An Open Letter to Americans Who Donate Clothing

What you need to know about textile recycling

Dear Well-Meaning Donor,

You are a respectable American. You pay your taxes. You give what you can, when you can, to the people who need it. You recycle, and maybe even compost. You would never just throw away used clothing. That would be wrong.

But unfortunately, unknowingly, you are throwing clothes in the trash. When you take your nicely bundled bag of donations to your neighborhood bin or charity drop-off center you are contributing to landfill waste.

If you believe, like most Americans, that charities recycle anything that can’t be reused, you’re wrong. The textile recycling you imagine is a myth.

We agree, it’s shocking. It’s dishonest. It’s unacceptable.

You don’t know better - and when we first started out in this business we didn’t either. But as we dive deeper into this industry of textile recycling we realize how much of a misnomer the term “textile recycling” really is. And we want you to know too.

See, over a year ago, we set out to make a difference in the secondhand clothing trade. We saw firsthand the harmful impact that donated textiles have on developing countries’ fragile economies. And we sought to create an alternative to this harmful trade.

Yet while we continue on this mission, while we continue to play by industry rules, the more we’re learning that the rules don’t make sense.

 

Current markets do not support textile recycling.

In theory, 98% of textiles can be recycled. But in practice 85% of textiles end up in landfill. Note: Even this number assumes 15% of donated textiles are reused or recycled, but the true number is closer to 90-95% of textiles end up in landfill.

The problem, sadly, is the ‘recycling’ industry is actually an export industry more accurately known as the secondhand clothing trade. Our estimate is that less than 5% of textiles end up being recycled.

Actual recycling is an afterthought and based solely on profit maximization. Unless there’s a profit to be made, recyclable textiles go to landfill. It’s cheaper - which, unfortunately, is the priority for most businesses operating in this space.

While the potential to recycle textiles exists, access to the market does not, especially for small businesses like ours.  

Did you know there is no textile recycling program in Silicon Valley, the most innovative place on earth? San Francisco has the only textile ‘recycling’ program in the Bay Area.

 

So what does this mean for small businesses like WOVIN?

To start, small businesses have to pay to recycle textiles. In an era when toxic chemicals and other recyclables can be dropped off for free, this shouldn’t be the case. Yet for WOVIN and others, paying to recycle is an everyday reality.

Further, we are forced to travel 100 miles roundtrip to drop off our recyclables because there is no textile recycling program in Silicon Valley. This significantly adds to the cost (time, money and emissions) for us to recycle.

As it stands, if we weren’t committed to keeping textiles out of landfill, we would have zero incentive to do so.

Even if we wanted to sell or give our textiles away for free, the minimum weight (15 tons) is far above what we’re able to generate in a reasonable amount of time and the storage fees to meet the minimum weight are cost prohibitive.

We could offset these costs by turning to exporting, as many ‘recyclers’ do. But exporting, while profitable, is not a practice we support at WOVIN. It goes against our company’s core values.

If we were a company concerned primarily with profit, throwing stuff away, directly or indirectly, is the cheaper and easier option. But we’re not about cheap and easy. We go to great lengths to do the right thing.

 

The textile ‘recycling’ industry is notoriously non-transparent.

As a company that prides itself on transparency, we’re stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, which shouldn’t be the case for a company trying to do the right thing.

The truth is that the textile recycling industry is broken. The pieces exist but they don’t connect.

This industry is built around profits from exports and reusables, which is unsustainable and detracts from true recycling efforts.

In order for the textile recycling industry to actually function as a recycler there needs to be an incentive to do so, namely profitable alternative(s) to the export market.

We recognize that these incentives must be drawn and implemented, not just ranted about, and we plan to actively work to change this industry for the better - it’s actually part of our mission.

To start, we’re actively working with local local government, clothing collectors, charities, waste authorities, and other stakeholders to create a textile recycling program in Silicon Valley.

But that alone is not enough. We’re also actively developing new and innovative ways to recycle textiles in house and we’re beginning to explore recycling partnerships with various innovative companies to create profitable alternatives to the export markets.

We have high hopes for this industry and we are confident in its potential for positive change. But we can’t do this alone. Learn more about textile ‘recycling.’ Share the knowledge with your peers. If you’re a potential collaborator in this industry, get in contact with us.

We’d love to start an open dialogue with you about how we can do better and work together to really get things moving.

Sincerely,
WOVIN
A Small Business Working to End Textile Waste & Reinvent the Textile Recycling Industry