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Used Underwear Anyone? Apparel and the Circular Economy

What do we do with all the clothes in our closets when we are done with them? Many people donate their clothes to a local charity for resale, but the fact is, more than 80 percent of clothing ends up in the trash. The charities that take donated clothing ship most of it overseas to third world countries. This practice is causing business and employment losses in the textile industry in those countries. Upon arrival, items deemed unsellable end up in landfills in those countries.

Consumers are becoming more aware of environmental issues related to clothing. We need new, better options for used clothing. We need options like those at the center of the circular economy.

The idea of a circular economy promotes reuse of all parts of a product. It halts the process of “take, make, waste” that our current linear economy is built on. The circular economy encourages business and consumers to consider every step along the lifecycle of a product. It encourages manufacturers to design products so that valuable materials can be removed at the end of a product’s useful life and put back into production. It encourages consumers to find other uses for things they no longer want that still have some life to live.

There are many ways that the fashion industry is beginning to take part in the circular economy.  Apparel consignment is becoming very popular around the country.  We have Green Street Consignment which sells recently bought trendy clothing for great prices. Fellow B Corp Eileen Fisher is testing a take back and resale business. Customers bring back their Eileen Fisher clothing and get a discount coupon. Then the used clothes are sold in the Green Eileen store.

Many efforts are being made to figure out ways to break down apparel products into fibers that could be remade into fabric for new products.  Recycling cotton creates a lower quality fiber, but it can be combined with recycled polyester to create a quality product that is 100 percent recycled. One company that is doing this successfully is SustainU.  Their product is also made in America!

Recycled polyester is being use for many apparel products. It is made from both recycled fabric and plastic water bottles. Unifi manufactures recycled polyester fabric. They also have a take back program where they can break down fibers and create new material.  Their Repreve fabric is made from 100 percent recycled polyester. The innovative company Worn Again is working on a chemical process to separate and extract polyester and cotton from end-of-use clothing and textiles. This new technology will separate dyes and other contaminants from polyester and cellulose. It would allow companies to use these fibers again in apparel manufacturing.

Another organization that is doing great things for the environment and the community is Blue Jeans Go Green. They collect denim by partnering with businesses and community organizations. They “upcycle” the denim by turning it into insulation, which they then donate to Habitat for Humanity.  You can start your own denim drive by going to their website.  Upcycling clothing is a great way to keep used clothing out of landfills. There are small businesses all over the country that are selling upcycled clothing products.

While many creative solutions are helping build the circular economy in the apparel industry, more companies need to design for remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling.  We can preserve natural resources by designing products with the idea that they will be deconstructed so that these resources can be used again. Designers can also utilize the “zero waste design” method where designers fit their pattern pieces together like a puzzle. This method creates little to no scrap.

Sourcing and design must go hand in hand.  But in order to do this, companies must be the catalyst for sustainability. It will take leadership to support new methods of design in order for change to happen. Consider how much faster we could become a circular economy if we embraced the ideas of renewability, reuse, upgrade-ability, repair, and sharing.

So who wants used underwear? Well, the answer to the question is still no one wants used underwear or worn out clothes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t recycle these items. It’s all the more reason for the apparel industry to come up with better design for products to be broken down when used up, turned into usable materials, and remade into something people want. We should all be searching for – and encouraging – apparel companies that are doing things to reduce product waste.  Sending a message with your dollars will help push the industry to see the benefits of a circular economy for us all.