PARLEY FOR THE OCEANS | INTERVIEW WITH FOUNDER CYRILL GUTSCH

We are all aware that the world is rife with environmental issues, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of all the things you could, or could not, do to help. More rare are those who decide to use the tools they have at their disposal to pick one issue and change the course of their career to focus solely on it. That is exactly what designer Cyrill Gutsch did in 2012, when a series of events, starting with a logo worn by Pamela Anderson across her chest, led him to become deeply involved in the ocean’s plastic problem.

In a few short years, his company Parley For The Oceans has managed to gather high profile artists (such as Julian Schnabel), scientists and politicians around the cause, lead massive cleanup operations worldwide, and develop commercially viable solutions for dealing with the waste–proving that it truly is possible to take matters into your own hands and instigate change.

Their recent collaboration with G-Star Raw and Pharrell Williams-backed material innovation company Bionic Yarn launched last week, alongside the documentary The Plastic Age, which was produced and released by i-D Magazine. Champ writer Sophie Borch-Jacobsen attended the premiere of the film, and caught up with Cyrill to discuss the project. 

 

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How did Parley come about, and what it is trying to achieve? 

I was working for many years as a designer, and in June 2012 I met Captain Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace and founder of the Sea Shepherd’s Conservation Society. He was under attack by the Japanese whaling lobby who were afraid he would shut down whaling (which he later did). When I met him he was in a prison in Germany under completely false accusations, and I said to myself: wow! Here is a man who has dedicated his whole life to saving marine wildlife. I realised that I was not doing anything like that, I was not even thinking about the consequences of my everyday design work, which is unfortunately pretty common. That day I called my partner and said, “we have to do something for the oceans.” So we turned our whole company around and founded Parley as a platform where we get people to collaborate, create awareness, and also aim to show how business can be done differently, how big brands can actually be aware of the state of the oceans, and give them the options to do something about it.

So was the interest in the oceans a new topic for you?

Totally new, and it became a mission. I personally relate a lot to the oceans; you loose gravity when you are in it, it is such an amazing space to be in, and it is also a permanent source of inspiration and energy. I don’t think anyone really wants to destroy it, but as Jacques Cousteau said, “People only protect what they love”. So it is very difficult to protect something you don’t know, and most people can’t even afford to meet it. Diving is a very luxurious thing, and surfing is out of reach for the majority of people. So the oceans are often protected by a small elite group of rich people, or explorers.

Sort of like how many vegetarians won’t eat animals, but they eat fish…

It’s totally crazy! You know why? It’s because fish don’t have ears. If they had fluffy ears, and furry paws, people wouldn’t eat them. They can’t imagine that this strange thing that lives in cold water has feelings or life. And people often think that fish is very healthy, which unfortunately has become untrue.

So what is the main objective for Parley?

There is a deadline that has been projected by a scientist named Dr. Boris Burn, who says that by 2048 all commercial fisheries will have collapsed – there will be no more fish that you can eat. Today, this deadline is perceived as fairly optimistic. Already 90% of the big beautiful fish that we know are gone, 50% of all coral reefs are gone. The oceans regulate our climate and also provide food… we are breaking the support system of our society, our right to be on this planet. The earth will survive this, but we will not, and that’s what we are trying to create awareness of.

 

Already 90% of the big beautiful fish that we know are gone, 50% of all coral reefs are gone.

The oceans regulate our climate and also provide food…

we are breaking the support system of our society, our right to be on this planet.

The earth will survive this, but we will not,

and that’s what we are trying to create awareness of.  

And what are the solutions? 

What Parley does is relate people to the oceans, by creating awareness of the cause in a solution-oriented way, never in a threatening way. The three big problems now are plastic pollution, illegal fishing, and climate change, but plastic pollution is the most prominent of all the causes because it is easy to communicate and visualize. Plastic pollution is on one side a design failure, and on the other a system failure. The material we are using today is just not good enough – if you toss it into the ocean, it should not behave in such a way that it is a risk for sea life. So parley is supporting and collaborating with a lot of scientists and labs that are working on alternative materials.  But in the meantime, Parley is setting up a way to gather all of the existing plastic back from nature, up-cycle it, and bring it back up to a premium product level, which is what we have done with G-Star.

Can you tell me about the process involved in this collaboration? 

G-Star was the first partner to work with us on this, and Bionic Yarn is our material partner. Parley collects the ocean plastic, it gets turned into high level broken material by Bionic Yarn, which G-Star then uses that create the best denim. So the process creates a fiscally sustainable way to pay for these clean ups! It’s not easy to be in a company and to fight for sustainability, especially since it takes so much to be successful these days. G-Star has been a very good example of how you can balance that out in a smart way.

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We are used to seeing scientists, activists and politicians dealing with these issues but you seem to think that the creative industries, and consumers, have as big, if not bigger, a role to play in this. 

The best scientists are artists; I think they all fall in the same group. It’s all about ideas, and creating or inventing things. Artists are used to tapping into other disciplines, so I think they are the perfect mediator and inspirational force for causes like these.

They also have a sort of naivety and determination to do things a certain way once they have decided on it, giving themselves all the tools necessary to achieve this. So by getting multiple industries to work together alongside an artist you can probably short cut a lot of things, because they will be able see them in a much more simple or emotional way. At Parley it started with the art, the logo was designed and painted by Julian Schnabel, and the first Parley happened at his Palazzo Chupi in New York. And when I saw the first Parley happening and people coming to his home, everyone suddenly forgot their egos because the artist was dominating, and they opened up and allowed a moment for new thoughts. The role of the consumer is to shop responsibly; they must demand that brands give them the right options. The role of the artist is to help create this demand, because the creative industry has a huge influence on the consumer.

The role of the consumer is to shop responsibly;

they must demand that brands give them the right options.

The role of the artist is to help create this demand,

because the creative industry

has a huge influence on the consumer.

 

 

Can you tell us a little more about the collaboration with G-Star? 

G-Star was totally ready for this collaboration when we met, its not like we had to convince them of anything. They took a big risk, committed their whole marketing budget for 2014 to the project, and had to restructure their whole production for this collection–but they want to be leaders in the field of sustainability. Working with companies like this makes you realize that people are ready, they are demanding even more than what is possible, but the solutions are simply not in place yet.

Do you think that consumers are ready to pay more for these innovations? 

No, I don’t think so–that’s the tricky part. But any innovation requires a certain amount of time where you are supporting it, where it is subsidised in some other way. The up is on the brand value level, which we saw with this campaign that was probably one of the most successful in G-Star’s history. Now we are already in the second year, and material prices are coming down to a more realistic level. But it takes a moment, you have to kind of risk something and you have to invest.

Is it important to have someone like Pharrell Williams involved?

It is very important to have a popular spokesperson, and Pharrell is probably the best person you can have for that. What’s more is that he is personally invested in it, because he is a partner in Bionic Yarn. The most important part is not per se the fame; he is an incredible creator. Him being partner and creative director of Bionic Yarn was the key in our collaboration with them, and it was also one of the keys for the collaboration with G-Star. At the end of the day it’s really about integrity, you have to be credible above all else. This initiative received design awards and was lauded by people who do not know who Pharrell is. Paul Wattson is also a star in his field, and he is behind the project, as is David LaChappelle who was at the first Parley. So we have a lot of supporters, and they are not getting paid to be. That’s not what it’s about–no one could afford that.

Leading environmentalists give 6-16 years before we see the end of most sea life happening. That’s a really short amount of time–what sort of positive change can you foresee happening within that? 

It’s super difficult. We are very late in the game, and we are still fighting with the unknown. But there is no leader in the world that is unaware of the problem, which is becoming an existential threat to many countries. So my belief is that governments will just have to protect their resources and then it will simply be enforced. At the same time, the environmental movement is the fastest growing movement in human history and it’s happening on all levels, everywhere. With the success that we had last year with our collaborations, big companies and investors who would never have spoken to us before are suddenly approaching us, so it is becoming a mega trend. What we have to do now is operate on several levels, and collaborate, which is the key. We have it all now; we are well informed, we can connect fast; we can act really quickly. I saw this with Parley–you can put things together overnight now. I think it’s not a question of time; it’s a question of finding the right concept, and having the right people involved.

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Interview by London-based writer Sophie Borch-Jacobsen

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