True sustainability is not only dependent on good manufacturing practices, ethical workplaces and eco-friendly materials. We also need to help our customers recycle the product when they are done with it. That way, we can recycle it back into the system and reduce our impact even more. The added benefit of offering a take back program is that the customer is now back in your space to make another purchase.
It’s a big problem
According to Greenpeace & the EPA, 95% of used textiles can be recycled and made into something ‘new,’ but less than 1% of clothing is actually recycled into new fibers. That means that our landfills and oceans are full of unwanted clothes. Even scarier, the amount of waste is growing. In 1999, we had about 18.2 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste in the US. In 2019, that number grew to 35.4 billion pounds. Yucky.
Speaking of disgusting things, 85% of our clothes go into landfills, and only 15% of our clothes go to charity or recycling. We, of course, can do better! We have many tools that we can use to create our own take-back programs and support larger scale initiatives.
You probably have several questions…
First of all, who should do this? Every single brand. It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking! Remember that there are benefits beyond recycling: you get customers in the door, reduce your overall impact and make a more valuable and caring customer.
So then, how does it fit in? It’s a good idea to have repair programs. Think Patagonia’s Worn Wear program, Nudie Jeans’ in-store repairs, or even look to partner with a local repair shop. When a customer no longer wants an item or it’s beyond repair, collect their clothing with a take back program. If you already have a repair program, think about mending the clothing and resell it in your own stores or online.
Once you have the clothes, where does it go? Clothing can either be broken down into new fibers for clothing or made into something else entirely. Cotton Incorporated has a recycling program where you can send denim to be made into insulation. So far, the initiative has diverted over 2.5 million pieces of denim from landfills and made enough insulation to cover over 4.8 million square feet.
Getting your customers to do it
This part may be a bit of a challenge. To have a successful take-back program you have to actually get a customer to give you their old clothing. One option is to give an incentive. Brands like Theory, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and H&M all have take back programs where people can recycle their old clothing in exchange for store credit. Many companies take back clothing from any brand, making it easy for a customer to recycle; and, providing an opportunity for the store to convert to another sale.
You’ll need to make it easy within your store, too. Be clear with your customer, when they purchase, how they can easily recycle something. If you have a collection area in your store, make sure it’s easy for your customer to get to and put clothes into. You may even offer them a chance to use the package you shipped the garment in, having the customer put their old clothes in there and send it back.
Consider also partnering with someone, to leverage an area you don’t have expertise in. The most important partnership is where you’ll send the clothing if you aren’t going to do something with repair and resell, or if you have leftovers. Many clothing donation charities do not have a proper recycling program for clothing that doesn’t actually get used (by giving it away or selling it in their stores). You will want to look for a charity like Oxfam, who will take in the clothing, and then either resell it, donate it to people in need, or recycle it.
With many brands stopping returns due to COVID-19, you want to make sure you are setting up this program safely. We want to help the environment and possibly create an additional revenue stream (with repair and resale), but giving your staff the ‘rona is obviously something we don’t want to do.
Research suggests that COVID-19 doesn’t survive long on clothing. One study shows that, at room temperature, the virus was detectable on clothing for two days. When exposed to high heat, it was inactive within five minutes. Look to laundering clothing the COVID way: here’s an article with some helpful tips.
Be very clear with customers that they need to wash the clothing before returning it, and it’s OK to say you can’t accept certain items. If you don’t feel comfortable creating a take-back program during the pandemic, start laying the ground work. Programs like this take time and need to be well thought out so that you can make sure you aren’t wasting too much time or money. Start finding organizations to partner with. If you are doing repair and resale, then start buying the equipment needed to do that. Start the discussions within your company. Once the vaccine is widely distributed, you’ll be ready to go.