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Healthy Disruption Needed to Advance Clothing Recycling

I am sitting in the airport at Minneapolis, Minnesota, having just left the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) Retailer Sustainability Conference, and my mind is awash in the list of challenges and risks that were reinforced over the past few days. The U.S. retail economy plays an enormous role in our daily lives — it employs 25 percent of the U.S. workforce, represents more than 66 percent of the country’s GDP and undoubtedly plays a critical role in our environmental stewardship.

While the central theme of the RILA conference was sustainability, much was devoted to addressing recent advancements in technologies, the sharing economy, resource responsibility and transparency.

Sustainability in retail has followed a noticeable arc, starting with cost-saving programs around energy consumption, and waste reduction in operations and logistics. This has evolved into a careful analysis of supply chain and raw material provenance, with the purpose of removing any environmental impropriety.

Now, the industry is finally focusing its sustainability efforts on the consumer experience, authentic storytelling and stakeholder engagement that build long-term value. In this recent iteration of retail sustainability, defining the problem is the first step in creating new solutions. Disruption and displacement of the norm are needed to deliver results, and yet change can come from simple and effective initiatives.

For instance, the simple act of recycling is one that deserves to be reconsidered. More specifically, recycling for reuse delivers the most meaningful environmental, economic and personal impact — second only to reduction — according to the EPA. We are in the early days of a new wave of conscious consumerism, which I call the Reuse Movement.

The Reuse Movement strives to make the act of recycling clothing, shoes and accessories personal by connecting one individual to another through the recycling process and providing visibility into what happens when materials get reused. As individuals, our personal garments and styles are a reflection of who we are. People can let their style and personal choices live on by extending their items to another person for reuse, which creates a unique emotional attachment. Adding this personal, transparent layer to recycling disrupts the typical thinking about recycling our personal items. By encouraging and empowering consumers to recycle for reuse, retailers and manufactures can help define the narrative, build consumer loyalty and promote responsible consumption.

I started Community Recycling (CR) back in 2001 with a mission of full transparency, to ensure partners could trust that we were upholding ethical business practices and operations on both our consumer engagement and the life cycle of the materials that we redistribute and sell every day.

For the retail industry, we recently launched a program that provides consumers a free way to recycle clothing, shoes and accessories from the comfort of their own home — all they have to do is place their items into a box, print out a free shipping label and place the box on their front doorstep for pick-up by their mail carrier. Once shipped into the CR network, participants are invited to view their personalized sustainability report, where they can track the path of their recyclables.

The U.S. generates roughly 26 billion pounds of apparel, textiles and footwear each year, or approximately 82 pounds per U.S. resident, according to the U.S. EPA. However, only 15 percent is recycled, while the other 85 percent winds up in landfills. Sustainability and economic development are not mutually exclusive, but rather can be mutually beneficial because they put textiles and related items back into communities for reuse and resale. I believe this is a chance for consumers and companies to collaborate to reduce waste, conserve valuable resources, and create more economic opportunity - in other words, people recycling for people. This is the core energy and purpose of the Reuse Movement.

Economically, this movement is creating jobs around the world for the collection, handling and distribution of these materials. Many different types of business are engaged in the resale of textiles, including those developing new recycling methods, logistics companies that manage the flow and distribution, and retailers of all sizes and formats. As such, reuse fuels economies both here and abroad. From micro-entrepreneurs to larger, family-owned businesses in every corner of the world, more than 70 percent of the world depends on secondhand clothing and accessories.

The environmental benefits are equally compelling. Recently, the EPA reported that the recycling of clothing, shoes and accessories has a more favorable impact on reducing carbon emissions than plastic, glass and yard-trimming recycling combined. Even at the low level of 2 million tons annually of clothing recycling, this is the equivalent of removing 1 million cars from America’s highways.

As a for-profit enterprise, Community Recycling has created a portfolio of programs that deliver meaningful, engaging and convenient experiences to our consumer recyclers and partners. To this end, our story is about the human connections and community-building that come from reuse; we seek to raise awareness about both the environmental and social impact on the cultures we reach as an enterprise.

Through partnerships and initiatives such as ours, the recycling experience is personal and the impact is measurable, even for the individual recycler. And for the retailer or manufacturer, it enhances the sustainability reputation for the brand, while requiring little effort or investment on the operational side.


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