Clothes generate a lot of waste. From the extra fabric discarded during the design process to the unsold overstock to the disposable clothes consumers wear only a few times, it nearly all ends up in the same place sooner rather than later: a landfill or incinerator. Unwanted clothing, fabric and other textiles now make up the fastest growing wastestream in the United States.
During a recent webinar hosted by U.S. PIRG Education Fund as part of its Waste is Out of Fashion campaign, I had the opportunity to sit down with three expert panelists: journalist and Senior Contributor at Forbes Brooke Roberts-Islam; Founder and CEO of FABSCRAP Jessica Schreiber; and author and journalist Elizabeth L. Cline.
This is the second of a four part series looking at some of the highlights and lessons learned from Jessica Schreiber. You can view the recording to listen to the whole conversation and hear from the other panelists.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: On your website, it says: “The fashion industry has a waste problem...FABSCRAP is the solution.” Why did you start FABSCRAP, and how is your nonprofit helping to reduce textile waste?
A: I really became aware of commercial textile waste when I was working at sanitation overseeing the city's clothing recycling program. I actually had several brands reach out and ask if they could use the city’s program for their fabric and textile waste from the design process.
These weren’t finished garments or used clothing. We receive fabric scraps from the actual production process. I would say 75 percent of what we get are fabric swatches that designers get from fabric mills to choose what they’ll be working with that season. We get lots of sample yardage (1-2 yard cuts of fabric). We get deadstock on rolls, full leather skins, cones of yarn, zippers, buttons and embellishments. Closer to the end of the process we do get mock-up and mutilated garments, which are not quite finished samples, or the very first sample finished will be mutilated by a razor blade down the back because they are not planning to sell it.
It didn’t really fit into the existing nonprofit infrastructure. If you go to Salvation Army or Goodwill, you are looking for finished used garments, not so much the raw material. Hearing from these brands that this was a waste stream generated at high volumes and pretty often, I thought, “why isn’t there a nonprofit infrastructure for the raw materials, not just for the finished goods?” We can take all the industry waste and make it more available to fashion students, home sewers, crafters, artists and interior designers.
That’s where FABSCRAP came in. There’s about 12 percent of all material wasted just in the design process. Stepping in there to help alleviate some of that is where we’re working.
Q: In your experience, what motivates corporations to use your services. When a company first contacts you, why do they say why they want to recycle with FABSCRAP?
A: I think there’s a couple things. I will note that almost never are we meeting with companies at the C-suite level. Most of what is happening within companies is happening with the women’s design team or the fabric team, or sometimes the sustainability team. We have even had interns who have introduced us to their bosses, who sign up for service.
This is very much something that people within the company care a lot about. They want to work somewhere that is recycling in the same way they are recycling at home. Some of it is a little bit of guilt. I think these fabric buyers know how much that swatch or yard cost. Some of it is beautiful unique fabric, and so to throw it out kind of hurts. A lot of them were storing it under their desks or in closets. There is only so much that can go to fashion schools or to arts organizations. They can’t process it at such high volumes.
That is usually how brands reach out to us--feeling guilty about throwing things away. In some cases, it’s, “we want the data on the waste that we are throwing out.” Sometimes, but rarely, it’s “we want to comply with New York City law about disposing of textile waste.” But most of the time, it’s someone from a fabric or design team who is just looking for something better to do with the waste.
Q: There are almost no policies addressing this giant wastestream in the country. One exception is the New York City law you just mentioned, within the sanitation code, requiring companies with more than 10 percent of their waste streams as textiles to recycle. Can you speak a little bit about the role that the current textile policy in NYC plays, and where there is room for improvement?
A: The law is very specific and applies to businesses for which 10 percent or more of their waste is textiles. They are supposed to be recycling that textile waste. The difficult piece there is that prior to FABSCRAP there weren’t a lot of options for where to send this. There is only so much that can be donated or resold, so compliance was hard before FABSCRAP.
It’s also not really enforced. It’s a difficult law to enforce in NYC because buildings have the contract with their waste carrier, not individual companies on the floors. So on a highrise building, there are a couple fashion brands within those 40 floors. It gets hard to enforce at the street level. Even though it’s a sanitation code, it’s actually handled by the Business Integrity commission, and when I spoke with them they said they can't remember ever writing a citation for this law. There’s just not a lot of awareness because it’s just not super enforceable.
Q: What kind of changes are needed for more companies to take action to reuse or recycle their fabrics and deadstock?
A: That’s a big question. I do think there’s a policy component because right now it’s super cheap and super easy to throw it away. Making that less of an option, either through additional fees, enforcement, taxes or a tax benefit for choosing recycling or alternative. Right now, it’s just too easy and convenient to throw things away.
Another component and the reason FABSCRAP is so intent on measuring everything that comes in and is sorted and giving that data back to brands is because I don’t think most brands really have a full picture of that waste stream. It’s really really hard to characterize, and there's not a lot of transparency. I don’t think individual brands have a concept of what percentage of their waste happens during the design process and how much of that is paper, fabric or any number of things. Part of it is just the need for an awareness of what waste is being created.
Then the third piece, and maybe the most difficult, is an understanding of what end-of-life options do exist. Fiber-to-fiber recycling is an important component of this but it needs to get to scale. For brands to understand all of the end of the life options is a lot of work. That is where there is great partnership ability with third parties and being able to use the tech knowledge that exists in other sectors to help them make the best possible decision.
Jessica Schreiber is the Founder and CEO of FABSCRAP, which provides convenient pickup and recycling of fabric scraps from businesses in New York City and creates opportunities for reuse. Prior to launching FABSCRAP, she was responsible for New York City’s textile recycling and e-waste recycling contracts and programs as a Senior Manager in the Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability at the Department of Sanitation. She has a Master’s degree in Climate and Society from the Earth Institute at Columbia University and has been featured in Forbes, Waste360, and Apparel Magazine’s Top Elite Under 30.