Used clothing a recycling facility

The clothing industry is a huge energy and water hog that accounts for about 4% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. While the slow fashion movement is starting to disrupt the industry, there is a dire need for ways to reduce textile waste. We identified three companies that are working to keep textiles out of landfills.

FABSCRAP: Collecting & Recycling Pre-consumer Textiles

Fabscrap processes pre-consumer fabric in the New York City and Philadelphia fashion industries. The company works with designers and entertainment companies to recycle and reuse fabric waste from the design process. This is a very small part of the waste associated with the clothing industry, says company founder Jessica Schreiber. But her company is not big enough to handle textile waste from the manufacturing process.

After Fabscrap picks up textile waste from its customers, volunteers sort it into the following categories: landfill waste, fabric that can be upcycled, or fabric that must be downcycled. Schreiber stressed that most textile waste is downcycled into shoddy. (Shoddy is low-quality material that manufacturers use for mattress stuffing, insulating, carpet padding, and other non-clothing purposes.)

Schreiber explains that most fabric consists of blended materials, in other words, a mix of synthetic and natural fibers. Because it’s too difficult to separate those fibers, clothing made of blended material is likely to be downcycled. Unless the fabric is made of a single fiber type, such as 100% cotton, it’s very hard to recycle old clothing into new clothing.

Fabscrap picks up 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of textile waste weekly, or approximately 260,000 pounds annually, and has over 8,000 volunteers to help with sorting. The company rewards volunteers with 5 pounds of fabric per work session. Fabscrap sells reusable fabric in its physical stores in New York City and Philadelphia.

Goodwill: Reusing Clothing Directly & Recycling the Rest

Goodwill Industries is a worldwide nonprofit organization that helps people improve their lives through job training, employment opportunities, and more. Some local Goodwill chapters also provide hot meals, financial literacy training, and childcare. You may be most familiar with the nonprofit through its regional thrift stores that sell inexpensive used clothing and home goods.

In 2020, the regional Goodwill Chapter of Greater Cleveland and East Central Ohio helped more than 819,000 people. It also deferred 18 million pounds of goods donated to its Goodwill stores from landfills. Four million pounds of those goods Goodwill either dedicated to an aftermarket program or recycled.

If clothing items don’t sell at a Goodwill store, the nonprofit offers them at its outlet stores where it sells textiles by the bin at just $1.59 per pound. Textiles that don’t sell at this second market are sorted into categories — rags, clothing, or linens — and baled. The aftermarket retailers who buy these bales often send the material to other countries where they are used to manufacture shoddy or downcycled into rags.

The Goodwill staff that we talked to stated that Goodwill prefers donations of undamaged textiles that it can sell in its stores. However, Goodwill does have this multi-step process to avoid the waste of any usable textiles.

Baled clothing for resale and recycling
Aftermarket retailers that buy clothing that Goodwill can’t sell often ship it to other countries to use for shoddy or rags.

ForDays: Circular Economy Fashion & Collecting Unwanted Clothing

Sustainable clothing brand ForDays works hard to close the textile waste loop by selling zero-waste clothing and accepting clothes for recycling.

ForDays reuses all of its manufacturing fabric waste in new ForDays clothing. The company also recycles the used ForDays clothing that customers return. It becomes fabric that ForDays uses to create new clothing collections. In addition, the company accepts clothing from any brand in any condition. To donate clothing, purchase a $20 Take Back Bag, fill it with clothing, and receive the $20 back as credit towards your next ForDays purchase.

ForDays clothing is zero waste because it is designed to be recycled. It is 100% organic cotton with minimal elastic and is easy to disassemble for recycling. When the company receives donated clothing made of blended material, it sells the fabric to manufacturers to make shoddy.

“At ForDays, we strongly believe that all fashion businesses must take responsibility for what happens to clothes after our customers love them and wear through them,” says ForDays CEO Kristy Caylor. “Our goal at ForDays was to figure out how to make participation in the circular economy an easy, seamless, and rewarding experience for all fashion lovers.”

Currently, ForDays accepts clothing for recycling only from the United States. The company has plans to expand the recycling program into Europe

How Consumers Can Help Reduce Textile Waste

While these are just a few of the many approaches that communities and companies can take to reduce textile waste, consumers must play a part too. Each of us can strive to buy secondhand, which means we are giving textiles a second chance. We can also reduce our overall clothing consumption and only purchase items we know we’ll wear many times. We can support sustainable clothing brands, buy quality clothing made of natural fibers, and care for it properly so it will last.

EarthDay.org has additional tips to help you sustainably shop for clothing. Consider shopping with retailers that recycle your clothing for you.

By Maureen Wise

Maureen Wise is a freelance writer for a number of green-leaning companies. She also works in higher education sustainability and previously in watershed restoration. Wise serves on the board of two environmental nonprofits, is a solar owner, and is a certified master recycler.