Plastic-free clothing: founder of sustainable fashion brand AYA shares journey to 100% plastic-free clothes

At AYA, the quest to be plastic-free has always been the driving force of the brand. From sourcing plastic-free elastic bands for underwear to finding plastic-alternatives for zippers, it’s been a challenging journey. But, for co-founder Meli Hinostroza, each challenge presents an opportunity for innovation. She shares their journey to creating 100% plastic-free clothes and explains why they are determined to remove all petrochemicals from their brand…

“Sustainability is the driving force behind everything we do. My brother, Rensso and I, and I are co-founders of lifestyle fashion brand AYA and sister-brand Arms of Andes, which is focused on technical apparel for outdoors enthusiasts. Rensso is possibly more committed to sustainability than I am. I believe this comes from a deep-seated connection to our heritage. We were raised in LA with all its excesses, by Peruvian parents for whom sustainable living was the norm. The desire to honour our ancestors’ legacy – who were so technically advanced in their use of alpaca wool – while pushing the boundaries of eco-conscious fashion guides our work.

Meli and Rensso Hinostroza

Why 100% plastic-free clothing

We don’t come from a clothing manufacturing background, so when we decided to starting to explore creating a brand using alpaca wool in 2020, we had a lot to learn.

We discovered how many chemicals are involved in clothing production – cotton t-shirts that are labelled ‘antibacterial’ or ‘sweat wicking’, for example, are probably coated in plastic chemicals because cotton is absorbent by nature – and we had this gut-feeling that it is wrong. Rather than just accept it as the norm, we asked “Why?” a lot. We reached out to scientists, without really expecting a response, but they were so passionate and generous with their time.

Professor Dick Vethaak linked polyester clothing, which is made from petrochemicals, to the microplastics found in our bloodstream. Doctor Shanna Swan explained how phthalates, made from petrochemicals, are playing an intimate role in sperm decline and fertility decline, plus are having an impact on fetuses. They’re in everything from clothing to perfume. Professor Terry Collins emphasis that it’s every type of plastic used in these ways, that is the issue. The more we learnt, the more our minds were made up to remove plastics wherever possible. It’s practically an addiction now.

But, we still want to go further. Looking ahead, I envision a future where sustainability is a way of life ingrained in every aspect of our business. Not just the clothing we produce, but we want everything from the energy that powers the production process to the paint on the walls to be petrochemical free. 

Building a fashion brand in this way requires a relentless pursuit of knowledge. It’s not easy, for example, to find or create plastic-free alternatives to elastic for joggers and leggings. But, it’s also more exciting than hard. There have been many setbacks along the way, and we meet as many as we can with resilience. When you break through, like we have recently with zippers, there’s no feeling like it.

Balancing profitability with sustainability

As every sustainable brand knows, maintaining profitability while staying true to your sustainability goals presents its challenges. Our choice of using premium materials such as organic Pima cotton and alpaca fibre from farmers working in co-ops inherently involves higher costs. 

Our approach to manufacturing – with everything centred in Peru – shortens the supply chain and helps us to keep expenses in check and prices lower for our customers. 

If we were to price our products solely based on the resources and craftsmanship invested, many items would be significantly more expensive, easily double the price. However, our commitment to accessibility drives us to find a balance between sustainability and affordability. 

Shifting perspectives on value

That said, I understand why consumers comparing our clothes to the high street still feel that they are expensive. Organic Pima cotton t-shirts from £28 and long-sleeved alpaca tops priced around £160 are comparatively expensive. 

But, it’s not a real comparison. Alpaca fibre is a natural, functional, antibacterial material with longevity comparable to cashmere or Merino wool. Unlike disposable polyester garments, our design philosophy revolves around creating pieces that stand the test of time, not items that pollute at every stage of the process and then are sent to landfill after a few wears. 

It’s important to question the true cost of cheap clothing from an environmental perspective as well as monetary. That’s why we need to shift consumer perspectives on value.

Spending more on quality essential items and buying fewer of them requires us to learn a different way of shopping than we’ve become used to. This approach not only promotes sustainability but also encourages a shift away from the culture of constant consumption. You don’t need multiples of our tops, you need one, and it will last and last. 

This is one of my biggest learnings – sustainability isn’t a goal, it’s a mindset.

Caption for alpaca wool top: You can go for months without washing it.

About the author

Meli Hinostroza

Meli Hinostroza

Meli Hinostroza (left), co-founder of the alpaca wool apparel manufacturer Arms of Andes and plastic-free lifestyle brand Eco Aya.


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