California Business Saves Mannequins from Landfills

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When Judi Henderson-Townsend replied to a Craigslist ad saying she wanted to buy a mannequin, she had no plans to start a business. She intended to use the mannequin as garden décor. However, when she arrived at a warehouse filled with mannequins and learned that the owner was closing his mannequin rental business and leaving the state, Henderson-Townsend found herself embarking on a new business venture. And it’s become an economic and environmental success.

After purchasing all 50 mannequins in the warehouse, Henderson-Townsend increased her inventory to 500 mannequins over six months. She began selling and renting the used mannequins in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many businesses and individuals were interested in obtaining mannequins for everything from trade shows to art projects, and Henderson-Townsend was able to supply what they needed.

Additionally, this new business, which Henderson-Townsend named Mannequin Madness, began providing another service. For businesses that needed to liquidate old mannequins after a store closing or renovation, Mannequin Madness was there, ready to take those landfill-bound items off their hands. In 2003, Mannequin Madness received a special achievement award from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling more than 100,000 pounds of mannequins in one year, and that number has only gone up.

“It’s possible to have a unique business in the recycling industry that’s also fun,” Henderson-Townsend says. “Fashion isn’t known for being environmentally friendly. I like to consider myself into fashion, but I also want to be green, and it’s true that the two can coexist.”

So Much Mannequin Waste

Judi Henderson-Townsend of Mannequin Madness saves 200,000 pounds of mannequins from landfills annually by reselling and renting old mannequins. Photo: Mannequin Madness

Historically, the fashion industry has not been known for eco-friendliness. The clothing manufacturing process produces a lot of scrap fabric and other waste materials, and much of our clothing is designed to be thrown away when the new season’s fashions come out. Consumers probably don’t spend a lot of time considering what happens to mannequins — an important part of the fashion industry — at the end of their lives, but the reality is that most of them are sent to landfills.

“The average life of a mannequin in a store is about seven years. Even though the mannequin may still be in good condition, it’s just not the latest fashion,” Henderson-Townsend explains.

As with clothing, mannequin styles go in and out of fashion. A particular style such as matte white might be popular one year, while colored mannequins might be popular the next. This is especially true for luxury retailers where fashions change all the time, Henderson-Townsend says.

If you look at a large national chain retiring a particular kind of mannequin, you see that the waste can really add up. Each store could throw away 20 to 30 mannequins, so for a company with dozens (or hundreds) of retail locations, that amounts to a huge pile of mannequins. And typically, these mannequins get sent to landfills because they aren’t easy to recycle.

“Eighty percent of the mannequins are made out of fiberglass, and in addition to the fiberglass bodies, their stands are often glass or metal or a combination of the two,” Henderson-Townsend says.

Some mannequins are also made from plastic, while others are made from Styrofoam covered in jersey fabric.

“In general they are not biodegradable,” Henderson-Townsend says. “We have not seen any eco-friendly mannequins yet.”

To get rid of these old, nonrecyclable mannequins, retailers rent Dumpsters and fill them up.

As Henderson-Townsend points out, the cost of hauling away mannequins — or any solid waste — is pretty significant. Renting a large Dumpster can cost $800 per day, Henderson-Townsend says, so when she approached retailers with a more cost-effective, socially conscious alternative, many expressed excitement.

Keeping Mannequins Out of Landfills

Like clothes, mannequins come and go out of fashion. Photo: Shutterstock

When Mannequin Madness began, it operated on a regional level. Now the company has a nationwide network that allows it to pick up mannequins from a retailer anywhere in the country. This makes it quicker and easier for retailers to liquidate their mannequins — and because they don’t have to pay standard waste disposal rates, using Mannequin Madness’ services saves them money.

While many businesses have begun recycling their mannequins, many more still need to be educated about their options, so Mannequin Madness uses publicity and outreach to attract new clients. Henderson-Townsend also says store employees often reach out to her because they feel that their employers shouldn’t throw mannequins away.

Once mannequins arrive at Mannequin Madness, they are either resold, rented or sent to the “boneyard,” where people can buy mannequin parts such as heads, hands, torsos or legs. Reselling designer mannequins makes up a large portion of the business. Brand-new figures can cost between $750 and $1,000, so customers find significant savings at Mannequin Madness.

“Mannequins can really range in price,” Henderson-Townsend says. “There’s Hyundai and there’s Mercedes. They all look the same to the untrained eye, but when you get up close, you can see there are certain differences and nuances in them. We sell used Mercedes, as I call them.”

These mannequins, which come from high-end stores, are higher quality than other mannequins and are usually in good condition. Customers also purchase less expensive mannequins for special uses such as Halloween displays and publicity stunts.

The mannequins that the company rents are used for a variety of purposes. Businesses rent them for trade shows, people selling items on sites such as Etsy or eBay rent them for display purposes, and brides even rent them for their weddings to showcase their mothers’ and grandmothers’ wedding gowns.

Creative Reuse Ideas for Mannequins

ONE CUSTOMER EVEN USED A MANNEQUIN TO MAKE A MAILBOX. PHOTO: MANNEQUIN MADNESS

Mannequins are also used in some interesting upcycling endeavors. Customers visit the boneyard to buy mannequin parts, often for art projects. People have turned mannequins into painted statues, lamps, mosaics and even a mailbox. Henderson-Townsend has collected images of dozens of mannequin art projects on one of the company’s Pinterest boards.

“What I love is we just make [Pinterest] available for people to come up with creative ways to use mannequins. We fuel people’s imaginations,” she says.

According to Henderson-Townsend, she didn’t set out to save the world when she started Mannequin Madness. However, she has certainly done her part to keep difficult-to-recycle materials out of landfills, and she has fun doing it.

For more mannequin inspiration — from window displays to mannequin Christmas trees — visit Mannequin Madness on Pinterest.

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