Miranda Kim and Rebecca Kim picked their way through washed-up stingrays and bird corpses at their local beach in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, during a cleanup event in the summer.
The birds had died from discarded plastic, which was lodged in their stomachs – an environmental issue that inspired the sisters to create more awareness about plastic in ocean habitats.
To combat the negative effects of plastic in oceans, the Kim sisters and their business partner, Joseph Darcey-Alden, created Soulface Apparel, an eco-friendly clothing company that makes clothing out of plastic. The trio launched the company in September and have since fulfilled about 30 T-shirt orders.
When she began environmental volunteering, first-year pre-business economics student Miranda Kim said she was initially motivated to participate in beach cleanups and work with companies like the Oceanic Preservation Society. However, Kim said she soon realized that the volunteering trips she went on did not have a large-scale impact on the ocean’s plastic problem.
“When you’re volunteering, the little bits of plastic that you pick up do make a difference, but it’s not a large enough difference to change the dynamics of how we use plastics,” Miranda Kim said. “We figured that everyone is a consumer, so how do we sell something that sends a message while also reducing the plastic that is in our oceans?”
Soulface helps better support a sustainable future by targeting the plastic issue at its source – consumers themselves, Darcey-Alden said. The Soulface website features educational videos on the effects of plastic debris, statistics about plastic pollution and information on environmental protection events such as beach cleanups.
“The consumption of disposable plastic has gotten to the point where everyone is doing it and they don’t even think about it,” he said. “By using sustainable materials, it helps to improve the situation and goes back to the point that individuals can make a difference.”
Soulface works with two United States-based companies that use equipment to transform postconsumer plastics and recycled fibers into clothes. Machines break down plastic from water bottles or other packaging into small shards that are then converted into minuscule white beads. Other machines then melt the beads into thin, stringy fibers that are knitted into fabric. Finally, workers sew the fabric together and dye the Soulface logo onto the shirts.
The logo consists of serpentine blue, white and black lines that form a loose and flowing “s” shape for “soul,” an “f” shape for “face” and a wave shape for the ocean – all enclosed in a circular shape symbolizing the Earth, Darcey-Alden said.
Darcey-Alden said Soulface keeps production within the United States because it is a more environmentally friendly option than outsourcing. Some international apparel companies spray formaldehyde, a chemical compound commonly associated with preserving corpses, on clothing before shipment to prevent mold from growing. The chemicals in the formaldehyde can then infiltrate and poison water systems.
The environmental consciousness of the company sparked the interest of Roger Kovalchick, a Soulface customer who first became interested in purchasing a shirt after hearing about the company and its cause through a colleague. He said he bought a shirt to find out how it would feel to wear a plastic-based clothing item.
“I was curious to see if they could make a shirt that actually works, and that I would actually wear,” he said, “And if you can figure out some way to get plastic out of the ocean and it now has a purpose, a huge good can come out of that.”
Miranda Kim said the shirts are similar to spandex material commonly worn for exercise. The garments feel surprisingly soft and flexible, which Cynthia Ruiz, Darcey-Alden’s high school English teacher and a Soulface customer, said she did not expect from a plastic-based clothing item.
“When I was looking to buy this shirt and saw it was made of recycled plastic, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this shirt going to feel like, is it going to feel really stiff?'” she said. “But it is so soft.”
Each shirt sells for $20, but Darcey-Alden said Soulface prioritizes educating the public through its website about how to better preserve the Earth over any monetary profit the company makes from selling T-shirts.
“The T-shirts are a way for individuals to make a difference because they are helping to recycle plastics,” he said. “More importantly, it helps them get connected with the reality of the issue.”