Can recycled rags fix fashion's waste problem?

NEW YORK • Tucked away in the bowels of the Brooklyn Army Terminal is a 372 sq m warehouse filled from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with garbage bags.

They contain cast-offs from New York's fashion studios: mock-up pockets ripped from sample jeans, swatches in next season's paisley print.

Nearly 2,700kg of textile scraps arrive each week to be inspected, sorted and recycled by five staff members and many more volunteers at FabScrap, the non-profit behind this operation.

Since 2016, it has helped New York's fashion studios recycle their design-room discards - the mutilated garments, dead-stock rolls and swatches that designers use to pick materials and assess prototypes.

So far, the organisation has collected about 226,000kg of fabric from the design studios of large retailers and independent clothiers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Their discards have been shredded and recycled into stuffing and insulation or resold to fashion students, educators and artists.

"So much waste gets created in the design process," said Ms Jessica Schreiber, executive director of FabScrap. "It's the tip of the iceberg."

As climate change has accelerated, corporations of all kinds have become increasingly preoccupied with their sustainability cred. Four out of five consumers feel strongly that companies should implement programmes to improve the environment, according to a recent Nielsen study.

Clothing companies in particular have faced pressure to change, from politicians, protesters at fashion shows and shoppers of all ages who want to reduce their carbon footprints. The fashion industry is often erroneously cited as the second-most-polluting business in the world, but overproduction, chemical use, carbon emissions and waste are certainly issues it contends with.

For a designer, cutting down on waste is not as simple as recycling a few bags of fabric every week. It requires overhauling the brand's business model: forgoing seasonal collections; eschewing - or being rejected by - traditional retailers that accept only large orders and standard packaging; selling directly to consumers; and getting design teams to think about the sustainability and supply chain of each material and garment.


It is hard to pinpoint how much waste is created before a garment even reaches the consumer. Factory waste is not tracked by outside agencies. Supply chains are now so complex and reliant on remote contractors and subcontractors that the companies cannot account for all the materials.

Even if a brand wanted to find out how much fabric waste it created, "it would be very difficult for them to research that, because different factories might have different processes," said Dr Timo Rinassen, an assistant professor of sustainability at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Dr Linda Greer, the founder of the Clean By Design programme and a former toxicologist at the Natural Resources Defence Council, has advised many garment and dyeing factories in China. She said brands frequently reject fabrics because they do not match the desired shade exactly.


Once a garment is complete, it can present another problem: excess inventory. In some cases the garments are incinerated, which prevents them from being resold at a discount, Dr Rinassen said.

Last year, Burberry burned US$37 million (S$50 million) of clothing and cosmetics to maintain "brand value". The previous year, H&M came under scrutiny after it was reported to have incinerated more than 50,000kg of unsold merchandise.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2019, with the headline 'Can recycled rags fix fashion's waste problem?'. Subscribe