How Parley for the Oceans Became Fashion's Go-To Environmental Nonprofit

The organization has leveraged collaborations with Adidas, Stella McCartney, G-Star Raw, Net-a-Porter and more to raise awareness and money for ocean conservation.
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For better or for worse, capital-F fashion has a lot of power, even outside the bubble of industry insiders. It can help musicians assert their relevance and unique identity after going solo, make statements for politicians about supporting the underdog, and wield influence in intersecting industries like energy, agriculture and art. As a sector that's swirling with capital, adjacent to celebrity and garnering more attention than ever, it's no wonder that nonprofits and charities want in on the buzz. After all, what could be a better use of all that power than the support of a worthwhile cause?

When it comes to nonprofits tapping into fashion's influence, Parley for the Oceans seems to have the code cracked. The environmental organization, which was founded by Cyrill Gutsch in 2012 to fight against the destruction of oceans with a focus on plastic pollution, has partnered extensively with Adidas, G-Star Raw, Net-a-Porter's Porter magazine and Stella McCartney, among others, and has found vocal advocates in models like Juana Burga and Anja Rubik. According to Gutsch, those partners represent just a few of the many that have sought to work with Parley.

"Parley has to date over 700 company requests and we are very selective and very precise in picking the ones we feel could become ocean champions," Gutsch tells Fashionista via email. 

With so many nonprofits and charities hankering for partnerships that could boost their visibility, what is Parley doing to make itself stand out?

The organization's broadly appealing mission is a part of it. Parley exists "to end the destruction of oceans," according to its website, and it makes a compelling case that not only marine life, but human life, depends on reversing that damage. The organization frequently claims that "every second breath we take is generated by the oceans," referencing the fact that more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by photosynthetic organisms that live in the ocean.

An easy-to-get-behind mission that's attractive regardless of one's political leanings is something that Parley has in common with other charities with frequent fashion ties, like charity: water (which has worked with the likes of Nautica and Soko) and Save the Elephants (which has linked up with Net-a-Porter and Tiffany & Co.). But it's not just what Parley seeks to accomplish that creates a draw for fashion brands. It's also the way in which Parley communicates its mission.

"What struck me was that Parley doesn't blame and shame — this really was one of the first things that appealed to me. I found their approach incredibly inclusive as opposed to exclusive," Lucy Yeomans, editor-in-chief of Porter and Net-a-Porter, tells Fashionista via email. Yeoman's support of Parley led to Porter's 2018 "Summer Escape" issue, which was done in partnership with Parley and model Anja Rubik and aimed to highlight ocean conservation and Parley's fight against ocean plastic pollution. 

Parley owes another part of its fashion-world likability to the fact that its founder was a designer and artist who worked with the likes of BMW, Lufthansa and Adidas before an encounter with environmental activist Paul Watson convinced him to start Parley. As a result of Gutsch's background, Parley's online presence is marked by beautiful imagery and articulate messaging, which add to its appeal in the branding-conscious world of fashion.

"When you are looking at the creative community, art and fashion are the two, for us, strongholds that can drive change in society very quickly," Gutsch explains. "Fashion because you convince people with their heart. You create trends. And that is way faster than only basing your conversation on words and scientific facts. We don't have the time to try and convince on a rational level."

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Adidas is probably Parley's longest-running and most significant fashion partner: They collaborated on a shoe made in part from ocean plastic that was first announced in 2015. According to director of strategy for Adidas Sports Nick Maass, the collaboration came from a directive at the C-suite level — no word on whether it was the fruit of Gutsch's old connection with Adidas as a designer pre-Parley, though it seems safe to assume that had something to do with it — and continued because the partnership just "clicked."

"When we designed that shoe and brought it out... the overwhelming reaction was 'Oh my god, you're onto something,'" Maass says on the phone from Germany. "From there, the potential was clear to scale that up."

Since then, Adidas has gone on to create more shoes with ocean plastic — five million will hit the market this year alone, according to Maass — in addition to launching initiatives like the Run for the Oceans, to create awareness of and raise money for Parley. Adidas considers itself one of Parley's "founding members," a title that only makes sense when you remember that Parley considers itself first and foremost a network of creatives trying to come up with solutions together based on "open-source thinking." 

If it feels a bit amorphous, that's because it is. But it hasn't stopped partners like Porter and Adidas from wanting to get on board, both in public-facing ways and internally. Both companies have adopted Parley's "A.I.R." pledge, which encourages adherents to Avoid plastic wherever possible, Intercept plastic waste and Redesign the material itself, which led to Porter promising to make its global subscriptions plastic-free by 2019 and resulted in Adidas' offices going single-use-plastic-free.

When it comes down to it, Gutsch thinks the reason that Parley for the Oceans appeals to fashion brands is pretty simple.

"Purpose is the new luxury," he claims. "At a time when you feel something is dead wrong but nothing is really happening — to answer that challenge, it makes people want to buy in. They want to support true solutions... Revolutions are sexy."

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