Textile Waste Is the Next New Product

June 19, 2017
nicole bassett
Co-Founder, The Renewal Workshop

Most materials used to make clothing are not recyclable today. Because of this, 12.7 million tons of textile waste is sent to landfills each year in the United States. While the US has some systems to extend the life of clothing, such as Goodwill, fewer than 20% of clothing donations made to charities are resold there.  About 45% of clothing donations are exported by for-profit traders to developing countries around the world. In 2013, the United States exported about 860,000 tons of secondhand apparel to developing countries. The market for the unloading of used apparel is shrinking though, as the East African Community has banned the import of used apparel from western nations starting in 2018. The issue is quickly becoming a domestic one, as textile waste is the fastest-growing component of municipal landfills. The system is linear and it is broken.

The Renewal Workshop was created to change the paradigm of this linear system and to create a circular economy for the apparel industry. This case study will outline why this is important and how it can be done, along with the impact on the environment and on sustainable manufacturing jobs.

Extending the Linear Model First

The apparel industry operates under a linear economy. Apparel comes from natural fibers or synthetic ones derived from fossil fuels. These fibers are spun into yarns, made into fabrics and then apparel, and used. At the end of that use there is no system to capture and recover the resources already invested into those clothes. Today we call it waste, but in a circular economy that “waste” material is ready to go on to its next phase.

The idea of “next phase” is critical when thinking about a material, where it is in its life cycle, and where it goes next. It might be something that moves quickly; take, for instance, an apple—its phases could be blossom, to fruit, to food, to compost, to soil, to nutrients, and so on. Something like a textile, however, could have a slower path—seed, to cotton, to fiber, to yarn, to fabric, to sweatshirt, and stay at sweatshirt for 20 years or more. It then could become a rag, fabric woven into carpet, and then shredded and recycled into a new yarn.

The Opportunity Is in Use

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation laid out a framework and collective vision with its definition of a circular economy.

A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles. This new economic model seeks to ultimately decouple global economic development from finite resource consumption. A circular economy addresses mounting resource-related challenges for business and economies, and could generate growth, create jobs, and reduce environmental impacts, including carbon emissions. As the call for a new economic model based on systems-thinking grows louder, an unprecedented favorable alignment of technological and social factors today can enable the transition to a circular economy.” – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

When reading the Ellen McArthur Foundation Butterfly Framework, the emphasis needs to be on the inner circles. Either cascading the renewables or maintaining, reusing, redistributing, and refurbishing the technical nutrients.

How The Renewal Workshop Prioritizes the Inner Circles of Circularity

Apparel brands and retailers have the greatest tension between the linear and the circular economy. The current system for brands is designed to go in one direction—they make products to be sold to customers and they do not want them back. Their products come back to them, however, for a variety of reasons: returns, warranty, damages, or overstock. In the case of damaged product, an issue as simple as a missing button will triage a product to “waste” because apparel brands have no capability to fix the product here in the United States. Ninety-seven percent of apparel is produced outside of the United States, and so brands have no core competency in the manufacturing of their own product, let alone in repairing it. With no system to effectively deal with this unsellable inventory, the typical solution is shred and landfill.

To help brands and retailers transform this linear process and move this unsellable inventory to the next phase, a system that uses the inner circles of the Ellen MacArthur Butterfly Framework—maintenance, reuse, refurbish, recycle—needed to be designed.

The Renewal Workshop created that system for this next phase by partnering with apparel brands and retailers to recover value from their unsellable returns and excess inventory. Our Renewal System takes discarded apparel and textiles and turns them into one of three categories: renewed apparel, upcycling materials, or feedstock for recycling. These categories align with the Butterfly Framework, recovering the highest amount of value for each product.

Renewed Apparel

Renewed apparel sits within the inner cascades of the Butterfly Framework—using materials at their highest value for as long as possible. The clothing is cleaned using state-of-the art liquid CO2 technology and repaired in our renewal facility with the goal of getting as much product as possible back out into the market.

Renewed apparel is sold back to the brand so they can sell it through their own sales channels, sold wholesale to retailers, or direct-to-consumer at http://www.renewalworkshop.com/. The Renewal Workshop e-commerce launched in February 2017, where one-third of the products received that can be processed have made their way for online sales. To ensure product quality The Renewal Workshop is the certified renewal partner of the brand and the accompanying label in the garment acts as a seal of trust and quality.

Upcycling Materials

The upcycling stream is made up of product that is deemed not to be renewable but contains materials that can be used to create entirely new soft goods and apparel. We serve as a supplier of upcycling materials as well as a manufacturer of our own and potentially other brands’ products. Upcycling or remanufacturing removes the need for new raw materials to be created—for instance, the fabric of a jacket becomes a new tote bag.

Recycling Stock

Through our own efforts and in partnership with our network of recyclers and partners around the world, we are creating systems and new technologies to recycle apparel that cannot be renewed or upcycled. We take product at its lowest value—true waste—and turn it back into fiber, yarns, or new fabrics that can be sold back into the downstream supply chain to manufacture new clothing and textiles. This turns that zero-value waste into the valuable raw materials that the industry depends on, but with substantial environmental and financial savings. 

The Most Sustainable Article of Clothing Is the One Already Made

The focus for decades has been on making the apparel supply chain reduce its negative impact on the environment and improve its impact on human lives. Efforts in organic agriculture, recycled materials, and Fair Trade have all made incredible advances. Those efforts must continue, but must now include a focus on extending the life of a garment, as this has a significant effect on impact. WRAP, a U.K. nonprofit committed to resource efficiency, identified that if people were to use their clothes for an additional nine months, they could see footprint reductions of 22% less carbon, 33% less water, and a reduction in waste of 22%.

The Renewal Workshop applied our own methodology to measuring the impact of renewed apparel by looking at life cycle analysis (water, carbon, toxics, and energy used) to make an original material combined with the weight of the garments diverted from landfills. In only six months of manufacturing, we have diverted 16,000 pounds of apparel from landfills and created an environmental savings equivalent to 89,000 gallons of water, 47,000 pounds of toxic chemistry, and the equivalent carbon impact of 11,000 gallons of gasoline.

Circular Economy Jobs

The positive impact on the environment is not the only aspect to highlight with The Renewal Workshop’s circular economy model. In the United States, there has been a strong focus on creating and growing manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing has been associated with the living wage jobs that created the middle class. Developments in globalization and technology have dramatically changed the landscape of manufacturing, where production lines are built to move volume through at the cheapest rate possible.

In remanufacturing, or as The Renewal Workshop frames it, renewing, the work varies based on the specific problem at hand. Repair type and materials change with each garment, which means that a high level of skill and problem solving is required combined with the ability to be nimble and agile to drive efficient production. Technology can be used where processes are redundant, simple, and predictable.

The Renewal Workshop has created eight circular economy jobs so far, which required adjusting skills and problem solving approaches. Our work is developing a new kind of workforce: one that positions communities that support circular economy work to increase the quality of jobs they provide to the community.

Real Impact

The apparel industry is going through a transformative shift in part to the efforts of The Renewal Workshop. The infrastructure and services needed to take discarded apparel and manage it for the highest use creates significant positive environmental and human impact. By extending the life of materials already produced and preparing them as feedstock into new materials, brands and retailers now can start to do business in an economy that is truly circular.