Cotton and polyester are king among fabrics. In fact, 90 percent of all clothing in the world is made up of one or the other. Like most apparel veterans, Stacy Flynn didn't think twice about spinning them into the yarn worn by "almost every human on the planet," she says—that is, until she saw how much unnecessary waste it meant dumping into landfills, wreaking havoc on the environment.
Flynn, the CEO and founder of Evrnu, along with her CSO, Christo Stanev, has taken post-consumer cotton waste—a.k.a. that hole-filled tee you tossed last week—and found a way to turn it into a regenerative fiber instead of throwing it in the ocean. Basically, she takes old, worn clothes, breaks them down into their molecular components, and puts them back together as a new, higher-quality fiber that can be recycled again and again in the future.
Flynn likens the substance to pasta dough. "You start out with the dough, put the dough in the machine, and then you can make angel hair, linguine, or anything you want." Evrnu can produce fabrics like cotton as well as ones that feel and look like silk or denim.
Transforming the trillion-dollar apparel industry won't be an easy feat, but Flynn is up for the challenge. And as sustainability slowly takes hold in the fashion world, Evrnu has already partnered with brands like Levi’s, Target, and Stella McCartney to produce clothes using revolutionary methods. This could just be the company to transform the way fashion produces and recycles its clothes.
Seeing pollution up close (literally): By age 16, Flynn was already making the majority of her own clothes. Her fascination with all things fabric led her to pursue a degree in textile development at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology in the ‘90s. Back then, with fast fashion on the rise, sustainability wasn’t top of mind. Flynn thought it should be. In 2010, she started working for a start up in Seattle that was making clothing out of recycled plastic waste. That same company sent her to China to observe subcontracting hubs where clothes are made. It’s there she realized the cost of ignoring the environmental toll of production.
“At one point my colleagues and I were standing right next to each other and we couldn't see one other, the air quality was so sick with pollution,” Flynn says, explaining that business meetings she attended during her month-long trip were often literally clouded by polluted air. “I added up how many billions of yards of fabric I had made up to that point in my career, and all of a sudden I became linked to the cause of the problem,” Flynn says. “I asked myself, ‘If one person can create so much damage completely unintentionally, what can the same person do to turn it around?’” Flynn went back to school to earn an MBA in sustainable systems from Bainbridge Graduate Institute (now Presidio Graduate School) in Seattle. “FIT taught me how to speak a language and leverage networks,” Flynn says. “I wanted to do the same thing in the area of sustainability and bridge the gap between the apparel industry and the industry of sustainable development.” In school, she launched Evrnu in 2015.
What the problem boils down to: “The bookends are the problem,” Flynn says, referring to the cultivation of cotton and the tons of clothing waste humans produce each year, according to the EPA. “The resource extraction to cultivate enough cotton to make one tee shirt requires 700 gallons of water,” Flynn says. To fix this poorly deigned business model, she says, she needed to rethink the way fabric is made and recycled. “We decided to try to figure out a way to take waste—the natural byproduct of the industry—break it down, and turn it into a usable form. If we could pull that off, then the brands and retailers wouldn't have to change too much about the way they operate their business, consumers wouldn't have to change too much about the way they consume, and the effect would significantly reduce our impact to the air, water, soil, and trees.”
How it works: Evrnu, which collects textile waste before it goes into landfills (meaning it is post-consumer instead of post-industrial, which many other companies recycle) and gives it a deep clean. The technology Flynn has helped develop then uses five different patented solvents to liquefy cotton waste and transform it into a new fiber altogether. “When it's in its liquid form, we can push it through an extrusion line, similar to a 3D printer,” Flynn explains. “And we can turn it into a different shape and form and make a really high-quality new fiber that can be used to make new clothing and that can be broken down again in the future.” The process is quicker than traditional cotton production, taking about seven hours as opposed to one year. If major clothing companies decide to utilize this new technology, Evernu, which uses 98 percent less water than virgin cotton and generates 80 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than polyester production, could have a colossal impact on the fashion industry's overall carbon footprint.
Partner in preservation: Flynn’s business partner and CSO Christo Stanev “is the technical genius behind [Evrnu’s] operation.” Flynn says Stanev was the only person not to call her crazy when she brought her graduate school research and idea to light. “He said, ‘This is going to be really challenging, never been done before, and we're going to have problems here and here and here,’ and I said to him, ‘I understand no one's ever done it, I understand it will be challenging, but not once did you say it was impossible,’” Flynn says. Stanev agreed to see Flynn’s idea to fruition, and, now, three years later, the company has garnered investors and major brand partnerships—and is ready to turn its creation into an industry standard. “Cristo can fix just about anything," Flynn says. "Together we make a really awesome team."
The obstacle in her way: Why isn’t this magic fabric taking over the globe already? “Changing a business model is like boiling the ocean when you have a one trillion dollar global business attached to it,” Flynn says. Cost for companies is not necessarily the issue, as the fabric prices are similar. “Even to this day, years after we pulled our first fiber, people are still saying to me that they don't believe it's real. And it just goes to show how hard it is to change.” But Flynn isn’t giving up. She’s pushing for more and more major companies like Levi’s to partner with Evrnu—and they are. “There are a million reasons not to do this work,” she says. “It is so hard and you're turned down so many times by investors, by brands, by people who just can't see that it's possible. But the one thing that keeps us going is the reason why it needs to be done.”
Biggest misconception: Flynn’s world domination plans do have a limit. She says she doesn’t endorse the replacement of all virgin materials like cotton with Evrnu fabrics. Instead, she wants to see a balanced assortment of virgin and regenerative materials in the industry. “If we create that balance between what we give and what we take, that is the ultimate sustainable equation,” Flynn says. “It's not about not consuming, it's about smart design.” Flynn says a simple way to get involved in sustainability is to stop throwing garments away and start donating or buying second-hand. “I don't think consumers understand the power that they have,” Flynn says. “If consumers were thinking, and supporting, and making purchasing decisions that could support these initiatives, then the world would start shifting.”
Best advice: “I think a lot of women have to get over imposter syndrome when they start out on ventures like this,” Flynn says, recalling that when she started the company, she’d often second-guess whether her findings were really so revolutionary. “I first and foremost had to demonstrate to myself that I was a badass,” she says. “You have to actually prove to yourself that you can do it. And then from there, you have to own it.” To Flynn, a badass woman is someone who isn’t afraid to adapt and push the boundaries of what is seemingly possible: “She will lead in the face of adversity and she will, bottom-line, get shit done.”
Up next: An innovation revolution. Flynn hopes to get more brands on board with Evrnu to expand the pool of people who know about and want to test out the technology. “We've got to show [people] that it can be done. And then that'll kick off a wave of innovation within the sector like no one has ever seen because the one thing the fashion industry can do better than any other industry is make things look good and appeal to people,” Flynn says. “Fashion has always been a way of expressing ourselves. So it's just a matter of time.”