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Clothing Recycling: Why Is It So Hard?

Chief Boss Lady Ambika Singh

In 2016, I founded Armoire, a clothing rental company serving ambitious women. We’ve taken inventory lifecycle management seriously since day one. We pride ourselves on diverting clothing from the landfill, and have performed over 17,000 garment repairs and created over 700 upcycled styles. Armoire has donated nearly 9,000 garments to nonprofit organizations to date, most recently, to our fantastic local partner, Dress for Success Seattle. But some garments we retire from inventory don’t meet our quality standards for donation, thus we started looking into clothing recycling options. Read on for more on that.

But First, Market Demand

Many of our members join Armoire to access style variety without the financial and environmental costs of participating in fast fashion. The service dramatically changes members’ relationship to clothing and traditional retail habits: in a fall 2022 customer survey, 75% of members shared that they reduced shopping frequency after subscribing to Armoire for three months, and 91% wear an item from Armoire at least once a week, minimizing new clothing purchases. Also in that survey, “sustainability” emerged as a primary motivation for our customers’ loyalty for the first time in company history. 

This customer sentiment is not unique to Armoire clothing renters. The World Economic Forum reports that consumers are increasingly preparing to spend more on sustainable products. And retailers are responding. It’s difficult to buy a pair of joggers these days without seeing a pop up or spotlighted content about a brand’s sustainability initiatives. 

Armoire has built a customer base that is bought in. They’re not joining Armoire because they want to rent a specific piece from a certain luxury designer. They’re opting into a sharing economy that helps them experience clothing variety for every aspect of their lives. Compared to the apparel industry sell-through rate of 69%, Armoire inventory has a 98% usage rate because members vote on and determine what we purchase. These same customers have pushed us to make more sustainable operational investments as well, including our 100% recycled and dual-use packaging from EcoEnclose.

How We Tackle Clothing Recycling

Fashion is the second most polluting industry globally, so we anticipated there would be a robust ecosystem of potential clothing recycling partners to consider–that we might have several great options given the market opportunity. Instead, we encountered a complicated network of opaque operations and required minimums to exclusively serve industry giants. We learned about a few offerings that left us wondering what clothing recycling even means. One firm promised us a video of shredded clothing as their final deliverable. 

We attempted to find the right clothing recycling solution via Threadcycle, a public education campaign of King County and Seattle Public Utilities. But the King County transfer stations that offer Threadcycle textile recycling do not include Seattle in their service areas. What’s more, many Threadcycle partners are nonprofit organizations who sort textiles to be donated, but don’t disclose where they go thereafter. This didn’t meet our transparency requirement–we’re putting in effort to recycle our clothing, and we want to make sure that’s actually happening. 

textile waste

We have since found Looptworks, a Portland, Oregon-based company partnering with businesses to transform excess textiles into usable materials. Their website is full of free educational content, the brand partners they cite are reputable, and they answered our call–a low bar that few Threadcycle partners were able to clear. On this call, we learned that we don’t meet the required volumes to work directly with Looptworks, but through partnership with another local Seattle company, we’re able to bridge the gap. As of May 2023, we’re working with Dügood to recycle our retired inventory. 

Dügood is a family-owned and operated junk removal and donation pickup service for people and businesses who care. Founded in Ballard on the triple bottom line principle (people, planet, prosperity), Dügood takes the time to sort through every pick-up they receive to find it the best second home possible. They achieve this thanks to their ever-growing list of vetted partners that focus on reuse, recycle, and repurpose, as well as partners supporting struggling members of the community. Partnerships are a huge part of what makes Dügood successful, a strategy that brought them to Armoire and Looptworks. They are 1% for the Planet Certified, and will combine our clothing for recycling with other local-area clothing pickups for delivery to Looptworks at the quantities that make sense. They empathize with the challenges associated with going the circular, responsible route, and together we are collaborating to make the circular economy more accessible and honest to everyday people and businesses.

There’s money to be made in positioning a company or an initiative as eco-friendly, but there’s a serious lack of governance thereafter. When profit or perception is the priority, organizations are not always incentivized to do the right thing, or required to do the sustainable thing that they’re selling. Building a circular economy is complicated, expensive, and it takes time. It also requires more strategic marketing–you have to find the people who care enough to spend more until the foundations and processes are in place. 

But in exchange for those extra consumer dollars or government grants, we must demand more accountability, including oversight and support from our government agencies. I’m thankful to Dügood and Looptworks for helping us achieve more responsible disposal of our retired inventory, and hopeful that this will get easier over time–especially in a city like Seattle, which has so much natural beauty to lose in getting this wrong, and so many potential circular economy customers to create in getting this right. 

What You Can Do

We’re eternally grateful for our customers who care about sustainable clothing practices. Together, we can make a difference—and we’re here to make it an enjoyable, rewarding journey. If you’re new to this mission, welcome. Here’s what you can do to support the cause:

Armoire tackles clothing recycling

Mindful Consumption

Embrace conscious consumption habits. Be selective about your purchases, focusing on quality and longevity rather than trends. Prioritize items that align with your values and support businesses committed to sustainable practices. And, of course, rent.

Clothing Care

Recognize the inherent value and meaning in clothing. A well-cared-for garment can withstand the test of time and hold sentimental value. Now that you’re purchasing with a purpose, aim to maximize the lifespan of every item. Invest time and, if needed, a small amount of money in maintaining your wardrobe. Build a relationship with a tailor, choose a green dry cleaner in your neighborhood, and adopt thoughtful laundry practices. Spending a little now can save you from the need to purchase something entirely new down the road.

Donation Initiatives

Donation Initiatives

Support donation initiatives by contributing clothes that are in good condition. Consider local charities, thrift stores, or organizations like Dress for Success that work towards helping those in need. By giving your clothes a second life, you contribute to a more circular and sustainable fashion cycle. Remember to wash and clean the clothing items before donating them.

Clothing recycling

Effective Clothing Recycling

When items are beyond repair or donation, opt for responsible recycling methods. While this is clearly not as easy as we’d like, we implore you to explore local textile recycling programs or businesses that specialize in transforming textiles into usable materials. Ensure your discarded clothing is repurposed in an environmentally friendly manner.

Get creative for clothing recycling

Get Creative

With a little creative thinking, you can contribute to a more sustainable and eco-friendly fashion cycle. From upcycling projects to household uses, I’ll leave you with some ideas to keep your old clothes out of the landfill. Most of these ideas require no special talent nor sewing skills.

21 Ways to Get Creative with Clothing Recycling

  1. Clothing Swap Parties: Organize or participate in clothing swap events with friends. It’s a fun way to exchange clothes and refresh your wardrobe without spending money. Think Armoire, but on a smaller scale.
  2. Quilting or Patchwork: If you have pieces with interesting patterns, consider using them in quilting projects or patchwork designs for blankets or pillows. If you’re not the sewing type, you might find local quilting groups that would be happy to take your donations.
  3. Composting Natural Fibers: If you have clothing made from natural fibers like cotton or linen, you can compost them. Cut them into small pieces and add them to your compost bin.
  4. Sell or Consign: If your clothing items are in good condition, you can sell or consign them at second-hand stores or online platforms. 
  5. Make Cleaning Rags: Use old t-shirts or towels as cleaning rags. Cut them into smaller pieces and repurpose them for household cleaning.
  6. Wrapping paper: Presentation is everything! The next gift you give, wrap it beautifully in old textiles. Tie it up with scrap ribbon, twine, or yarn.
  7. Classrooms: Many family and consumer science classes (FACS, formerly known as Home Ec) teach high schoolers how to sew and alter clothing—and these programs are typically short on budget.  Reach out to the FACS department at your local public school to see if their students could use some practice items.
  8. Memory Quilt: If you have sentimental T-shirts from memorable events or special occasions, consider creating a memory quilt. There are many businesses online that will do the work for you.
  9. DIY Crop Tops or Tanks: Transform old t-shirts into trendy crop tops or tanks for the gym. Get creative with cutting and tying to give your old tops a fresh and stylish look.
  10. Sweater Pillow Covers: Repurpose old sweaters into cozy pillow covers. Simply cut and sew, or even tie, the sweater fabric to fit over existing pillows.
  11. Make a Rag Rug: Cut old clothing into strips and use them to make a colorful rag rug—no sewing required. 
  12. Braided Headbands: Braid strips of fabric from old t-shirts to create stylish headbands. 
  13. Pouches or Clutches: Repurpose heavy fabric like denim to create small pouches or clutches. Add zippers or buttons for closures, and you’ll have a unique accessory for carrying small items.
  14. Customize Denim Jackets: Give an old denim jacket a new life by customizing it. Add patches, embroidery, or paint to create a personalized and trendy piece of outerwear.
  15. Children’s Clothing: Transform adult-sized clothing into smaller outfits for children. This is especially useful for sentimental items you want to pass down to the next generation.
  16. Handmade Yarn & Ribbons: If you have a talent for crocheting or knitting, turn old garments into yarn by cutting them into strips. Or, make ribbon for various DIY projects. Think: ribbons as shoelaces to elevate simple sneakers.
  17. Repurpose Silk Scarves: If you have silk scarves that you no longer wear, repurpose them into tops, stylish headwraps, purse straps, belts, and more.
  18. DIY Sandals or Espadrilles:Use fabric from old clothing to create unique sandals or espadrilles. There are many tutorials available online for crafting your own footwear.
  19. Pet Accessories: Make pet accessories like bandanas or small blankets from old clothing. An old sweater can be reduced to a pet sweater with just a few modifications.
  20. Beach coverup: Change the length or hemline of longer dresses for a whole new look and purpose.
  21. Mug wrap: Orphaned socks make an easy coffee cup sleeve, as would just about any sleeve from a sweatshirt or long-sleeved tee.

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