(Sustainability)

How to Rethink Recycling When It Comes to Clothing Waste

There’s more options than you might think.

Maria Pomelnikova/Shutterstock/Hans Neleman/San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Recycling, a process that has been ingrained in the brains of nearly every generation from Gen X on, includes sorting of plastics by a complicated numbering system, breaking down cardboard, and painstakingly removing labels from cans and jars. It’s a far from ideal process, but we can generally count on at least some amount of those materials to be transformed into other useful things. When it comes to recycling clothing, however, the end game is murkier — there is no magic bin that can turns old fabric into fresh new fashion. The category is far more nuanced as the infrastructure of government funded repurposing of materials doesn’t fully support textiles in the ways it does glass, metal, or paper.

Alissa Westervelt, senior manager of donateNYC, a division within the NYC Department of Sanitation, calls the general perception of what happens to post-consumer textiles “wishcycling.” Much of the city’s programming for textile recycling goes into donations, clothing swaps, and upcycled fashion (the latter of which is presented in their annual ReFashion Week), rather than into brand new items. “People’s understanding of recycling may not be the reality,” says Westervelt. “Don’t expect a non-profit to basically handle your trash. It’s sort of tricky because we don’t have a lot of transparency as to where things go after donation.”

Many places accepting donations end up being textile waste sorters, determining what is useful and shipping out what isn’t, to then become the problem of another country similar to other waste streams in the US. And since infrastructure is far from perfect, many fashion brands and textile innovators have taken it upon themselves to create solutions. As a way to help alleviate landfill accumulation (and simultaneously draw in and incentivize customers), they are absorbing waste through takeback and refurbishing programs. A decent, yet admittedly flawed start, traceability of where these items go to become useful again is still an issue that’s trying to be resolved with technology such as QR codes for items, so customers (and the brand’s data collectors) can follow an item along in its second life stage.

After many conversations in preparation of this story, there is no clear cut answer to cleaning up the fashion industry’s waste problem. Aiming to develop a more circular (rather than the old school “make, take, waste”) systems of production that include designing a item to be recyclable, processing it and using the end result to create the new piece, aka a “closed loop” is part of the way out. But so is cleaning up and allocating the waste already made and to state the most obvious, buying much, much less.

Compiled here are ways industry pioneers (it is important to note that many of them are female!) have encouraged consumers to rethink “recycling” when it comes to clothing and gain a greater understanding of what happens to the items sent in many take back programs and the how of which something old eventually becomes something new. As the process is clearly not black and white, these innovators help shade in the gray areas of how they deal with waste and share their discoveries and challenges along the way.

Reallocating

Kristy Caylor, CEO and co-founder of clothing brand For Days began its “take back” bag program in late 2020. Caylor understood her customers had the right intention of donating used textiles, but ultimately knew these pieces would likely end up in landfill. She sought out to unburden consumers lost in trying to do the right thing and has since amassed over 850,000 pounds of textile waste from all points of origin — not just For Days merchandise. The brand’s recycling partner sorts the mishmash of textiles into 250 different grades of quality and finds a home for each in various streams of reuse, which sometimes includes very specific donations like T-shirts for farmers but other times becomes insulation for buildings or car doors.

As Caylor explains: “85% of donations end up in landfill and in our case, 95% of the product sent to us stays out of landfill.” As for the remaining 5%? It’s generally items and trash (ie VHS tapes, broken umbrellas) that cannot be recycled. For $20, a large bag can fit up to 25 pounds and is returned to each customer as $20 worth of “closet cash” to spend on For Days clothing. The clothing from the brand is designed from fiber-to-fiber recycled product to ensure a high quality and closed loop. Scale is the goal, of course. “The more we can collect, the more control we can have over it. Then we can start to say, if we have a huge funnel of product and we have enough white cotton tees, we can put that through a fiber-to-fiber system even though they weren’t ours.”

Refurbishing

Heritage brands are getting in on the circular game too. Timberland now has a separate three-prong circular system they’re calling Timberloop: a recycling program, a refurbished product resale platform, and circular product line. Consumers can recycle a Timberland product past its prime in any of the company’s stores or by mail. Any footwear that’s beyond repair is broken down and stripped of pieces that can easily be reused (like zippers or grommets) and sent over to the refurbished department as raw materials for a like-new product. These items are sold at a discount — for instance, a pair of women’s classic 6-inch boots retail at $170 new on timberland.com and the refurbished pairs of the same style range from $85-$111 on the timberloop.com site.

Classic Timberland styles are bonded together to create an incredibly durable product, but longevity doesn’t always lend to being recyclable. But the circularly designed styles in Timberland are made to be taken apart easily and recycled into. Atlanta McIlwraith, Timberland's director of global community engagement and activation, acknowledges the strides the company has made in circularity, but that it is also a developing process. “We’re not quite there in getting all of that waste going back into our products, but right now, nothing is hitting the waste stream.” Efforts to add refurbished products to their offerings have been made by other big brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Coach — so it’s definitely a space to keep an eye on.

Reengineering

Stacy Flynn is the CEO and founding partner of Evrnu, a textile innovations company that also engineers new fibers from discarded clothing. When asked to describe exactly what that means in layman’s terms she says, “We’re taking old clothes and breaking them down. Our first technology turns cotton waste into what looks like a paper pulp. Once we get it into that form, we can extrude it. An extruder looks kind of like a 3-D printer and you can change the shape and form of the fiber, which determines the characteristics of how that yarn, fabric and garment performs.” The end result is a fiber they call NuCycl that is more durable and high performing than its original form. It is a welcome alternative to fiber made from recycled water bottles that have become controversial for their microplastic shedding wear and tear.

Unworn waste (ie cutting room scraps, unsold or damaged merchandise) is much easier to recycle than worn waste or post consumer used clothing, based on the chemical changes that happen to the fabric with wear. For instance, traces of aluminum in deodorant transferred to the fabric makes a garment a lot harder to break down. While manufacturers’ overproduction is a major and welcomed source of material for Evrnu, it is still incredibly outpacing what they’re able to convert. “Right now there is so much waste. There are 17 million tons of textile waste every year in the US alone,” explains Flynn. “There’s this need to figure out how to break it down consistently. It’s a colossal volume. It will take at least until 2040 or 2050 to get the infrastructure in place to break it down efficiently.”

Repositioning

Knickey, a circular organic cotton underwear brand, sought to tackle undergarment recycling in 2018, which was uncharted territory for textile recycling at the time. Cayla O’Connel Davis, CEO and cofounder of Knickey knew circularity in this category wouldn’t be an easy solve, but had to be done. “We set out to address a problem that really hadn’t been tackled at all and a lot of that is the failure of the system in general,” she says. One of the first of its kind, the brand’s recycling program helps customers properly dispose of both their old Knickey product and castoff items from other intimate brands. Old bras are donated to women in need, and underwear and hosiery are transformed into padding, such as that inside punching bag insulation. However, the program accidentally became the company’s best marketing tool. “We have attracted and really gained the attention of so many like-minded individuals who support that initiative,” says Davis. “Sometimes it’s people’s first introduction to the brand, and how they find us. So it’s been an incredible acquisition tool for us for marketing.”

As a former sustainable fashion marketing professional, Davis has noticed a major shift in messaging and how it’s received in recent years. “The landscape and how you package a message has changed so much,” she explains. “That is all because people are becoming more responsible and understanding the impact of their decision making and how they consume things.”

Regrouping

Thousand Fell co-founders Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum, with help from engineer and entrepreneur Phong Nguyen, founded SuperCircle while building the circular system for the recyclable shoe brand in 2018. After using their label’s tech infrastructure to power the circular system, they knew it was important to share it with like-minded companies. This past February, they launched with Reformation, who has previously struggled with launching an internal circular program because of costly complications — a conundrum Songer can certainly relate to.

“We were paying about $15 to $17 a shoe all in including logistics cost to recycle which is a ridiculous price for a $120 shoe,” she remembers of the early days of her business. “What we have unlocked with Supercircle is by aggregating across brands we’re able to get the cost of these logistics down to where it can be affordable per unit.” The additional service that Supercircle provides is informing consumers on a product’s traceability by keeping tabs on the second life whereabouts of an item they turn in.

Here’s how it works: Once consumers make a purchase and want to recycle it, they sign into their Supercircle account, which supports them with a shipping label and also the whereabouts of their piece after they send it in (aka, how it's being recycled). And as an extra layer of incentivisation, they also receive a shopping credit into their account. “We built a tech system that assigns unique ID’s to each product,” explains Songer. “That helps us track each product from the moment a customer decides to recycle it to when it gets recycled by a partner.”

Once the technology, sorting facility and recycling partners were set, Ahlum stressed the importance of getting brands to reap the benefits of becoming part of the recycling process. “The cool thing that we’re doing for the brands that are joining the Supercircle platform is that they are actually able to buy out of those feeds. Yarns, threads, textiles or in some cases, finished goods and that then creates a closed-loop product.”

In banding together with like-minded brands, the Supercircle team hope to find strength in numbers, rather than waiting for policy to catch up with incentivizing companies to be responsible about their waste. “There are no tax benefits for recycling. You get nada — nothing. You can do tax write-offs as a business if you don’t sell something and you donate it, but as you know a lot of donation streams are really broken. You get tax write-offs if you burn in certain countries, but you need a certificate that you burned it and didn’t sell it,” says Songer. “We have talked to brands recently who made the decision to burn some of their inventory liability in order to get the tax write-off rather than paying us the fifty-thousand dollars to recycle it.” Supercircle aims to course correct this and, in our interview, alluded to getting more involved in policy. As Songer puts it: “We’re never going to see mass change if it doesn’t impact the bottom line positively.”

Reframing

While the designers, founders and innovators above have paved the way to solve major textile recycling issues and excess in the industry, there is definite consumer responsibility that has to be factored into the equation. Emily Stochl, Director of Education and Community Engagement at Remake, an ethical fashion non-profit, and host of the Pre-Loved Podcast, weighs in on what’s necessary for consumers to shift their thinking about textile recycling.

“People in the global north, often with abundant privilege and especially the privilege of convenience around us every day kind of think or expect and think there was this green receptacle to dispose of items and make them go away.” According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, global fashion sales are scheduled to increase fivefold by 2050, meaning brands will continue to overproduce to meet rising demand, but consumers still need to command the ship. Stochl suggests the following: “Instead of asking the question, where do I go with that? What if we pushed ourselves to be the resourceful ones and how would that change our mindset about the clothing we interact with.” Remake’s #NoNewClothes campaign encourages participants to pledge a 90-day freeze consuming new clothing. “This isn’t intended to be a criticism of the individual person or the people asking for greener recycling solutions,” emphasizes Stochl. Rather, it’s more important to be critical of the systems and maintain a fresh mindset when it comes to consumption and second act of what one brings into their life.