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The Nonprofit Fashioning a Better Path for New York City’s Textile Waste

Camille Tagle (left) and Jessica Schreiber (right) cut the ribbon on the new Fabscrap shop, which aims to put a larger dent in New York's textile waste. (Photo by Deepali Srivastava)

A new kind of thrift shop opened its doors in New York City last month. Called the Fabscrap Shop, it sells scraps of New York’s high street fashion at thrift-store prices to the city’s emerging designers, home sewers and environmentally conscious fashion brands. The shop is well-located: just a block from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and not far from the storied (but dwindling) garment district. It’s also well stocked: from silken rolls and leather swatches to buttons and zippers.

The Fabscrap Shop will never run out of merchandise. As a global fashion capital, New York generates an endless supply of clothing scrap. But Fabscrap is much more than one little store trying to reduce New York’s fashion waste. The three-year-old nonprofit has positioned itself as a one-stop-shop solution for the city’s gargantuan commercial textile waste stream.

Since its inception, Fabscrap has collected unused and discarded fabric from 255 fashion brands across the city and diverted 234,175 pounds of pre-consumer textile waste from landfills.

Of the incoming materials, Fabscrap, the nonprofit sold or donated 45 percent. Another 34 percent was “downcycled” into shredded fiber pulp for carpet insulation and mattress or blanket stuffing. Of what was left, most remaining material was recyclable paper (many fabric swatches come on cardboard hangers and information sheets). Overall, only 3 percent of the collected scrap went to landfill, because it contained material like spandex that Fabscrap isn’t able to shred and recycle.

Before this shop opened, shoppers had to sort through materials in Fabscrap’s 4,100-square-foot warehouse at Brooklyn Army Terminal. “With the shop, the treasure hunt is over,” says Jessica Schreiber, Fabscrap’s executive director and founder.

(Photo by Deepali Srivastava)

Last year, 1,804 volunteers, mostly fashion students, put in almost 10,000 hours to sort through the textile waste, each walking away with 5 pounds of free fabric for their efforts. Camille Tagle, Fabscrap’s director of reuse partnerships, says: “We are not just selling fabric. We want to educate people about the textile waste situation. If you are just entering the industry, how can you rethink the processes?” Tagle is an eveningwear designer whose studio merged with Fabscrap in 2017.

By involving fashion students as volunteers in its operations and donating fabric to them, Fabscrap sees itself as not just a recycler but an influencer serving as a conduit between big brands and emerging designers. “The students seeing the waste are asking questions of companies they are going to and thinking innovatively about the supply chain,” says Schreiber.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that globally almost three-quarters of clothing materials are landfilled or incinerated at the end of their life. When textile waste decomposes in landfills, it releases deadly methane into the atmosphere and leaches toxins, such as dyes and chemicals, into groundwater and soil.

How much of that waste is commercial? We don’t know because the fashion industry is infamous for not reporting such data. But here’s one guess: According to Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, for every one garbage can of waste an American consumer puts out on the curb, 70 times as much industrial waste gets generated in upstream processes. In New York City, households throw out 200,000 tons of clothing and other fabrics every year, potentially leaving a trail of millions of tons of waste across the global supply chain.

New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY), the world’s largest waste management agency, does not handle commercial waste. DSNY picks up waste from residential and government buildings, while requiring local businesses that generate textile waste (comprising 10 percent or more of total waste) to recycle it on their own, often by contracting with private waste removal companies. But exactly how much textile waste gets hauled away — and if that waste is really recycled or just trashed — is anybody’s guess.

Fabscrap is harnessing technology to encourage transparency in the industry. It uses waste tracking analytics to track material flow and diversion information for individual companies — even translating those numbers into CO2 savings and equivalent trees planted. Fabscrap estimates that a company which diverts a thousand pounds of fabric from the landfill likely achieves CO2 savings equivalent to planting a hundred trees.

As a former DSNY employee, Schreiber found herself turning away businesses that wanted the City to fold their waste into the consumer recycling program. That experience helped shape Fabscrap’s business model. “This is industry waste and companies must finance the solution,” she says. Fabscrap charges companies to haul away their scrap fabric; those fees made up just over a third of Fabscrap’s revenues of $398,000 last year, while fabric sales accounted for another 35%. The rest came from grants, donations and other sources.

If all goes according to plan, revenues from the new shop and service fees from new participating companies – likely to cross 300 in 2019 — will help launch Fabscrap on the West Coast. Schreiber expects Fabscrap will begin operations in Los Angeles by early 2021. Her team has already identified the warehouse space and a transportation partner who’ll be critical to navigating Los Angeles’s sprawl. With its higher number of cutting rooms and factories, Fabscrab Los Angeles will handle more volumes of production waste than NYC.

Schreiber says there is a waitlist of clients in Los Angeles, eager for a solution to their waste problem. That’s encouraging; American fashion brands are not required by law to take responsibility for the end-of-use treatment or disposal of clothing. But that could slowly change. Many U.S. cities and states are rolling out a legislative strategy, known as extended producer responsibility, to make business responsible for recycling and safe disposal of consumer products they sell. While these laws in the U.S. cover products like electronics, mattresses and pharmaceutical drugs, it’s worth noting that France, arguably the trendsetter in Western fashion, has had extended producer responsibility laws for clothing since 2007.

As hazardous textile waste piles up, this policy approach is getting more attention. A Parliamentary report prepared by the United Kingdom’s Environmental Audit Committee cited impressive results from France: More than 90% of clothing picked up from thousands of collection points across the country is now reused or recycled. If public policy and consumer pressure join forces, the demand for Fabscrap’s U.S.-based services could skyrocket in the coming years. Fabscrap is ready for the challenge. “Increasingly, brands will have to show responsibility. Fabscrap is an easy solution.” says Schreiber.

Deepali Srivastava is a writer and editor whose articles on socio-economic and environmental issues have appeared in Forbes Asia, MSNBC.com, strategy-business.com, and Warscapes.com. She is Senior Director of Content Strategy at Global Gateway Advisors.

Tags: new york cityrecyclingtrash