In 2010, Bill Johnston was working for an outdoor adventure company, guiding backpacking and mountaineering trips. He loved the environmental education aspect of his work, and wanted to start a sustainable business, but was not sure how to go about it. Enter John Riddle, a friend of his father's, who worked in the textile industry. He reached out to John because he wanted to buy a bike. Instead, as he likes to joke, "I got a bike, a riding partner, and a business partner all at the same time."

Riddle had "a lifetime of knowledge in the textile industry" and introduced Johnston to the technology behind recycled textiles. "I was fascinated by the technology involved in recycling textiles, and the potential I saw for it. I started beating on John's door saying, 'We need to use this technology, and go into business together,'" Johnston recalls. He adds, "John is an entrepreneurial guy who was willing to take a risk. It all came together from there."

The duo went on to found Recover, apparel and products company that makes everything from recycled materials. Recover makes high-quality comfortable apparel out of plastic bottles! If you were wondering, it takes 8 plastic bottles to make 1 shirt, using their proprietary process. "Using post-consumer plastic bottles, cotton from cutting floor scraps, and a polyester blend, we make a better shirt for our customers, while keeping trash out of landfills, rivers, the ocean and our world community. The result is clothing that people can wear which is well beyond a fashion statement. "Our customers know that they are helping restore balance to the environment and to the community," Johnston explains.

Although other companies make recycled garments, Recover differentiates itself with their manufacturing process. "Presorting the plastic bottles and recycled cotton by color eliminates the need to dye our fabrics, which saves on water and further reduces pollutants. As a result, Recover's manufacturing results in the following eco-friendly savings:

  • 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • 66% reduction in energy consumption
  • 55% reduction in water consumption

Recover also uses a so-called 360° process -- from design to manufacturing to fulfillment -- with environmental and social considerations as the primary driver of their decision-making. "Ultimately, sustainability going forward means working for a healthier environment and healthier communities today; everything is connected," Johnston says. The company manufactures in North Carolina, Guatemala and Haiti -- where it partners with co-ops that promote sustainable jobs -- and highlights where each piece they make is from, by line. Their facility in Guatemala is 100% powered by biomass, including wood chips, coffee extract, and other raw materials.

"The average American generates about 4.6 lbs. of 'trash' a day and less than ¼ of the nation's trash is currently recycled," Johnston says. "Recover hopes to educate and inspire folks to live and work for a more sustainable tomorrow, which is very relevant in today's political climate."

Marketing Partnerships Promote Growth

Many eco-startups look for investment, but Recover has managed to build a successful business organically. That said, Johnston reports it took longer to get off the ground than they expected. "It took us two years to get the right product made that was comfortable, stylish and true to Recover's values and mission. We then launched the products and started selling small orders with some success in outdoor and adventure stores." During that time, Bill continued to work as an outdoor guide and instructor.

The real growth for Recover came when Bill and John started partnering with events and races featuring larger volume co-branded orders. "The business really took off then. We went from a small part-time operation with just $10,000 in sales the first year to $70,000 the second year, and then to $350,000. Our sales have doubled every year since," Johnston notes. That's when Johnston took a leap of faith, and began to work for the company full time. "It really paid off, and everything has snowballed from there," he says.

Today, in addition to their every day apparel, the company regularly prints 'special edition' SKUs dedicated to raising money for specific causes, from education in the arts to the National Parks.

As for the daily realities of running a growing business, he concludes, "Like any business, new challenges come up every day, from scaling production to meeting demand, to investing in the right products, to managing cash flow. But, just as in biking, figuring out the challenges is part of the fun of this adventure. Sure it can be stressful at times, but one of the best lessons is that the challenge of creating a sustainable business, learning from your mistakes, and constantly working to improve what you do and how you do it, earns rewards that surpass all your expectations and goals. Having a genuine purpose makes the work worth it, and gives us a real sense of fulfillment. Our business evolves every day to meet business as well as global challenges. And it's that mindset that helps us take the challenges head on."