When you’re on the phone with a 16-year-old girl, the conversation naturally veers toward a topic you can both relate to: shopping. Only I’m not chatting with just any teenager. This is Isra Hirsi, daughter of freshman U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar and the executive director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strikes. I choose my words carefully here.
“So as a climate justice advocate, where you buy your clothing from must be pretty important to you,” I begin.
“Yeah,” Isra replies. “I do shop at Urban Outfitters when I can afford it. I used to thrift a lot, and I would buy my clothes through this swap at my school — it’s like Depop but via high school.”
I’m surprised and oddly relieved. If one of the most prominent figures in the global climate movement occasionally shops fast fashion, does that mean I can let myself off the hook for buying a new pair of jeans? The answer depends on what I do with those jeans when I’m done wearing them.
Our planet is drowning in clothing. We’re buying and throwing away our clothes at a devastating rate: consumption of fashion is projected to rise from 62 million tons today to more than 102 million tons by 2030. The majority of what we’re buying is only being worn a few times before getting tossed in the trash: according to the “Fashion at a Crossroads” report, an estimated 95% of clothing thrown out with domestic waste could be re-worn, reused or recycled. Just 1% of clothing is recycled worldwide — the rest is incinerated, downcycled or tossed into landfills. We’re dressing our way into an environmental deadend.
All this “newness” is also messing with our mental health. According to a 2017 Greenpeace survey of international buying habits, people know they’re buying far more than they need or use and more than half of global shoppers report feeling guilty about their shopping habits. “The concern is that overconsumption is fueling the anxieties of modern life; destroying the planet while undermining true happiness.”
Depressing stuff, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — or, more accurately, at the end of the loop. Our planet can’t sustain our take-make-use-dump model for much longer, which means abandoning traditional linear economic models for a closed-loop system. To solve our fashion trash problem, brands are getting serious about addressing the elephant in the boardroom: if you’re going to make a product, you better have a plan for what happens when the customer doesn’t want it anymore. That’s easier said than done, which is where Nicole Basset comes in.
“The world is done with making things,” says Nicole on the phone. “We don’t need more things in the world — we have enough to last many lifetimes.”
Nicole is the co-founder of Renewal Workshop, a company that takes discarded apparel and textiles and finds ways to squeeze every last ounce of value out of those products. Her Oregon workshop is a factory where brands can send their non-sellable merchandise for “renewal.” Items like ski jackets and yoga pants are sorted, thoroughly cleaned and expertly repaired so they’re like new again. From there, the brand resells this clothing at a discount and ships it directly to the buyer from the workshop. If a garment can’t be repaired, it’s deconstructed and its parts are recycled or given a second life as components for something else.
“We’re having this visceral response to feeling like we own too much stuff,” says Nicole. “We feel like it’s silly to buy something new when there’s something perfectly good already available. Customers care about the planet and its resources. We want to participate.”
Maybe the most famous example of the renewal model in the outdoor industry is being led by Patagonia. The brand took out an entire page in The New York Times for its infamous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign. The ad itself was ultimately a failure considering sales went through the roof, but it did get people talking about the idea of the repair-and-reuse model. Keeping clothing just nine extra months can reduce the related carbon, water and waste footprint by 20-30% (WRAP, 2012). To help their customers do that, Patagonia launched the Worn Wear repair service. Customers can get help sewing on patches or repairing zippers, trade in the jackets they no longer want for a retail credit, or buy an expedition sewing kit for on-the-trail repairs.
Patagonia isn’t alone. Toad & Co, prAna and The North Face were all early adopters of the Renewal Workshop model, with more brands jumping on board every season. REI hosts its own recommerce webstore. Household names like Nike, Haglofs and adidas have begun piloting take-back initiatives, while smaller direct-to-consumer fitness favorite Girlfriend Collective recently announced its ReGirlfriend program. This summer, Arc’teryx launched its Rock Solid Used Gear program, buying back used gear still in good condition for recommerce.
Even non-endemic brands like the Reformation, who famously made the idea of sustainablity sexy to the fashion industry, have started innovating on ways to educate customers and convince them to keep their clothes out of the dump. Through their Ref x ThredUp partnership, you’ll get a shopping credit for new clothes in exchange for your old styles, which are renewed and resold on ThredUp’s recommerce website. Madewell is making strides in the take-back space, too. (Bring your used jeans to a Madewell store to be upcycled into housing insulation and you’ll get a $20 credit.)
According to Nicole, take-back programs shouldn’t be an issue of corporate generosity but a mandatory part of every brand’s business model. And with more than 15 brand partners already on board and a new factory opening in Europe, she’s more than happy to help them figure out how to make that happen.
Whether you call it a closed-loop, a circular or renewal model, both brands and consumers are rethinking the traditional linear model of making and using clothing and moving toward one where people are sharing, reselling, repairing and recycling textiles to keep them part of the value chain instead of in a landfill. And the power to get there faster is in our wallets.
“It’s not quite accurate to say we’re trying to move toward a recommerce model — thrifting and reselling things have been around for ages,” she explains. “What we’re trying to get at is a world where brands take responsibility for the entire life of a garment. The problem is that brands always say, ‘Well, consumers are buying this stuff, there’s a market for fast fashion!’ At the same time, consumers are like, ‘I don’t want this crap.’ There’s that natural tension of who is going first, the consumer or the brand. Every time a consumer buys renewed, it sends a market signal— and that’s going to be the game changer.”
XX Johnie Gall. Photos and styling by Kate Rentz, using vintage and renewed clothing from The North Face and prAna, courtesy of Renewal Workshop.