Support for the fashion industry allows FABSCRAP to expand its reach
The fashion industry contributes 10% of global carbon emissions, far more than air transport. Part of this is pure waste, fabric discarded before or after sale that ends up in landfills. “We can do a lot better than that,” says Jessica Schreiber, co-founder of FABSCRAP, an organization that reduces and recycles textile waste. Launched in 2017, FABSCRAP works with more than 500 fashion brands, from Oscar de la Renta to Macy’s to J.Crew, and this week announced an expansion to Philadelphia. We caught up with Schreiber to find out more.
Ashoka: Jessica, wasted fashion is a problem most consumers don’t see. When did you meet this?
Jessica Schreiber: In higher school. I was studying climate science at Columbia. And I applied – begged, really – to intern at the Sanitation Department just as it was rolling out a clothing recycling program, ReFashioned NYC. So over the next five years, I was able to help develop that. I also got to know the thrift stores in the city very well, and that’s where I saw the volume of textile waste for the first time. Together, the five boroughs throw away 200,000 tonnes of textile waste each year, or 14 times the physical weight of the Brooklyn Bridge. Every year! It was my introduction to the impact of fashion on the planet.
Ashoka: You work along the supply chain, starting upstream from the consumer. Tell us why you chose this.
Schreiber: I found two really telling things when I was in the Sanitation Department. First, companies transferred responsibility for recycling and disposal to the consumer. But whether or not an item is recyclable is a design decision, which is why I wanted to start with the manufacturer of the products. And second, I would hear the brands themselves talking about the textile waste they created as part of the design process. About thirty companies contacted me about this. But the Sanitation Department does not manage commercial waste, so we could not integrate it into their programming. This is where the idea for FABSCRAP was born. We thought: let’s help companies reduce their waste and create the same savings infrastructure for raw materials that exists for used goods.
Ashoka: Can you tell us what happens to the fabric when it arrives at your warehouse and is sorted. Some of it ends up in the shredder, doesn’t it?
Schreiber: Yeah, so what we’re talking about here is actually downcycling. We can shred any fabric from any mix, as long as it is spandex free. The result is a poor quality called fluffy fiber pulp that is used in many things: insulation, carpet padding, mattress padding, moving blankets, even refrigerated meal delivery boxes. It is therefore not technically a question of recycling, but of a substantial extension of the life of the fibers. For the future, the industry is seeing the development of fiber-to-fiber recycling, such as 100% cotton that is mechanically or chemically manipulated to become a fiber again. This process is not quite ready to be used on an industrial scale, but it is happening and we are excited about it and we are already sorting it out.
For other waste, fabrics and even materials such as leather scraps, we redistribute or resell. We have fabric thrift stores in our warehouses, now including in Philadelphia, which are open to the public, as well as an online store. Our volunteers from the warehouse – the volunteer pool now numbers 7,000 in Brooklyn – can bring in five pounds of fabric for free from a shift. Additionally, we run pop-ups at fashion schools across the country, bringing designer fabrics directly to students. And that’s all thrift store prices and very high quality. As students undertake internships or take their first steps in their careers, we hope they will gain a new perspective on waste and responsible design and contribute to industry-wide waste reduction.
Ashoka: What other changes in mindset do you see?
Schreiber: Consumers are starting to care a lot about end-of-life clothing options, especially if the parts are designed to last long enough to be reused or repaired. Gen Z and a few young Millennials are on board, but this isn’t the group we need to convince that reuse and repair is cool, as they’re already looking for vintage ’90s and early 2000s stuff. But for older millennials turned baby boomers, saving is still stigmatized. That said, you have to be careful that your savings do not get bogged down. At FABSCRAP, we want to make sure that we don’t charge the price for communities that traditionally used and needed these lower prices.
Ashoka: And what about clothing brands?
Schreiber: When it comes to brands, each FABSCRAP partner receives a report of their diversion metrics, which are materials that can be kept from landfill when they are initially wasted. We are able to let brands know how much is recycled, reused, what went to landfill and why. For example, spandex cannot be recycled at this time. So we help brands understand that using spandex will reduce their number of diversions, that any item they produce with spandex cannot be recycled. These are comments that they do not necessarily receive from consumers. and forward-looking companies, CEOs and design teams, are able to anticipate and position their brand accordingly.
Ashoka: In addition to providing new performance metrics, how do you help brands improve?
Schreiber: Well, we’re replacing the verb “to give” first. It costs FABSCRAP to collect, sort, sell and shred. So donating tissue is not really precise. Even though we are a non-profit organization, we charge a service fee, just like any garbage collector. Our offer: we recycle your textiles. This helps establish that this is a waste stream and that not everything is usable. We want this waste to be part of the company’s bottom line. The most important point we make is about incentives: For cost-conscious brands, the solution is to create less waste – and we’ll help them too. Of course, landfill will always be our biggest competition, as it’s cheaper on the surface, but brands can’t market sending 15,000 pounds to landfill. They can market 15,000-pound recycling through FABSCRAP – and consumers and investors are increasingly paying attention to these new measures.
Ashoka: Further up the supply chain, is there a role for textile factories?
Schreiber: Yes, there are process improvements that we want to work on with brands and factories. The tissue sampling process is one of them. After three years of collecting textile waste from 500 brands, we realized that 75% of what we collect are fabric samples. At the start of each season, factories send new samples to the creators in their network, as this is essentially a marketing tool for them. Designers don’t always ask for them, and most 6×6-inch squares go straight in the trash. To reuse, we need a meter or more. As more and more things are shared digitally, a fabric yardstick with all digital information is possible and would create much less waste. It could also help factories offset costs and invite brands to be part of the selection process.
Ashoka: At the macro level, are there policy levers we should pay attention to?
Schreiber: I’m a big fan of extended producer responsibility policies and laws that essentially put the responsibility for the end of life of a product on the producer of that product. This exists for certain categories of products: for example, New York adopted it for electronics. If you are a retailer and sell electronics in New York State, you must also purchase credits that fund the recycling of those electronics. The volume of sales in the state determines how many credits you have to buy, so this is important in practice and in terms of changing mindset and aligning incentives. The result? It inspires companies to design products and handle returns differently and make items that can be deconstructed into recyclable or reusable parts. As these policy tools gain traction, we work with our brands to become forward-thinking companies and be recognized by consumers and other industry players for their first proactive steps.
Ashoka: For the future, what do you hope for?
Schreiber: I really hope that companies start to see themselves as stewards of the planet, take responsibility for their impact and work to reduce it. We can do a lot as individuals, but companies have exponentially more influence, power and impact over their choices. Hopefully we will go in a direction that goes beyond sustainability and ask ourselves: how can we evolve and build businesses that are truly regenerative?