what they wake up in the morning thinking about.”
The company’s early focus on forward-thinking fashion, including everything from jeans and suits to snowboarding jackets and haute couture dresses, earned high-profile collaborations with brands like Timberland, Burton, G-Star, O’Neill, H&M and Chanel and appealed to people who didn’t want to forsake looking good for feeling good.
“God bless the tree huggers, but they’re not treehuggers,” Williams adds, laughing. “They don’t come to the office in Birkenstocks; they’re regular guys and I think that’s the point. No one wants to be preached to; they only want to feel something because it feels good. You have to hide the medicine in the sugar.”
“You can’t believe the Bionic® dress is made from old plastic bottles,” Ann-Sofie Johansson, H&M’s creative advisor, told Vogue last year of the company’s evening gown collaboration. “It’s a precious piece you can wear and cherish and save in your wardrobe.” Wired’s profile of the company featured a blunt, yet accurate, headline assessment: “How a Pair of Jeans Could Save Our Plastic-Choked Oceans.”
“This is only valuable if it wasn’t a compromise from something that they were already getting,” Toussant says. “It couldn’t be a step down. We had to meet [the customer] where they were at already and then slip in through the back door and say, ‘This is also helping the environment.’”“If you want to get both the environmentalist and the high schooler, you have to be able to present something that’s so cutting edge, you want to buy into it, “ adds Coombs.
The company would eventually expand into architecture, furniture, automotive, marine and other industrial uses, breaking out of the fashion mold with a future focused more on becoming the next Dupont or 3M. It’s the rare company that stands at the crossroads of manufacturing technology, style, and environmental impact.
“I remember not many people being in this space and years later, so many companies are thinking about how they can get involved,” says Williams. “When we first started doing it, people were looking at us like we were crazy. It was
still the era of ‘What’s in it for me?’ and now people are learning.”
“It’s a company that’s been motivated from the beginning to solve one of the greatest environmental problems that now faces the planet,” Kennedy adds. ”They do well for themselves by doing good for the rest of us.”