Jeans Made Out of…What? One Company Dared to Go Where None Had Before — and Even Levi's Is On Board. Stacy Flynn, CEO and co-founder of textile innovations company Evrnu, is redefining fashion's sustainable future.
- Stacy Flynn's month-long trip to China revealed the dire state of the apparel industry
- She and Christopher Stanev co-founded Evrnu to upend the cycle of excessive waste
- Evrnu's NuCycl technology achieves what few industry players thought possible
"Our core competency is invention," Stacy Flynn, the 49-year-old CEO and co-founder of textile innovations company Evrnu, says. "A lot of people can produce, but very few people can invent and tune around the existing infrastructure."
Flynn's company, which she co-founded with president Christopher Stanev 2014, is innovating to an extreme — shattering the notion that the apparel industry, which is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions worldwide, must be synonymous with excessive production and waste.
Evrnu takes the idea of a closed loop system, wherein clothes remain in circulation as long as possible, to the next level: envisioning a sustainable future where the same garment might be repurposed ad infinitum. In other words, your favorite T-shirt might just become your new favorite jeans, or vice versa.
I knew that the bookends were the problem: the resource extraction on the front end and the waste on the backend.
Flynn's founder journey began in 2010 when she was working as the director of sustainable development at Rethink Fabric, a Seattle startup that makes clothing out of plastic waste. The job took Flynn to China for a month to find manufacturers, and there she witnessed firsthand how the apparel industry keeps costs low.
"I saw how we're cutting corners on the environment and how people are living as a result of those corners being cut," Flynn tells Entrepreneur, "and just decided that this cannot be how the story ends. So I wanted to spend the rest of my career finding solutions that were able to turn this issue around."
At that point, Flynn had worked as a textile and apparel specialist for more than a decade. But she knew she needed further training to make the major impact she wanted to, so she returned to graduate school and received her MBA in sustainable systems.
In the program, Flynn learned that 90% of clothing is made from two fibers: polyester and cotton, both of which "require tremendous amounts of natural resources," she says.
"To make a simple cotton T-shirt, for example, requires about 700 gallons of water," Flynn explains, "and then we take these fibers and turn them into apparel. We ship to every human on the planet. And worldwide we're throwing away about 50 million metric tons of textile waste every year. So I knew that the bookends were the problem: the resource extraction on the front end and the waste on the backend."
Then it hit her: What if she could take that waste and transform it into an entirely new material?
"A lot of the engineers I talked to initially said, 'What you're trying to do, it's technically impossible.'"
Evrnu's road to success wasn't an easy one. Flynn was still in graduate school when she and Stanev shared their vision with investors, who "didn't have any idea of what we were trying to do in the world."
Other industry players also expressed serious doubts. "I brought the research to a lot of different peers," Flynn says, "and a lot of the engineers I talked to initially said, 'What you're trying to do, it's technically impossible. Don't even try. If it could have been done, it would've been done.'"
But Flynn wasn't deterred; armed with her belief in Evrnu's ability to innovate, she liquidated her retirement fund to create prototypes during the company's first four years. The effort would lead to Evrnu's first technology: NuCycl, which uses cotton textile waste as its sole input to create high-performance materials that can be recycled — over and over again.
You can take something that's currently perceived as garbage...and build high-quality products.
Evrnu's process starts with the mechanical separation, sorting and grading of the textile waste. The fabric goes through a near-infrared scanner, which can detect the "digital signature" of the fiber content. Then the fabric is shredded and the cotton fiber is activated.
Next, a lyocell solvent is added, and after several hours of mixing, the material turns from a solid to a "really thick, viscous liquid," Flynn says. Once the fiber's in that form, it can be pushed through an extruder and reshaped.
"And that's probably the coolest piece of innovation," Flynn says. "You can take something that's currently perceived as garbage, turn it into a form where you can manipulate it into any shape you want, and build high-quality products."
If I could get our product into the form of a pair of Levi's jeans, every investor would know what we were trying to do.
The very first prototype came from Flynn's own beloved college T-shirt. She and Stanev took the garment "from a solid to a liquid and back to a solid with a syringe," then placed the samples in three small beakers and met with "anyone who would see [them]."
It was all about the "hustle" at that juncture, pounding the pavement and getting in front of people with the hope they'd get that much-needed initial support. Flynn says it was an experience no one can really prepare for.
"Nothing can train you for becoming an entrepreneur," Flynn says. "I don't care how many classes [you take] — you really don't know what you're going to face. You've got to have a lot of resilience. You've got to have a tremendous amount of faith in what you're doing and why you're doing it."
I had to get back up and move people to a yes.
One of the biggest hurdles? Other people won't necessarily see what you see, Flynn says.
"Early on, I would get very sad," she admits. "I cried when I would get turned down by investors. I felt like the vision that I had for the environment, for humanity, was not going to be achieved. And that was hard. And I had to get back up and move people to a yes."
Finally, in 2016, a big break for Evrnu came in the form of its partnership with Levi's.
"[We] ended up creating a collaboration with Levi's and inspiring Levi's to make the first prototype," Flynn explains. "And I knew that if I could get our product into the form of a pair of Levi's jeans, every investor would know what we were trying to do."
Sure enough, they did.
A lot of people can produce, but very few people can invent and tune around the existing infrastructure.
Evrnu has raised $31 million to date; its investors include FullCycle Climate Partners, Closed Loop Partners, Hansae, Bestseller and PDS Venture. Additionally, the company boasts $330 million in purchase commitments and partnerships with global brands including Adidas, Levi's, Stella McCartney, Target, Pangaia and Zara.
Most recently, Evrnu worked with brand-meets-materials science company Pangaia to create the first denim item made solely from NuCycl material: The Renu jacket, which launched on February 16. Flynn considers the jacket one of Evrnu's "coolest" creations so far. "Because it's 100% NuCycl," she explains, "100% waste, 100% NuCycl, 100% recyclable. I mean, talk about an example of what can be done."
And Evrnu is committed to keeping doing it. Evrnu has labs all over the U.S. — from Washington to New Jersey — but the company's currently building its first facility, set to open in 2024, in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
"We are going to be scaling wherever there's waste around the world," Flynn says. "But this initial facility is designed to show partners what's possible and how we can take old clothing and turn it into new fiber for the creation of new clothing."
The company will have a full-service research and development center in Spartanburg too, bringing people from around the world together to help create new, high-performance materials and "really show people what's possible under one roof."
That culture of continuing innovation has defined Evrnu's mission from the start. For Flynn, Evrnu was never about building textile factories and selling fiber by the pound: It was always about extracting the rich value from materials that already exist.