When Nicole McLaughlin graduated Verona High School with the class of 2011, her life plan wasn’t to make a statement about sustainability in the apparel industry. But four years ago, while working as a graphic designer at Reebok, she found herself staring at production samples heading to a landfill and wondering if they couldn’t be repurposed. Now, if you see a jacket made from goalie gloves or slippers made from an old volleyball, you are looking at McLaughlin creations that are helping fashion to see its waste problems in a new light.
Nike, Puma, Adidas, Arc’teryx, Gucci and others have hired McLaughlin to convey their efforts to make fashion friendlier to the environment. “Every industry is making things that can have a factory issue, like being printed wrong,” she notes, “or even just factory scraps. Those things are so easy to throw away, but there’s still so much life left to them.”
There is a growing focus in sustainability in the apparel industry. Companies are eyeing fibers that are better for the environment, slashing water and energy use in manufacturing, reducing production waste, and even convincing consumers to shop smarter and hold on to clothing longer to keep discarded clothing out of landfills. By one estimate, the average American consumer throws away 81 pounds of clothes every year. The fashion industry has caused 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of global waste water.
McLaughlin isn’t looking to create an upcycled fashion brand. While her Arc’teryx bikini might be wearable, the same isn’t quite true of her Matchbook car vest or Badminton birdie shoes. Instead, she hopes her whimsical pieces will help apparel companies and their customers to have better conversations about the environment. “This can be an approach that can get people excited about sustainability,” she says.
After leaving VHS, McLaughlin initially majored in speech language pathology at East Stroudsburg University before switching to digital media. Her photography and design skills got her into an internship at Reebok and then a full-time job. At first, picking up office junk and seeing what she could make from it was just a hobby, generating odd photos that she posted to Instagram. Those photos led to inquiries from other companies about what she could make from their odds and ends and, before long, the hobby became her full-time gig.
Some requests have been unusual, like those involving food. “I always want to make sure if I’m using food that it’s still edible after,” McLaughlin says. “I made a vest out of bread one time and I secured it all together with rope and yarn inside. Afterwards, I took it apart and made some sandwiches out of it. If I can get lunch and a project out of it,” she quips, “that’s the best possible result.”
On April Fools’ Day, her work did spark some hunger pangs. The baking supply company King Arthur fooled its customers with an offer for “Limited-Edition Multigrain Mittens” — a McLaughlin creation. The post got thousands of likes, shares and comments.
While McLaughlin has had to pioneer some unusual construction techniques, she credits her mom, an interior designer, for her design sensibility, and her dad for improving her technical expertise. “One time, I wanted to make a high heel with a golf club and my dad had a golf club in the garage that he gave me and he helped me cut it down,” she says. “They’re supportive, but they were really nervous when I left my job to do this full time.”
It has become full time— and more. McLaughlin, who lives in Brooklyn, recently criss-crossed the country to deliver a workshop on sustainability at the University of Washington. McLaughlin also works with brand design teams to help them think about better using resources and upcycling where possible.
The environmentalists’ mantra is “reduce, reuse, recycle” and McLaughlin is trying to live it to the fullest. “I look at everything as a potential resource now, for better or worse,” she says. “I’ll have something in my house and think, do I really need this? Can I turn it into a project?”