The Entrepreneurs Transforming Scraps Into a Fashion Statement

A new generation of designers and resource specialists is springing up around the textile waste created by the fashion industry—and taking it to market.
Dana Cohen in her studio

Adam Quinn

Deep in the bowels of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, a mountain of trash bags stuffed with textile scraps rises from the center of a warehouse floor. There’s just about eight inches of clearance between the bags and the sprinkler system, and not much floor space for visitors to rifle through the pieces laid out for them.

It’s a Friday, and the warehouse is having its weekly pay-what-you-wish scrap sale. Customers are foraging in plastic bins filled with oddly cut pieces of full-grain leather, drawers brimming with buttons and buckles, and racks piled high with bolts of printed cloth.

This warehouse is the beating heart of FabScrap, a nonprofit that works with designers and clothing retailers to help find new life for tossed-out textiles. It was founded in 2016 by Jessica Schreiber. As an employee with New York City’s Department of Sanitation, Schreiber led a program that collected used clothing, shoes, and handbags from city residents for recycling. It was while she was running that program that fashion companies began to approach her with a question: What could they do about all the leftover fabric on their cutting room floors? “There wasn’t the same thrift infrastructure for that material that there was for postconsumer goods,” she explains. And what accumulated in the garment district was no small amount of waste: It’s been estimated that around 15 percent of the fabric that designers purchase ends up in the trash.

Schreiber welcomes partnerships with any business willing to commit to reducing its carbon footprint. “Sometimes, particularly around climate change issues, there’s a lot of pointing out what’s wrong, and then you’re left without a path,” she says. New York fashion houses are now sending more than 6,000 pounds of scraps to the FabScrap warehouse each week, and demand for its services is growing each year. From 2017 to 2018, Schreiber’s list of clients grew from 107 to 255 companies, including major brands like Jenny Yoo and Express. By working with the recycling nonprofit, the retailers manage to stay in compliance with a New York City law that requires businesses to recycle textile material if it represents more than 10 percent of their commercial waste.

At FabScrap’s warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, textiles from fashion studios are sorted by material and color. The clothing industry produces tons of fabric that is never used, and FabScrap wants to help cut down on design waste.

John Taggart/The New York Times

That law—even if often ignored—parallels a budding awareness among consumers of the toll the fashion industry has taken on our planet. While it’s not the second most polluting industry, as it is often wrongly accused of being, it is responsible for producing 17 million tons—around 6 percent—of the United States’ solid waste each year, and 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. But it doesn’t have to be that way—certainly not according to Shreiber, nor to a growing number of designers and fashion entrepreneurs intent on changing their industry’s profligate ways.

Cleaning Up the Cutting Room

Dana Cohen founded her bag and accessory brand, Hyer Goods, after spending more than a decade in corporate fashion. Her work designing leather outerwear gave her a disconcerting, firsthand view of the volume of textile waste produced in the industry. “The way the calendar was structured, we would order—I cannot even tell you how many colors and types of fabrics,” she says. Many of those fabrics would be dropped before the design stage was even reached, rendering the entire order unusable. Still, for many years Cohen felt alone in being troubled by what she saw on the inside.

In creating Hyer Goods, Cohen wasn’t looking to pump more products into the overstuffed retail economy. Rather, she sought a corrective for waste that already existed. She partnered with a factory in India called Drishti Lifestyle, which she had worked with previously, and discovered she could design purses, wallets, and accessories entirely from its unused leather. The factory, which also creates the pieces that Cohen designs, was very upfront about the fact that last year alone, it produced 13,000 pounds of waste, giving her plenty to work with.

Still, Cohen has to be flexible, according to the availability of material, and so her bucket bags and other accessories vary slightly from product to product. And many consumers are already on board with the idea of making small sacrifices for the sake of the planet, Cohen notes. “As long as it makes a high-quality, functional piece, it doesn’t matter where it came from or what the specs are on it,” she says of her leather. Though Hyer Goods is still in its infancy, she hopes to get the factory to zero waste before expanding to other partnerships. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the brand has also started turning wasted materials into durable face masks, donating a mask for every one purchased.

Many designers are finding a creative reuse for textile waste—and making a name for themselves along the way. Like Cohen, Daniel Silverstein, better known as Zero Waste Daniel, also creates pieces made entirely from leftover fabric. But for his clothing line—a marriage of high fashion and streetwear—Silverstein is intent on connecting with customers who are new to the world of green fashion. “I personally believe that it’s much easier to reach people who are not interested in sustainability through their wallet or through their funny bone,” he says. (In the latter category, products like a black sweatshirt sporting a flower bouquet appliqué and printed with the line “Sorry about fashion,” speak for themselves.)

Silverstein’s become an icon of the world of “trashion,” attracting celebrity customers like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jennifer Hudson, and the backpacking drag queen Pattie Gonia, who wore a custom-designed Zero Waste Daniel Botticelli-inspired gown to the 2019 Tony Awards. He’s also known for his sustainability classes and lectures, held at universities like New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and presented to industry insiders via a stand-up routine called “Sustainable Fashion Is Hilarious,” during the city’s Fashion Week twice a year.

“I think one of the reasons that Zero Waste Daniel is growing during a time when we’re seeing design and apparel brands folding left and right is that it’s a visual symbol of communication, which is what apparel used to be,” Silverstein says. “People can get behind the visual representation of patchwork and reuse as a way of expressing themselves in the world. And that’s what fashion and style are meant for.”

Zero Waste Daniel wearing his “Sorry about fashion” sweater.

Kevin Condon @weirdhours

Sourcing Responsibly

Of course the problem of scrap waste is far from the only challenge of greening the fashion industry. While designers are under pressure to deal with their post-production waste, consumers are also looking to them to source their materials responsibly. And many smaller businesses find that it’s easier to be transparent and sustainable when they start out that way. Designer Shobha Philips launched her lingerie company, Proclaim, in 2017 after finding it nearly impossible to find a nude bra in her skin tone. She says that responsibly sourcing materials is built into her company’s mission—as is fair treatment of the factory workers who produce them. These values “kind of went hand in hand,” she says.

In tracing her supply chains, Philips acknowledges she has an advantage over larger companies, who might be “now trying to work backwards in their supply chain—which is so much more complicated,” she says. The fact that each Proclaim collection uses a different fabric also makes the sustainable sourcing task more manageable, as it limits the quantities required. For her first, she used a material called Repreve, which comes from recycled plastic water bottles. Her second collection uses Tencel, made of biodegradable cellulose. Both materials are manufactured by companies that carefully track where they’re coming from.

But circularity—in which products are repurposed again and again, rather than tossed out—is a puzzle that all brands, large and small, are still trying to solve. All of Philips’s pieces, for example, are woven with elastic to make them stretchy, which complicates the process of separating individual materials for reuse.

Shobha Philips (second fromthe right) with models wearing pieces from her line

Courtesy of Proclaim

Yiliqi, an NRDC scientist who specializes in cleaning up the fashion industry’s supply chain, notes that some fabrics are also tougher than others to recycle responsibly. For example, water- and stain-resistant apparel is not suitable for reuse in most cases, since those types of fabric likely contain toxic PFAS chemicals. NRDC is advocating for manufacturers to cut those chemicals out of their production processes altogether, she says, in part so “we don’t have to deal with them when we want to recycle the fabric at the end of [a garment’s] life.” She adds, “We know that recycling the end product is not the cure to the industry’s environmental issues—the huge amounts of water, energy, and toxic chemicals involved in production—but reuse and recycling can still play important roles.”

Luckily, the goal of circularity can be tackled from multiple angles, from eco-friendly production to design intended for a long life span. In 2018 the Global Fashion Agenda released its 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, signed by 64 fashion designers and companies including H&M, Adidas, and ASOS. Each company set its own environmental targets: ASOS is educating designers on how to consider the whole life cycle of a product, for instance, while H&M is funding research on textile recycling, like analyzing the composition of recycled products to learn whether they’re safe for reuse.

Addressing Waste at the Mills

To make the biggest impact on the fashion industry’s eco-footprint, designers need to consider the early stages of the textile production process—the manufacture of raw materials and fabric processing (dyeing and printing of woven fabric). Clean by Design, an initiative launched by NRDC that has since merged with the Apparel Impact Institute (Aii), has been a key pioneer in the field. The organization works with textile mills in Mainland China, the region of Taiwan, Vietnam, and India to help streamline manufacturing techniques, drastically reducing water and energy consumption in the process.

Yiliqi, who leads NRDC’s partnership with Aii, points out that textile manufacturing itself is highly resource intensive, with dyeing and printing accounting for 36 percent of the production chain’s overall energy consumption. (For reference, making one pair of jeans produces as much greenhouse gas as driving a car 80 miles.) In China, for example, the textile industry is the third-largest industrial consumer of water, behind only chemicals and paper, using more than three billion tons per year.

But simple, cost-effective strategies—like improving insulation and recovering heat from hot water—can go a long way to boost a factory’s efficiency. Kurt Kipka, vice president at Aii, is helping textile mills implement these tactics, while also helping the brands that employ the mills stay informed about their environmental impact. Traditionally, maintaining that transparency has been especially challenging for massive clothing purveyors who source from numerous places, he says. After all, “you’re talking thousands of facilities that make up the list of what some of the large brands and retailers in this space are working with,” he says.

To help multinational corporations track and rank their performance, NRDC partnered with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Chinese nongovernmental organization, to launch a supply chain map. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, meanwhile, has developed the Higg Index, which measures a product’s environmental impact. There are also several certifications, like BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), bluesign, OEKO-TEX, and GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), that incentivize brands to improve. Adopting these manufacturing standards will help the fashion industry slow its natural resource consumption, Yiliqi says, given that fiber and fabric production, yarn preparation, dyeing, and printing account for more than 90 percent of the production chain’s overall energy consumption. “Brands and multinational corporations’ commitments and efforts on managing their supply chain is a critical key to success here.”

A customer looks at fabric rol​ls at FabScrap’s Brooklyn warehouse

John Taggart/The N​ew York Times

Making Treasure From Trash

That’s not to say that shoppers can’t make their own impact. Opportunities exist both in pressuring companies to do better and in what Yiliqi calls “end-of-life apparel treatment,” which includes recycling one’s own clothing responsibly and supporting businesses like FabScrap. Indeed, Schreiber’s company relies heavily on people visiting its warehouse and online store. Of the more than 243,000 pounds of textiles collected by FabScrapin 2018, only 3 percent wound up in a landfill. Just over half of it was shred into a colorful pulp called shoddy, used by various manufacturers as insulation or stuffing. And everything else was reused, often in surprising and inventive ways.

During the Friday pay-what-you-wish scrap sale, one of the regulars browsing is Kate Judge Patton, wearing a denim jumper she unearthed from a rack of partially made clothes on her last visit. Patton often visits to collect materials for the art classes she teaches at a nearby public school. For her elementary students, “the sensory [aspect] of the textiles is really exciting,” she says, describing how rolls of green pleather become grass and trees and brown cotton twill is made into mountains.

Another customer, Nell Simon, sifts through piles of orange cloth in search of enough material to make three jumpsuit costumes for a student play uptown at Columbia. Money for costumes is tight, Simon says. “This is one of the only places in New York where I can afford the fabric on that budget.”

Like many in the maker movement, Simon also has her personal carbon footprint in mind as she sorts through the fabric scraps. Her day job is in a wardrobe department for film and TV production, an industry in which excess is the norm and sustainability is rarely discussed. “Everything I work on in the TV and film world, I feel like it’s so wasteful,” she says. One of her managers once advised her team to “do what we can in our personal lives to make up for the wastefulness of our industry.” Buying materials at FabScrap has been one of the ways Simon compensates.

Schreiber says she’s been happily surprised by the novel markets that have emerged for the scraps. “What’s exciting is being able to reuse stuff we didn’t expect to be able to reuse,” she says. Strips of cotton, for instance, are regularly snatched up by quilters. Scraps of spandex—often a problem fabric, since it can’t be shredded—are offloaded to boxing gyms, where they are used to fill punching bags.

And forget about the coveted designer fabrics, which routinely sell out on FabScrap’s online store. Consumers are more aware than ever of the resources that go into making virgin materials, and for FabScrap, that’s led to a healthy conundrum, says Shreiber. “It’s really hard to keep up with the demand.”

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