Thumbnail image via Eric White; Image above via Ami Sioux
Cyrill Gutsch talks about plastic use the way doctors talk about drug addiction. In a way, he's not far off. Although wildly harmful to the environment, plastic has become engrained into the worlds of design and manufacturing as a go-to material that simply gets the job done. Cyrill Gutsch and his organization Parley are on a multi-faceted mission to end this mentality by ridding the world of plastic—entirely.
Starting as a small design form in 2012, Parley made the switch to environmental collaboration network after an eye-opening meeting with environmentalist, Paul Watson. The designers were shocked to learn that our oceans are on the verge of extinction and decided it was their duty to take action. Parley's goal is not to shame companies, governments and individuals for designing with plastic but to instead act as an agent of change, helping them create multi-step action plans to slowly end their use of plastic altogether.
Nobody explains Parley's structure better than Gutsch himself, so we sat down with the designer/environmentalist to learn more about Parley and how designers at all levels can take actionable steps to avoid touching plastic during the design process:
Can you describe Parley and a few of your projects for readers who may not be familiar?
Parley is a new form of environmental organization where we don't focus on protests—we're not demanding change without looking into solutions. It's more about inspiring key companies, organizations, governments and individuals to explore new ways of making product. We're using harmful substances that damage our environment and our own health, which we simply can't afford to do anymore. We are coming into an urgent material revolution where we will recognize this and start changing how we make things.
In the beginning, around 2012, we were looking at plastic in a time where plastic was not seen as such a large environmental threat. We were growing up with the idea, especially in Europe, that recycling is an answer. You have these recycling symbols on every product, but you don't even differentiate if the product is recyclable or already recycled. You think, "Oh my god, it's all okay. Somebody takes care of it. It's this place where things go when I've used them."
"[Plastic] is a design failure—just alien matter that shouldn't be on this planet."
Then suddenly, you realize that there is no place where these things go. Even if they get recycled, on the way there they're leaching a lot toxic substances, and they're creating harm. It's a permanent journey of destruction that these materials cause. We understood at Parley that materials like fossil fuel-based plastic are not fit for an idea of a circular economy. Plastic itself is a design failure—just alien matter that shouldn't be on this planet.
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From outside, the ocean surface has always looked the same, but nobody really puts their head in the water to relate to everything—all the life that's down there—and sees the beauty, the horror, and the destruction. It's very difficult to make people understand that the oceans are dying at a rapid speed. We felt like we needed to ask ourselves,"Is this the legacy of our generation? Is this what we want to leave behind?" I personally couldn't live with that idea that the oceans would die, and I didn't do anything about it. I couldn't forgive myself, and that was the moment we started Parley for the Oceans.
How did you even begin to approach this large-scale environmental problem?
If we are able to destroy the environment, then we're able to create and we're able to change. We just need to come to the point where this huge trend happens where people start redefining and redesigning materials and redesigning the idea of products. We felt like if we created a lot of awareness, and we created trends, and we picked one battle—focusing on plastic and making that a super trend—then we could learn from that and apply it to other segments, other issues.
When you see something horrible happening, it overpowers you. You feel unequipped to confront it because it is so complex, especially when you look at standard technologies, standard materials, and tech materials like plastic. Then you switch off—you don't want to be frustrated all the time and face something that is seemingly unchangeable. We felt like if we turned this around and got very positive about it by saying, "Yes, there is a tragedy happening, but let's use this as an opportunity to design something new and positive." This approach gives hope and inspires others to follow, rethink how they are doing things and come up with solutions for other problems.
How does Parley's creation of ocean plastic play into this structure?
That whole idea of designing something new was the mentality behind the creation of ocean plastic. It was really the idea to create a material that is made from marine debris, marine litter, and plastic that you find in coastlines where it would have a negative impact on sea life. Having a purpose in the material is the new luxury—it's not about what this material is made from anymore, it's the intention of why this material is made and what it supports.
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To be very frank, ocean plastic doesn't make plastic ocean-friendly. It's still plastic, but it's a vessel with which we can communicate the problem with marine plastic pollution. Through it we can show that there is a temporary solution that everybody can choose, but it's not solving the problem long term. Recycling is not the answer—at least not for plastic.
What fascinates me about Parley's model is that you don't ask companies to quit using plastic cold turkey, you develop action plans with them.
Exactly. I don't believe in cold turkey. I am a perfectionist as a designer, but what I learned at Parley is that you have to allow things to be incomplete, and you have to allow yourself to pivot all the time and say, "Yes, I know where I'm going to be in seven years, but I don't know how I'll get there, and I'm going to be very, very aware that there are going to be a lot of crossroads where I have to make a lot of new decisions." That means you have to start somewhere, and I think that this beginning of this process of change when we work with a partner is that we need a commitment. We need a commitment—a wild commitment—where a brand says they're going out of virgin plastic first. We don't want to contribute to the production of new material, new plastic.
"You have to allow things to be incomplete, and you have to allow yourself to pivot all the time and say, 'Yes, I know where I'm going to be in seven years, but I don't know how I'll get there.'"
Accepting that plastic is a design failure and deciding to switch to recycling is step one. Then comes deciding to go out of production and not support that there's more plastic on this planet, even if you don't know how. adidas is a good example of that. They committed to going out of merchandise before they even knew they could do it. And that's okay—it actually shows courage and it creates pressure. We all need deadlines, we all need to have these benchmarks. It shouldn't be in 20, 30 years, it should be close. It should be in the near future.
adidas x Parley
You need to commit to your game plan while also understanding that on the way to that success you will have a lot of changes. You will have a lot of failures, and that's something I feel is okay now. That's something that in the past was not okay. A company would go out and say, "I only present what is already ready, is tested for years, is ready for the market," and I think that's a mistake. I think we can allow ourselves to go out and say," We're testing this. We are trying hard." It encourages people, and it creates a very positive challenge, a competition really.
That leads me to your redesign of the once celebrated "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" model, "Avoid, Intercept, Redesign" (AIR).
Who can remember the trick to Rs if you're not a total nerd? Reduce, reuse, recycle—what does that mean? You need something that really clicks with you, and I think AIR is a strategy you can easily break down. We need air to breathe, we're destroying our air by polluting it, and we are destroying the oceans that create the oxygen in the first place. Up to 80% of all the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea, from life in there. When you go down into it, the three pillars of AIR, A, I, and R, is a model you can break down to every household, business, and government.
Avoid plastic is simple, you just try not to use it. Then you intercept, which means that if you use it, at least don't use new material—use recycled material and do whatever you can to take plastic out of the environment. And then the third pillar, which is the actual solution and the really visionary part of it—re-invent. Redesign the material and create a climate of change where it feels interesting and lucrative to invest money and time into development.
So what are your main qualms with Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?
It says, more or less, that the material is totally fine if you just use it and recycle it, which is not correct because plastic can't be contained even if you follow a proper process. Even if you had the perfect cycle for all plastic materials and not just some of them, which I doubt that it can ever happen because we had enough time to try that, I believe that the material itself is not fit for use.
"The concept that things have to live forever is something we have to let go of, and same with the idea of throwing away. Everything is interconnected, there is no 'away'."
Of course, we can try to spend another million and billions into recycling systems, but isn't it easier just to rethink the material itself and follow nature, where packaging is solved in such a smart way? Look at a grapefruit or a coconut. The packaging is perfect—it only exists as long as it needs to exist. Then it falls apart and goes back to become a nutrition value for a plant. I think the concept that things have to live forever is something we have to let go of, and same with the idea of throwing away. Everything is interconnected, there is no "away".
Can you tell me a little about the beach cleanups Parley has done recently?
Yes. Even if you go to the most remote areas, and you go on the beach, you find a plastic bottle. Instead of collecting shells, you find little artifacts from a very destructive time we are living in—even paradise is under such strong attack. Then you understand that something drastic has to happen. This is the beginning of an investigation, a beginning of being suspicious around materials we thought of as necessary.
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We just started a partnership with the Maldives where we formed an alliance with 109 collaboration partners, including the president's office, the environmental office, the education office and even a lot of luxury resorts. We convinced the luxury hotels to phase out plastic straws and move to paper ones and to phase out bottled water and build refill stations in every resort and put the water in glass bottles that you can reuse all the time. So this is stuff that you can do and it has a very strong impact, not only on the local business, but also on all these tourists that go to these prime locations that travel and go home and feel like they could also implement these changes in their own lives.
Then we have a program called Parley Ocean School. We're going to bring in all 227 schools in Maldives, where the kids first learn to dive and learn to see what surrounds them—that their country is not only these pieces of land that are above water, but that there's also a huge landscape underwater. Suddenly they understand that it's really a treat, a treasure. And then we turn these schools into recycling stations where the parents bring their plastic and the plastic gets counted and weighed and whatever, and in the process of bringing it there, they're reflecting on the materials.
For us, somebody who collects plastic on a beach is not a trash picker—they're an ambassador who can go home and educate their communities and can work their mentality way up into other jobs. We want them to be educated, we want them to get paid fairly, and we want them to have insurance because they're doing and confronting themselves with a situation that is intense. For the schools, we will give them points and rewards, like new computers or soccer courts, for the successful implementation of AIR.
And then you make sure this material gets processed in the country—that means you bale it, and in some places we also flake it, and then it gets sent to other recycling processors, a network of supply chain partners that are our Parley partners and they are certified by us. Finally, it gets turned into yarn or it gets turned into pellets that you can use for blow molding or injection molding. cleanups are a full effort that we built pretty much globally now.
There are a bunch of smaller design firms, even here in New York, who are probably wondering how to stop using plastic. Do you have any immediate advice?
There is this new generation of clients who say, "Help me change my company." And they're looking towards designers because designers often have the opportunity to introduce change. The easiest thing they can do is stop using new virgin plastic and to find ways to make that financially lucrative by promoting it or by looking into the supply chain and saying, "Where else could we save money to compensate the costs that we're spending for higher raw material prices?"
"You cannot just replace things one by one, you cannot just say, 'Oh, I'm turning a switch,' you have to kind of use your brain and develop new concepts."
How much does it really cost, though? What is the difference when you're looking at a kilogram of virgin plastic versus a kilogram of recycled plastic? How much is the difference when it comes to the final product? It's not a lot. We need to be able to say, "We'll find a way to make it affordable—to use more expensive materials that are better from the start." It's a pure question of how you structure the calculation of your product.
adidas x Parley
And then it comes down to things that everybody can do. When you look at Apple, for example, they're switching step by step—nobody even notices. Suddenly you don't get plastic bags anymore, and they have this highly engineered new cord on their paper bag that looks like fabric, but it's actually paper. It's like knitted nearly. It's really amazing. You cannot just replace things one by one, you cannot just say, "Oh, I'm turning a switch," you have to kind of use your brain and develop new concepts.
That is the big opportunity for small companies and small design firms because they're able to think in directions where bigger design firms are not allowed to go. Bigger firms can't interrupt the process—they can't question their work because they would question the basis of their pure existence.
What is next for Parley?
The next big chapter is future materials. Bio-fabricated materials will be a big, big killer in that next chapter for us, but also digital. How can we use digital to create a relationship between a buyer and owner of a product in this realm? How can we make it interesting and lucrative for the brand, but also for the user to be associated to something? By that I mean, if you have some relationship to a product, then you're not throwing it away easily. And if you do throw it away, you will be missing something. This should be an experience that's positive and rewarding— the end life of a product is very important, and I think tech can help us with that.
The next thing is for us is to scale up drastically. We made 1.3 million pairs of shoes with adidas last year, and we are making 7 million this year. We are working heavily on our partnership with Anheuser-Busch InBev, especially on the brand Corona, to get them plastic free in their secondary packaging. We're also developing a tool kit, which will allow companies, governments and individuals to implement AIR in an efficient way. Empowerment, scale, and full transparency and understanding how those concepts can help the oceans—that's the next thing we really want to achieve.
Editor's note: 2017 marked the beginning of a partnership between Parley and Biofabricate to "call upon the world's leading designers, scientists, material innovators, and brands to participate in a Material Revolution and create the future of materials." Learn more about the exciting conference and partnership here.