Recycling is a process that has been ingrained in the brains of nearly every generation, from Gen X onwards. It includes sorting plastics through a complicated numbering system, painstakingly removing labels from jars and cans, and breaking down cardboard. However, when it comes to clothing recycling, the game is murkier. There is no magic bin that turns old fabric into fresh, new fashion. The category of fashion recycling is far more nuanced and complex, as textiles don’t fully support the repurposing of materials funded by the government for infrastructure. We can generally count on at least some amount of those materials being transformed into useful things, but it’s far from the ideal process.
Sort it is, we don’t have a lot of transparency as to where things go after donation. It’s tricky because we don’t really know how non-profit organizations handle our trash. Basically, we shouldn’t expect our donations to be handled by non-profit organizations in a transparent manner.
In an attempt to resolve the issue of traceability, many textile brands and innovators in the fashion industry have taken it upon themselves to create solutions that simultaneously incentivize customers to become collectors of their brand’s data and incentivize customers to draw in and accumulate items such as QR codes. These items, admittedly flawed in their start, have the potential to become useful again as they are refurbished and absorbed back into the waste stream, helping to alleviate landfill accumulation. However, it is worth noting that the infrastructure for such solutions is far from perfect in the US, and if this problem were to become prevalent in another country, determining what is useful and what is waste, as well as determining where these textile waste sorters end up accepting donations, would be a challenge.
There is no clear answer to cleaning up the fashion waste industry’s problem, after many conversations in preparation for this story. The aim is to develop a more circular, rather than linear, production system that includes designing items to be recyclable and using the end result to create a new piece, aka a “closed loop.” But, the allocating and cleaning up of waste that has already been made is so obvious and buying much less is the state of most.
Throughout the journey, these visionaries assist in elucidating the ambiguous aspects of how they handle waste and exchange their findings and obstacles. Since the procedure is evidently not straightforward, it is crucial to acknowledge that a considerable number of them are women! Gathered here are methods in which trailblazers in the industry have urged customers to reconsider “recycling” in relation to apparel and acquire a deeper comprehension of the fate of the items submitted in numerous take back initiatives, as well as the process by which something old ultimately transforms into something new.
The founder and CEO of Caylor Days For brand clothing, Kristy Caylor, understood that her customers had the right intention of donating used textiles, but she knew that ultimately these pieces would likely end up in a landfill. She sought to unburden consumers and lost in trying to do the right thing by recycling the brand’s merchandise, which includes donations of T-shirts for farmers, insulation for buildings or car doors, and various streams of textiles of different grades. Partnering with a recycling company, the brand has amassed over 850,000 pounds of textile waste from all points of origin since its inception.
Despite not being our own, if we possess an ample supply of white cotton t-shirts, we can utilize a fiber-to-fiber system with a substantial product funnel and sufficient control over it. Undoubtedly, our objective is to achieve scalability. In order to ensure a closed loop and maintain high quality, the brand’s clothing is exclusively crafted from recycled fiber-to-fiber materials. For Days apparel can be obtained with $20 worth of “closet cash” and is delivered back to each customer in a large bag capable of accommodating up to 25 pounds for a mere $20. Typically, the remaining 5% consists of trash and items (such as VHS tapes or broken umbrellas) that are non-recyclable. However, in our situation, 95% of the products we receive are diverted from landfills, as Caylor clarifies: “85% of donations end up in landfill.”
Timberland is now implementing a separate three-prong circular system called Timberloop, which aims to promote sustainability and reduce waste. Through this system, consumers can recycle any past Timberland product either through mail or at the company’s stores. Any footwear that is beyond repair or broken can be sent to the refurbished department, where the materials can be easily stripped down and reused to create like-new products. On the Timberloop website, customers can find refurbished pairs of the same style for a discounted price, ranging from $85 to $111, compared to the retail price of $170 for new boots, such as the classic 6-inch women’s boots.
The efforts of Coach and Fisher Eileen Patagonia, along with other major brands, have definitely added refurbished products to their offerings in order to keep up with the demand for sustainable options. While we are currently not fully achieving the goal of turning all our waste back into usable products, we are making progress towards circularity. Timberland, under the guidance of their global community engagement director, McIlwraith Atlanta, is developing a process to recycle and easily separate their products, making strides towards circularity. However, it is important to note that not all styles from Timberland are always designed to be recyclable, as their main focus is on creating incredibly durable products with longevity in mind, such as the Timberland Classic styles.
The alternative to water bottles made from recycled fiber is welcomed as it reduces wear and tear, shedding microplastics. NuCycl, a high-performing and durable fiber, is the end result of this process. The characteristics of the fiber determine how the garment fabric and yarn perform, and an extruder, similar to a 3-D printer, can change the form and shape of the fiber. Once we extrude it, we can obtain the desired form. Stacy Flynn, the founding partner and CEO of Evrnu, a textile innovation company, explains that their technology breaks down old clothes into waste cotton, which then turns into pulp paper-like fibers. When asked to describe it in layman’s terms, she says it means creating new fibers from discarded clothing.
It will take at least until 2050 or 2040 to efficiently break down and replace the infrastructure. The colossal volume consistently shows that there is a need to figure out how to break it down. “There’s a lot to figure out,” explains Flynn. In the US alone, there are 17 million tons of textile waste every year. While overproduction by manufacturers is a welcomed and major source of material for Evrnu, it still remains incredibly wasteful. For instance, the traces of aluminum in deodorant make it harder to break down the fabric of a garment. Waste that is post-consumer or unworn is much easier to deal with than waste from damaged or unsold merchandise, such as cutting room scraps.
Knickey, a round organic cotton underwear brand, aimed to address the issue of recycling undergarments in 2018, which was unexplored territory for textile recycling at that time. Cayla O’Connel Davis, the CEO and co-founder of Knickey, recognized that achieving circularity in this particular category would not be a simple task, but it was necessary. According to her, “We embarked on a mission to tackle a problem that had not been addressed before, and a significant part of that is due to the overall failure of the system.” As one of the pioneers in this field, the brand’s recycling program assists customers in properly disposing of their old Knickey products as well as discarded items from other intimate apparel brands. Old bras are donated to women in need, while underwear and hosiery are repurposed as padding, such as that found inside punching bag insulation. However, the program unintentionally became the company’s most effective marketing tool. Davis explains, “We have attracted the attention and support of numerous like-minded individuals who are passionate about this initiative. For many, it serves as their first introduction to our brand and how they discover us. Therefore, it has been an incredibly valuable tool for our marketing efforts.”
She explains, “This is primarily due to individuals becoming increasingly accountable and aware of the consequences of their decision-making and consumption habits.” Davis, a former sustainable fashion marketing professional, has observed a significant transformation in the communication and reception of messages in recent times. “The environment and the approach to conveying a message have undergone substantial changes.”
Launched alongside Reformation, they initiated this venture in February of this year. Recognizing the significance, they decided to collaborate with similar-minded companies after utilizing their label’s technological framework to support the circular system. SuperCircle was established in 2018 while constructing the circular system for the sustainable shoe brand, with assistance from engineer and entrepreneur Phong Nguyen. SuperCircle was co-founded by Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum, both of whom are also co-founders of Thousand Fell. Songer, who has faced challenges in the past when attempting to launch an internal circular program, can certainly empathize with the dilemma of costly complications.
Supercircle offers an extra service of educating customers about a product’s traceability by monitoring the current location of an item they return. Through brand aggregation, we have managed to reduce the logistics cost per unit, making it more affordable. Reflecting on the early stages of her business, she recalls, “We used to pay around $15 to $17 for each shoe, including recycling logistics, which is an absurd amount for a $120 shoe.”
Songer explains, “This allows us to monitor each product from the moment a customer chooses to recycle it until it is recycled by a partner.” “We have created a technological system that assigns unique identifiers to each product.” In addition to this, customers are rewarded with a shopping credit in their account as an additional incentive. Furthermore, when consumers make a purchase and decide to recycle it, they can sign into their Supercircle account, which not only provides them with a shipping label but also updates them on the progress of their item’s recycling process.
Ahlum partners stressed the importance of getting benefits by becoming part of the recycling process. “We’re doing a cool thing for the brands that are joining the Supercircle platform. It actually enables them to buy out those feeds of textiles, threads, and yarns, creating a closed-loop for the finished goods in some cases.”
We’re never going to see a change in the impact if we don’t positively align the bottom line. In our interview, Supercircle alluded to their aim of getting more involved in policy to recycle. Instead of paying thousands of dollars in taxes, they made the decision to burn some of their inventory liabilities in order to get a tax write-off. We have talked about the brands that recently made this decision, but it’s important to note that if you need a certificate to burn and get tax write-offs in certain countries, it means that the streams of donations are really broken. You should know that if you sell it and donate it, rather than just selling it, you can’t get any tax write-offs. There are no tax benefits for recycling, so companies need to be responsible for their waste and incentivize other companies to catch up with their policy, rather than waiting for numbers to show their strength. We hope that the team at Supercircle can find like-minded brands and work together to address this issue.
Textile recycling is a definite consumer responsibility that the industry should think about. The hosts and founders of the Pre-Loved Podcast, Emily Stochl, who is also the Director of Engagement, Community, and Education at the ethical non-profit fashion organization Remake, have factored this into the equation. They have paved the way for major innovators, founders, and designers to solve the excess and recycling issues in the textile industry.
Instead of focusing on the criticism of individuals who consume new clothing, it is more important to maintain a fresh mindset when it comes to the act of bringing new items into our lives. Rather than asking people to recycle and find greener solutions, the #NoNewClothes campaign by Remake encourages participants to take a 90-day pledge to freeze their clothing consumption. This campaign aims to change our mindset about clothing and push us to be more resourceful. Instead of asking where we can go to buy new items, we should be asking ourselves how we can be more resourceful and push ourselves to change our mindset. The Stochl Foundation suggests that instead of continuing to overproduce in order to meet rising demand, fashion brands should think about disposing of items in a green receptacle. It is important to recognize that convenience and abundance are privileges, especially in the global north where people often expect and rely on them every day.