This article was originally published in The Interline’s first Sustainability Report. To read other opinion pieces, exclusive editorials, and detailed profiles and interviews with key vendors, download the full Sustainability Report 2023 completely free of charge and ungated.

Key Takeaways:

  • Initiatives focused on reducing textile waste have been concentrated post-consumer – as a way of encouraging shoppers to buy more responsibly, and to extend the lifespan of their garments. But pre-consumer waste that originates in the design and development process is also a significant factor.
  • With more than 6 million tons of fabric waste created before the finished product stage, initiatives like the not-for-profit FABSCRAP have found ways to take in the industry’s excess fabrics and to challenge the notion of what constitutes waste.
  • Even these large-scale initiatives are a partial solution to a much deeper problem – one that will require different fashion stakeholders to unite in pursuit of a more complete vision for waste reduction and circularity.

If someone had told me 7 years ago that I’d be writing about textile waste, I would have never believed them. I used to be an eveningwear designer with dresses and gowns sold in major retailers and gracing the red carpet. I was extremely fortunate to have accomplished a dream career that I had always wanted, and it was the perfect fit for me. My experience in fashion was as fast-paced, cut-throat, and ego-filled, yet beautiful, ultra-creative, and inspiring as it’s always famed to be. Fashion design lived up to my expectations both good and bad except for one very crucial part – the fabric waste.

In between finished collections the design office was filled with paper bags, plastic bags, and tote bags bursting with fabric headers and swatches, cuttings, embroidery trials, and even yardage. At first, “clearing out” was a minor detail, just a chore that needed to be crossed off my list. But season after season, I started to pay more attention. I noticed how quickly the volumes of material accumulated, precariously stacked and ready to spill out at any moment. I noticed the carelessness in which the fabrics were added to those piles despite weeks of emailing vendors to create them. I also noticed that most of it was still in pristine condition. All these fabrics were classic examples of pre-consumer textile waste, different from post-consumer, or residential textile waste like used clothing, bedding, or linens.

image provided by fabscrap.

Over time, my concerns grew, and I began to question parts of the design process. Did we really need so many samples? Does everything have to be perfectly dyed-to-match? Worst of all: what happens to all this fabric? I became increasingly aware of how much I was contributing to the issues of waste and environmental impact by continuing to design. And then finally I asked myself: What do I actually want my contribution to society to be? I could continue to design with new materials and add to landfills, or I could pivot and help create sustainable solutions. I realized I had the opportunity to build a new legacy: one that involved setting an example for better design practices, while also supporting those who will ultimately shape the industry for the better. After that, my decision to commit to a new path and pursue work in sustainability became quite simple.

Pre-consumer, or commercial textile waste, are fabrics or materials that are discarded during the process of manufacturing goods by companies throughout the supply chain. Because this is an industry practice, most people are completely unaware of how severe the issue is, or that it is even happening behind the scenes. Even most textile waste management initiatives today are geared towards post-consumer (residential textile waste), and pre-consumer goes unaddressed – even though the volumes are considerable. It’s estimated that each year, 53 million tons of textiles are used to create clothing and 12%, or 6.3 million tons, are wasted during design and production [Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2017)]. What’s worse is that 62% of fabric is synthetic or chemical. These fibers take 30-40 years to break down in landfill, and 100 years to fully decompose, if ever [Patti, A., Cicala, G., Acierno, D. Eco-Sustainability of the Textile Production: Waste Recovery and Current Recycling in the Composites World].

image provided by fabscrap.

After transitioning from design, I built relationships with nearby design schools and brought any pre-consumer fabric I had collected from the Garment District directly to students in the form of pop-up fabric sales on campus. My first-ever fabric sale took place at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and I was allowed to set up a table outside on a cold winter day in December, right in front of the student cafeteria. I stood there freezing and anxious, flooded with doubts. Then slowly, more and more students approached me. They were shocked at the high quality and low price of the fabric, and even more surprised that it all came from design houses that would have otherwise sent the materials to landfill.

Those young designers explained to me how much that fabric meant to them, that they couldn’t wait to take it back to the studio, how it would allow their project to come to life in the way they dreamed, that they wouldn’t have to settle because they could now afford to work with their first choice. I was unprepared for these reactions, but hearing them, I was reminded of why I left fashion design. It was an overwhelming feeling of destiny, of purpose, and of fulfillment.

Today, I lead FABSCRAP with my partner, Jessica Schreiber. FABSCRAP is a nonprofit organization that has pioneered a system to recycle and reuse fabric waste, creating an accessible materials resource for creative communities while reducing the fashion industry’s impact on the planet. Over the last 7 years, FABSCRAP has diverted 1,545,242 pounds of pre-consumer textiles from landfill, the CO2-reducing equivalent of planting 154,524 trees. We’re able to accomplish this work through our textile waste collection service, fabric sorting, and our recycling/downcycling, and reuse resell operations.

image provided by fabscrap.

Though FABSCRAP keeps a significant amount of textiles from landfill, our recycling service and reuse initiatives alone are not enough. Yes, brands pay a fee for our recycling service, and while this fee helps fund and grow our operations and is a way to hold the industry more accountable for the waste it creates, true accountability goes beyond just paying for your “trash” pick up. Real action has to happen where waste begins.

Through my work at FABSCRAP, and over the years of working in sustainability, I believe that one of the reasons we haven’t seen real accountability is because we still aren’t asking the right questions to significantly change our behaviors. The fashion industry is more focused on “how can we fix this quickly?” or “how can we spin this messaging?” leading to counterproductive greenwashing that only creates more issues and worsens the task of awareness-building.

What we really need to be asking is: why is this fabric that was exciting yesterday considered waste today? What did we do to make this happen? And how can we prevent this from happening again?

Unfortunately “circularity” is now one of those trending sustainability terms that everyone is talking about, but in reality, no one really seems to know how to implement. The definition is fairly straightforward: use as many of the outputs of one cycle of design, development, and sale,  as possible to become the inputs for the next cycle, and so on. Putting that into practice involves challenging established practices at every stage of that cycle. And the danger of “circularity” falling into a greenwashing trap, and losing its concrete definition, is that we desperately need circular systems in order to turn things around for the better. Realistically, there are no other alternatives to reducing waste, and a circular approach starts with those simple questions that force us to stop and think about our actions.

image provided by fabscrap.

“Why is this waste?” This is a similar question to the one that made me transition from design all those years ago. But now, when I approach this question again after my years at FABSCRAP, I consider all the fabric sorting that happens at our warehouses, as well as the reuse collaborations with our community, and I grasp not just the scale of the problem, but the complexity and the urgency of the solution.

Any fabrics FABSCRAP collects from brand partners are sorted by hand to determine how they can be kept from landfill. Currently, the main alternatives to landfill are reuse, recycling, and downcycling. However, it’s the size and the fiber content that really determine the possible course of action a fabric can take. For reuse, we separate larger, easy-to-reuse pieces, and non-shreddable materials like leather, fur, vinyl, beaded or sequined fabric, and bonded or adhesive-backed materials. Cotton denim is collected as the “cleanest” category for recycling, and then all other synthetics, naturals, and blends are downcycled or shredded to become insulation.

Given the high volume of fabric that arrives each day, we constantly question why these fabrics were discarded so easily. Perhaps if more of the fashion industry better understood how the size and fiber content plays into the reuse, recycling, and downcycling alternatives there might be more thoughtful decisions throughout the supply chain process.

image provided by fabscrap.

I’d like to point out that all this work is still manual, and as with all topics of sustainability we cannot forget there is always a human element to consider. Every single FABSCRAP bag stuffed full of textile waste and all 6,000 pounds (around 2,700kg) of fabric that arrives weekly at our loading docks are lifted, carried, and sorted by people. Whether it’s our transportation partners, our dedicated volunteers, or our FABSCRAP team, these individuals courageously face the textile waste issue every day and literally move mountains of fabric to create change.

But all that heavy lifting is worth the result, especially when redistributing fabric to others. Aside from the obvious reasons to advocate for reuse and keeping a material in circulation, I realized the creative, hands-on nature of reuse also makes for a powerful tool in bonding our communities and increasing awareness about sustainability. Reuse projects incite partnership, support, and collaboration and though unquantifiable, the effects are significant. Over the years, I’ve met so many inspiring artists, designers, crafters, and makers within our community who are extending the life of these materials – they are the real heroes.

Every 10 pounds of fabric these individuals source from FABSCRAP and save from landfill has the same CO2-reducing benefit as planting a tree [Calculation based on Journal of Textile Science and Engineering]. In the process of building solutions that have a real, quantifiable impact on sustainability, we cannot forget the people who make change happen – whether they’re hauling heavy loads of fabric, or designing intentionally from textile waste.

When we think more about “what we did do to make waste happen?” and “how can we prevent this from happening again?” I think that a lot of these issues stem from the fact that the fashion industry simply needs updated and different training going forward – which is exemplified by the surprise young designers still express when they learn that there’s a viable alternative to sourcing new fabrics.

image provided by fabscrap.

What does it look like to instil that same attitude in big brands? I think every company should know, at the very least, how much material they are discarding, where it is going, and where it ultimately ends up, so that all the relevant job roles in the design and development and sourcing process are empowered to make improvements to the way they work, and to their contribution to the eventual sustainability profile of a garment.

Right now, FABSCRAP provides annual impact data reports as part of our recycling service because few, if any, companies have systems to track the results of their own actions. Most designers are taught how to drape fabric on a bust form, but are never taught whether the fiber content of the waste trimmed off from the bust form could be recycled or downcycled. Production knows how to create a final product, but using only newly ordered materials, not deadstock or waste. Buyers are trained to analyze YTD figures, but not what financial opportunities exist by reworking cancelled orders And sourcing and costing teams are cognizant of material yields, but primarily as a source of margin and efficiency – not as an opportunity to reduce the impact of their decisions.

Awareness, transparency, organization, and collaboration throughout the industry is imperative for all parties to understand what work is being done and therefore what more needs to happen to create impactful outcomes. True solutions exist if every part of the industry moves towards circularity. Current processes need to be reevaluated with the goal of waste reduction. Intentional zero waste planning should be fully integrated into the ideation phase of a product. We need to invest in reuse and any methods that help retain the original value of material. Ultimately, circularity should be considered at every step, not just at the first and last steps, and therefore is not only the responsibility of a designer, but of everyone who contributes to the lifecycle of a product.

image provided by fabscrap.

I’m still met with hesitation and skepticism about how and why fashion’s linear system needs to pivot, even now, in the shadow of a changing world and looming legislation. There is no time to second guess the need for change. Climate change and its devasting impacts are upon us. External regulation is a reality. Most importantly, we cannot be complacent with the small progress that has been made because no true solutions currently exist. Even at FABSCRAP, we are constantly battling staggering volumes of textile waste – and those volumes only continue to grow. Even in our small corner of the industry there is a desperate need to scale, and that urgency is mirrored in all aspects of our environmental efforts.

The fact that a small team of 15 FABSCRAP employees were able to divert almost 2 million pounds of fabric from landfill in 7 years is testament to what is possible if everyone takes action – we just need more people to do so. And the industry, and the world, needs those people to act quickly.

A few months ago, during a FABSCRAP event, a young man approached me. He introduced himself and explained that he was currently working in the fashion industry, but that years ago I had come to his design school for one of our pop-up fabric sales. He told me how much of an impact that fabric sale had on his life, how inspired he was to be a better designer, how it changed his approach to his job search after graduation and left a lasting impression on the type of career he would make for himself.

Talking to him, that familiar feeling came rushing back – destiny, purpose, fulfillment. I know I’m exactly where I need to be to help make a difference. Ask yourself: are you?