Apr 12, 2024
by Karl Smith
Plastic Progress: How Parley for the Oceans Reframed Recycling & Continues Pushing for Real, Radical Change
by Karl Smith
Apr 12, 2024

Twelve years ago, everything changed for Cyrill Gutsch. Then at the helm of a New York-based design agency, almost overnight – so the story goes – Gutsch converted his business and shifted his focus, re-dedicating his life to a new cause.

Parley started 12 years ago in a meeting with Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd,” Gutsch explains, asked about that pivotal moment just over a decade ago. “He was arrested in Germany, and I was there visiting. We met, we spoke, and I learned that the legacy of my generation could be that we leave behind a dead sea. That was such a shock, especially since nobody was discussing it.”

At most, some people would take this to heart on a personal level – rethink their choices, their daily actions – but for Gutsch that wasn’t good enough. Or, more accurately, that wouldn’t change enough.

“That same day we turned our design firm into an environmental organization and impact network, what is now Parley for the Oceans,” he says, effectively confirming the multi-hyphenate environmental outfit, ocean-waste recycling operation and globally-recognized brand’s oft-discussed origin story.

“The initial idea,” Gutsch says, “was to create peace. The idea was to push the creative community to the center of a revolution, a material revolution. And that is the direction we are still working towards.”

And, in terms of what that philosophy means in practice for Parley, it is, Gutsch offers, “About collaborating with the most creative, innovative and scientifically motivated people in our network to ultimately end the service for a destructive economy.”

This, however, doesn’t always play out the way you’d expect.

Focused on environmental education, ocean-waste clean-up, and the recycling of those eco-destructive plastic discards into something more productive, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Parley might be a niche concern. You would, however, be wrong.

What essentially started out as one man’s crusade, is now something much (much) bigger than Gutsch himself or, perhaps even, what Parley’s founder originally envisioned. Or, at least, bigger than what he might have hoped for. The organization’s success over the last twelve years has not only led to collaborations with some of the biggest brands on the planet – names like adidas and Dior – but has also played a huge part in the wholesale reframing of recycling; no longer a hippyish concern of the eco-fringe, but a mainstream practice which, in 2024, touches most aspects of our daily lives.

“First and foremost, we are a collaboration network. We are a guarantee. And yes, we are a brand,” says Gutsch, alluding to his knack for creating and fostering connections – both expected and unexpected in nature. But, with this being said, he is also keen to point out that Parley isn’t just some soft concept; the work is serious and vital and, while inviting to those who might want to do better, Gutsch and his team apply a level of ethical scrutiny that you don’t often find in modern brand collaborations.

“We have our own way of doing things,” he agrees, before going on to reference the etymology of Parley itself and its significance in the outfit’s ongoing efforts, “And we are also a pirate flag because when you have a Parley logo on a product, then we are challenging this company.”

This, Gutsch says, is why their collaborations are irregular and refined – why they buck the contemporary trend for scattershot co-branded ventures, most of which – if we’re being honest with ourselves – are wildly cynical cash grabs, designed to milk a single moment in the hype cycle before disappearing into obscurity. (And probably into landfill.)

“That’s why we don’t collaborate with so many people,” Gutsch agrees, “We partner with large brands and organizations to disrupt their supply chains and old business models. That is what sets us apart. Our ability to call in big polluters and governments to join the fight against climate change, plastic pollution and encourage education and a material revolution through fashion, art, and innovation.”

This, of course, is no mean feat. To push world-renowned brands into admitting their failings is hard enough – many, and many much more powerful in theory than an organization like Parley, have tried and failed on this front in the past. Forcing them not only accept this, however, but to subsequently act and to progress? Well, that’s another thing entirely.

That Parley is itself a brand – and that Gutsch and his company have their roots in branding and design – is not irrelevant to this rare talent for engagement. There is a level of understanding that most on Parley’s mission do not possess, approaching more often from the angle of political activism, without the necessary language to create an open dialogue.

This doesn’t just apply to the big-name brands that Parley courts, however, it also applies to a wider audience – to reaching people, on an individual and personal level.

“The world is so visual now,” Gutsch says, “Our focus on working with artists, creators and innovators plays an important role in supporting a movement like Parley’s for fundraising, communication, and building doors to subject matters which can otherwise be difficult for people to understand. Visual media and film especially are key to evoking emotion and driving forward the new and the innovative.”

In the end, however, bells and whistles of branding expertise aside, it all comes back to one thing for Gutsch and his crew: “Our approach to operating businesses is vision-based, driven by new technologies and materials. Nature is true high tech. And it’s something that we need to work with rather than against.”

And, in terms of working with what we already have at our disposal, this has always been the Parley way – but it hasn’t, in the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries at least, been the prevailing attitude of our civilization. Twelve years, though, is a long time in our current era of constant movement and vertigo-inducing technological change.

“I believe that humans are ready for peace,” Gutsch says, questioned about what has shifted on a societal level in that last decade-plus of Parley intervention, unfailing optimistic about our potential as a species to right a disastrous course. “There is a desire in us now to drive this revolution. Humans are very good under pressure. When humans understand that they are threatened, they will aggressively transform. The only way to transform is to address the issues we face.”

All of which, in practical terms – and Parley thinks in practical terms, fully aware that ideas alone do not move the needle without application – Gutsch concludes, “Means the intersection of carbon dioxide, methane gas, stopping plastic pollution, or at least cutting it down at scale.”

These, he suggests, are the villain of the piece; the harmful forces at work against our planet which, if we are to stand a chance of saving not only our oceans but our Earth along with them, must first be slowed and then be stopped.

And on this, of course, he is right. But there has also been much recent talk of another problematic force at play – something far less obvious from the outside as problematic at all. The problem of plastic recycling.

With the continued discovery of microplastics in our water and our soil and even in our blood, their detection in the air around recycling plants has caused much consternation in the Earth-friendlier community. The notion that – while we know the process requires some energy – recycling is not itself inert, not entirely without its downsides, is becoming a serious talking point.

There is also the more-than-somewhat inconvenient fact that most plastic – even those items theoretically sent to recycling facilities – is not, due to difficulty and expense, recycled at all but simply sent down the chain to end up in landfill with the regular refuse; condemned, through no fault of the fastidious and well-intentioned at-home garbage sorter, to slowly degrade and leach its petro-toxic chemicals into the dirt.

And then there is the convoluted issue of supply and demand. Not too dissimilar to the leather industry – to the process of buying and upcycling deadstock tannery discards – there is a sense that, knowing plastic an be recycled, regardless of whether it is or not in reality, gives little incentive for manufacturers to slow down production. And, on the flip side, even recycled plastic products – your everyday water bottles and so on – are still, at the end of the day, plastic; they still possess all the inherent material flaws of their much-maligned virgin cousins, but are better able to deflect and obfuscate those defects with the benefit of their “recycled / recyclable” labelling.

These are all real and pressing issues. Problems that must be rightly and properly addressed in due course. But focusing on the apparent failures of recycling is also a failure of understanding. A world of recycled plastics was never the end goal – only a stepping stone. A part of the solution, rather than the solution in and of itself.

Gutsch, though, has always known this.

Recycling is a very polarizing issue at the moment,” the Parley founder concedes. “There is a lot of misinformation or lack of information on recycling, how to recycle, where to recycle. In many cases and in many countries there is no recycling program in place. People around the world are burning their trash generating even more greenhouse gasses, before thinking of ways to give it a second life.”

And it’s this concept of a second life, in the absence of any other workable solution, which forms the core of Parley’s philosophy and its practice.

“From Parley’s inception we knew that recycling is only a bandaid to the plastic pollution epidemic that our world faces. But in our eyes, it is a necessary step,” Gutsch says, “Every piece of plastic that is floating on the Earth will outlive modern day humans. Knowing that, it makes sense that we find ways to upcycle the material.”

This takes tangible shape, he says, in what’s referred to as the Parley AIR Strategy: “Avoiding all new, virgin plastics where possible and intercepting the plastic pollution that has already found its way into nature, from water systems. Once intercepted, the only thing we can do while we invest in and scale up future, biofabricated materials, is to continue to give the old plastic new life into products and structures that are more durable and long lasting so they do not quickly end back up where we originally found them.”

The thing about bandaids, of course, is that they are not designed to last forever: they exist to provide vital but temporary protection during the healing phase. But this analogy – comparisons to a cut or burn on human skin – only make sense if you also assume that, while diligently wearing the bandaid, you’re still haphazardly slicing up your skin with the same knife.

The only solution, then – the only real solution – is to remove the knife entirely.

Having announced the creation of a Parley investment arm and, following that, investment in QWSTION’s plant-based and plastic-free BANANATEX material, this has clearly been on Gutsch’s mind now for some time.

“Intercepting plastic is a necessity, but redesigning the material has always been our end goal – the third pillar of our AIR Strategy. We need to drive the Material Revolution with all we’ve got, inventing new materials and rapidly scaling the transformation of global supply chains. The brands that act first to leave harmful, wasteful and exploitative materials and methods in the past will be celebrated as champions of eco-innovation.”

This language, of course, is part of why Parley has been so successful: Gutsch’s ability to convey the positives of systemic change to those who, at first, have little to gain in the financial sense, has been key in pushing the organization’s subtly-radical agenda to places it might otherwise not have reached.

But what’s perhaps most unique about Parley – not so much among innovators, but absolutely among brands – is that, in an ideal world, in the world Parley itself is working for, the organization would not exist at all.

“This is truly a defining moment for humanity, a time of existential challenges and exciting opportunities,” Gutsch says, more enthusiastic about a world without plastic to recycle than you’d expect from someone who has made it their defining vocation and the core of their career.

“Scientists, designers, thinkers and pioneering companies are using humanity’s strides in technology to reconfigure harmful, wasteful products into ones that leave a minimal imprint on this ocean-covered Planet Earth. These innovations are replacing not only plastics, but jet fuels, synthetic dyes and even precious stones. We’re committed to accelerating and scaling this process with our collaborators.”

This, though, is typical of Gutsch – underneath the palpable optimism, beneath the belief in a better future strong enough upend his entire world overnight, is an equally powerful pragmatism; a realism not always associated with the activist. A self-awareness that allows for him – and for Parley – to move with the times, even ahead of the times, rather than being stuck on one idea.

“I believe that the future is about materials that are non-toxic. I think biofabrication will replace pretty much everything in the next 10-20 years,” Gutsch agrees, “The circular economy idea will never really work with the materials that we have already mass produced.”

Where Parley does converge with the activist mindset, though, is in a focus on community – in its grassroots clean-up operations and education, but also in the fact that Gutsch believes people can and should be making a difference of their own.

“I think we all first need to acknowledge that today’s fossil fuel based plastics, in all their forms, are toxic. We must advocate for their ban and replacement with materials that are harmless to all life forms. The everyday person can do this by simply creating less of a demand for plastic materials by using their purchase power to consume the alternatives that are available already.”

It’s genuinely hard to imagine another brand coming with that approach; telling its loyal audience of consumers how to make their own clothes or shoes in order that, eventually, they’ll become self-sufficient and the brand can fade out of existence. It goes against everything we’ve been taught about business, about consumerism, and about the set-in-stone nature of our capitalism-driven system.

For all Gutsch’s belief in the human drive to good and to do better, however, one thing he can’t be accused of is naivety. Having faith in the possibility of a better future is not, after all, the same as blind hope. There are challenges, still, to be met and overcome — and they are not insignificant.

“We must recognize that removing plastic from our supply chain is a Herculean task. Our society is heavily reliant on plastic, making its phase-out challenging,” Gutsch concedes, name-checking one piece of Ancient Greek mythology but, surely, aware of how Sisyphean this mission seems in the face of rampant production and consumption.

Still, giant rock in hand and headed uphill once again, Gutsch is resolute in the possibility of reaching the summit. Like Sisyphus himself, though, getting there requires intervention from the contemporary powers that be.

“Governments have the power to end the use of current plastic by banning it and giving industries 7-10 years to phase it out and introduce safer alternatives. Certain types of plastic, like PVC, could be banned immediately and replaced with safe alternatives. The development and scaling of new, non-toxic materials (natural, biofabricated, green chemistry) should be strongly supported through funding, legislation, and even tax incentives. This should also apply to the products themselves, with some being banned right away.”

Until then, though, Parley will continue with the task at hand – no matter how insurmountable it may seem at times and no matter how, knowing change could be possible right now if the right forces pushed, frustrating it might be.

Because the truth is, for Gutsch and for Parley, the bandaid analogy isn’t quite right after all. Their work – in education, in activism, in the interception and recycling of ocean-bound plastics – is something more like a dissolvable ditch in the wound. One day, it will just be gone – and that’s how you’ll know for sure it worked.