SPOILER ALERT: The textile recycling industry is largely operating as a for-profit business model.  We’re talking ‘Economics 101’; supply and demand, folks.   There is a good chance that the clothes you donated to be given to someone in need will be bundled up, shipped overseas and sold.

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion states that ‘non-profits regularly receive more clothing than they can process and give back out.  Much of that surplus is bundled and sold all over the world’.  Now before we start crucifying the entire industry, let us consider the source of the situation as well as the alternative (landfill).

Trillion with a T

clothes recycling, textile recyclingAccording to a Marketline recycling industry report, the ‘world clothing and textile industry (clothing, textiles, footwear and luxury goods) reached almost $2,560 trillion in 2010’.  Yes, trillion with a T, and that figure is already four years old and likely larger now.

Clothing, a product just like any other, has its own life cycle.  When clothing reaches the end of its useful life, it will face one of several paths – reuse, recycle or discard (more about this in a moment).

‘There is an enormous disconnect between increasing clothing consumption and the resultant waste, partially because unworn clothes aren’t immediately thrown out like other disposable products,’ adds Overdressed.

By no means are we advocating everyone walk around naked.  However, it is important that we honestly assess our own personal impact of clothing ‘consumption’ – the human element in the equation.

  • Have you ever bought clothing you didn’t really need?
  • Have you ever donated clothing you never wore with the tags still on?
  • Do you regularly donate your clothes away or throw them away?

But its ‘only 5.7%’

The EPA estimates that Americans discarded over 14 million tons of textiles in 2010.  Those textiles represent about 5.7% of the total municipal solid waste (MSW).  While 5.7% may seem like a ‘small’ percentage, that is still 28,000,000,000 lbs. of clothing that could have been reused or recycled – every year.  Landfilling textiles burdens our environment and local communities and artificially decreases the lifespan of the product.  Enter clothing recycling.

‘A large, colorful industry’

The textile (clothing) recycling industry is an industry in which a commodity with market value both on and off the rack (clothing) is collected and transported from one party to another.   It is an industry that is over 200 years old.  It is an industry that has struggled with greenwashing and lack of transparency.

Philadelphia-based Community Recycling (CR), who employs approximately 35 full time employees, is striving to break down industry misperceptions, advocate for increased transparency and highlight the human element in all this.

  • “We’ve made a conscious effort to promote the fact that we are a for-profit organization and therefore we never use the word donation in our messaging,” states CR President & CEO Ira Baseman.
  • “Our missions are simple – to celebrate and humanize the importance of recycling as well as bring people together,” adds Baseman.

One of the ways in which the company is highlighting the human element in clothing recycling is through its personal sustainability report.  After giving, program participants can log on to their personal profile online and literally see the environmental impact of their actions; pounds of clothing recycled, gallons of water saved; trees saved, emissions avoided.

CR also offers the ability for program participants to ‘track’ the destination and in some cases the recipient of their actions.

  • For example, the Shoebox Recycling program allows those giving to include a personal written note with the shoes.
  • In another tracking example, the company was able to intercept and return a mistakenly given Cornell University sweatshirt (much to the relief of the wife who mistakenly placed it in the shipped box).

CR currently offers for recycling programs – CR Home, Shoebox, CR Campus and CR Kids.  Proceeds from recycling efforts through CR Campus and Kids can be used as group fundraisers.  One CR participant has to date collected over 1,000 lbs. of clothing, raising over $500 for her favorite animal shelter.

Empowering local communities

Through its network of partners, CR is helping local communities by investing in local businesses; helping individuals start businesses in other parts of the world.  In a way, the program educates people about not only about the benefits of recycling but also about geography through is tracking/communication element.

“We hope to make the world a little bit smaller and friendlier,” adds Baseman.

Engaging other key players

Looking to further engage the retail industry and encourage them to embrace clothing recycling in a personal and impactful way, CR recently reached an agreement with the Original Penguin brand.   As an early adopter of CR’s services, Original Penguin has engaged recyclers in 20 states across the country – and the list is growing.

  • “We see the opportunity to engage the apparel and shoe retailers as means of both raising awareness and building engagement,” says Baseman.
  • “The personal experience we offer around clothing recycling is intended to shift the balance and improve sustainability awareness and action across the board.”

A balancing act

“We realize we’re dealing with an imperfect industry,” says Baseman.  “However, we strive to constantly balance the human and business elements.  By promoting reuse, recycling we’re engaging the human element .”

Would you not participate in a recycling, program simply because it was used for profit?  Have you ever taken the time to contemplate your role in the clothing consumption cycle?

Feature image courtesy el frijole


By Chase Ezell

Chase has served in various public relations, communications and sustainability roles. He is a former managing editor for Earth911.com.