Why this company wants your old underwear

Why We Wrote This

The trend of “fast fashion” can feed a culture of disposability. Is the rise of apparel recycling an antidote or just a symptom of unsustainable practices? Perhaps a bit of both.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Sean Jacob Delvalle, an employee of Green Tree Textiles Recycling, processes donated clothes at Green Tree's drop-off center at the Stuyvesant Town Greenmarket on June 9 in New York City. The company has 10 drop-off locations across New York.

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Increasingly, sellers of clothing are also taking back clothing – for recycling, that is. Companies like H&M offer discounts on new apparel for drop-offs of used items. The idea is to keep old clothing out of landfills. Fair Harbor goes a step further, using recycled plastic bottles in its swimwear.

These are steps toward sustainability in an industry that, critics say, remains too reliant on a business model of disposability. But the old apparel often ends up merely shipped overseas or used to insulate homes.

Fashion companies should encourage people to keep their clothes longer and teach them how to properly wash them, some promoters of greener practices say. And that can require a shift in consumer thinking, too, given the way many people simply get tired of what’s hanging in their closet.

Some are making that shift. Canadian Sarah Jean Harrison says sustainable clothing is typically more expensive, “but you can use your buying power to make small changes, even if you just reduce how much you buy from a fast-fashion outlet.”

When Cayla O’Connell Davis launched Knickey, a subscription service for organic cotton underwear last year, she also started a recycling program for customers’ old underwear, allowing them to trade in worn-out undies for a new pair.

After just six months, Knickey has collected thousands of pairs and gained a steady customer base, and Ms. Davis calls it “a successful driver of business.”

But Ms. Davis, who has a master’s in sustainability from Parsons School of Design, also started the program to educate consumers about the impact their clothing choices have on the environment.  

“Brands have a responsibility to not only provide wonderful offerings but to also think about garments beyond the customer’s use and where that ends up in the world,” she says.

That focus on sustainability is on the rise among apparel businesses and customers alike. The idea of recycling fabrics may be at best a partial answer to improving this industry’s often-damaging environmental profile. Yet the success of companies like Knickey is a sign of how consumer attitudes are shifting. And recycling itself can be a foot in the door of consumer consciousness.

“Consumers need to look at the total effect” of their choices, says Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing for Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. If the goal is sustainability, he says, then rather than returning a product and buying a new one, it would be better to hold on to that shirt for another season.

Knickey, for its part, emphasizes the goal of sustainable materials and supply chains in its business, along with accepting boxes of no-longer-used undies.

Some shoppers show signs of critical rigor in their purchasing habits.

“I would want to see proof that the clothing is actually recycled and that companies aren’t just dumping them,” says Sarah Jean Harrison, a consumer who works as co-founder of the creative agency Peace Flag House in York, Ontario.

Five years ago, Ms. Harrison watched “The True Costs,” a documentary about the fashion industry, and stopped buying clothing. “I was always looking for cheap clothes that looked good and I realized I couldn’t be part of that anymore,” she says. For a long time she didn’t buy anything, then she started to buy vintage and secondhand clothes.

Now Ms. Harrison only buys clothes from sustainable brands. “I research the brand before I buy anything,” she says. She looks at the “about page” for information about where it’s made, who is making it, and where the company sources materials.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Serge Lazarev, founder of Green Tree Textiles Recycling, displays recycled fabrics made into insulation at the Stuyvesant Town Greenmarket in New York City on June 9. Green Tree processes about 20,000 pounds of fabric per week for reuse or recycling.

Other resources for assessing sustainability include the Good On You App, which rates different fashion brands, and Remake’s Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Fashion.

Knickey sends the used underwear to a local New York City nonprofit, Green Tree Textiles, where they’re sorted. Since underwear won’t be reused, it is recycled into insulation. When Green Tree receives clothing that can be worn again, it goes to for-profit and nonprofit partner organizations.

“Our mission is to keep it out of the landfill,” says Serge Lazarev, Green Tree’s director. Some of the clothes will end up overseas, but they’re sent by container ship so the impact on the environment is minimal, he says.

If anything, it’s now becoming the norm for U.S. clothing makers to offer textile recycling programs as an incentive to buy new clothing. 

Fair Harbor is both a gatherer and a user of recyclable materials. It uses old plastic bottles to make new swimwear. It also encourages customers to recycle used swimwear by offering a 10% discount for each swimsuit sent back, for up to 30% off their purchase.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Customers pass by the pop-up shop for Fair Harbor, an apparel company that produces swimwear made out of plastic bottles, in the Brookfield Place shopping center in New York City on June 9.

“We think it’s important to discard clothing correctly, and we’re happy to offer that service to our customers,” says CEO and co-founder Jake Danehy. Fair Harbor partners with 2ReWear, which is able to use about 45% of collected fiber “as is,” while the rest becomes things like home insulation, carpet padding, or wiping rags. However, most apparel that is reused “as is” is exported and sold in markets around the world.

Apparel firms ranging from J.Jill to H&M offer customer discounts for drop-offs of worn clothing. But experts say it can be difficult to know if collected items are actually recycled or just sent overseas to countries that may or may not want them.

“Giving a discount or coupon to shop is a marketing ploy,” says Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake, a nonprofit focused on educating shoppers. “We feel good about it but it doesn’t mean we’re actually recycling.”

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition developed the Higg Index to measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance. But unlike the term “organic,” there is no government agency defining sustainability or how to measure textile recycling, says Professor Galak. To a large degree each company can decide on its own how it will measure its sustainability efforts.

“That doesn’t mean it’s incorrect or bad,” he says. “It just means there isn’t an easy way to compare.”

Even just the process of collecting and sorting clothing has an impact on the environment. A consumer must ship or bring it to a retailer, and then it’s transported again by truck or ship for processing and reuse.

“The current pace of fast fashion is still outpacing our growth in sustainability,” says Rachel Faller, creative director and founder of Tonlé, which makes clothing from scrap waste sourced from mass clothing manufacturers.

Fashion companies should encourage people to keep their clothes longer and teach them how to properly wash them, she says. Clothes should be washed with cold water and, instead of putting them in the dryer, hang them to dry to increase their lifespan and decrease their carbon footprint, Ms. Faller adds.

The culture of disposability stems partly from low-quality apparel, but it’s also because people get tired of what’s hanging in their closet.

Ultimately, sustainability means a shift in buying habits. For instance, when Ms. Harrison started buying clothing again, she began budgeting and thinking strategically, because sustainable clothing is typically more expensive.

“It isn’t a feasible choice for everyone,” she says. “But you can use your buying power to make small changes, even if you just reduce how much you buy from a fast-fashion outlet.”

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