The fashion industry contributes 10% of global carbon emissions—far more than air travel. Part of this is straight up waste—fabric tossed before or after sale that ends up in landfills. “We can do way better than this,” says Jessica Schreiber, co-founder of FABSCRAP, an organization that reduces and recycles textile waste. Launched in 2017, FABSCRAP works with over 500 fashion brands—from Oscar de la Renta to Macy’s to J.Crew—and this week announced an expansion to Philadelphia. We caught up with Schreiber for more.
Ashoka: Jessica, fashion waste is a problem most consumers don’t see. When did you come across this?
Jessica Schreiber: In grad school. I was studying climate science at Columbia. And I applied—begged, really—to intern with the Department of Sanitation just as it was rolling out a clothing recycling program, ReFashioned NYC. So over the next five years, I got to help develop this. I also got to know the city’s thrift infrastructure really well, and that’s when I first saw the volume of textile waste. Together, the five boroughs throw out 200,000 tons of textile waste every year – that’s 14 times the physical weight of the Brooklyn Bridge. Every year! That was my introduction to fashion’s impact on the planet.
Ashoka: You work along the supply chain, starting upstream of the consumer. Tell us why you chose that.
Schreiber: I found two things really eye-opening while at the Department of Sanitation. One, companies were passing on the responsibility for recycling and disposal to the consumer. But whether or not an item is recyclable is a design decision—that’s why I wanted to start with the maker of the products. And two, I was hearing from the brands themselves about the textile waste they were creating as part of the design process. About 30 companies reached out to me about this. But the Department of Sanitation doesn’t handle commercial waste and so we couldn’t fit it into their programming. That’s where the idea for FABSCRAP came in. We thought: let’s help businesses reduce their waste and create the same thrift infrastructure for raw materials that exists for used goods.
Ashoka: Can you tell us what happens to fabric when it arrives at your warehouse and gets sorted. Some of it ends up in the shredder, right?
Schreiber: Yes—so what we’re talking about here is actually downcycling. We can shred any fabric of any blend, as long as there’s no spandex in it. The result is fluffy fiber pulp called shoddy that is used in many things: insulation, carpet padding, mattress stuffing, moving blankets, even refrigerated meal delivery boxes. So this is not technically recycling—it’s substantially extending the life of fibers. Looking ahead, the industry is seeing development in fiber to fiber recycling, like 100% cotton being mechanically or chemically manipulated to become a fiber again. This process is not quite ready for use at industrial scale, but it’s coming and we’re excited about it—and we’re already sorting for it.
For other waste—fabrics and even materials such as scrap leather—we redistribute or resell. We have fabric thrift stores in our warehouses, including now in Philadelphia, that are open to the public, plus an online store. Our warehouse volunteers—the volunteer pool is 7,000 people now in Brooklyn—can take home five pounds of fabric for free from a shift. In addition, we do pop-ups at fashion schools around the country, bringing designer fabric directly to students. And it’s all thrift store prices and really high quality. As students enter internships or take their first career steps, we hope they’ll have a new perspective on waste and design in ways that are responsible and contribute to industry-wide waste reduction.
Ashoka: What other mindset shifts are you seeing?
Schreiber: Consumers are starting to care quite a bit about the end of life options of clothes—including whether pieces are made to last long enough to reuse or repair. Gen Z and some younger Millennials are on board, but they aren’t the group we have to convince that reuse and repair is cool, sincethey already look for vintage stuff from the 90s and early 2000s. But for older millennials into boomers, thrift is still stigmatized. That said, we have to be careful that thrifting doesn’t become gentrified. At FABSCRAP we want to make sure we don’t price out the communities who traditionally used and needed these lower price points.
Ashoka: And what about clothing brands?
Schreiber: As for brands, every FABSCRAP partner receives a report of their diversion metrics, which are materials that can be kept from the landfill when initially wasted. We are able to let brands know how much gets recycled, reused, what went to landfill and why. For example, spandex cannot be recycled at this time. So we help brands see that using spandex will decrease their diversion numbers, that any item they produce with spandex cannot be recycled. This is feedback they aren’t necessarily getting from consumers. and forward-looking companies, CEOs, and design teams, are able to look ahead and position their brand accordingly.
Ashoka: Besides providing new performance metrics, how do you help brands improve?
Schreiber: Well, we’re first of all replacing the verb “donate.” It costs FABSCRAP to collect, sort, sell, and shred. So donating fabric isn’t really accurate. Even though we’re a nonprofit, we charge a service fee, the same way that any trash collector does. Our offer: we’ll recycle your textiles. That helps establish that this is a waste commodity stream and that not all of it is usable. We want this waste to be part of the company’s bottom line. The bigger point we’re making is about incentives: for brands concerned about cost, the solution is to create less waste—and we’ll help them with that, too. Naturally, the landfill will always be our biggest competition, because it’s cheaper on the surface, but brands can’t market sending 15,000 pounds to landfill. They can market recycling 15,000 pounds through FABSCRAP—and increasingly, consumers and investors are paying attention to these new metrics.
Ashoka: Further up the supply chain, is there a role for fabric mills?
Schreiber: Yes, there are some process improvements we want to work on together with brands and mills. The fabric sampling process is one. After gathering textile waste for three years from 500 brands, we realized that 75% of what we pick up are fabric swatches. At the start of each season, mills send new swatches to the designers in their network, as it’s basically a marketing tool for them. Designers don’t always ask for these and most go of these 6×6 inch squares go straight to the trash. To reuse, we need one yard or more. So as more and more things become shared digitally, one yard of fabric with all of the digital information is possible and would create significantly less waste. This could also help mills offset costs and invite brands to be part of the selection process.
Ashoka: At the macro level, are there policy levers we should be paying attention to?
Schreiber: I’m a big fan of extended producer responsibility policies and legislation that essentially puts the responsibility for the end of life of a product on the producer of that product. This exists for some product categories: for example, New York passed this for electronics. iIf you are a retailer and you sell electronics in New York State, you have to also purchase credits that fund the recycling of those electronics. The in-state sales volume determines how many credits you have to buy, so this is important practically and in terms of mindset change and incentives alignment. The result? It nudges companies to design products and administer returns differently and make items that can be deconstructed into recyclable or reusable parts. As these policy tools gain traction, we’re working with our brands to step up as vanguard companies, and get recognized by consumers and other industry players for taking proactive first steps.
Ashoka: Looking ahead, what are you hopeful about?
Schreiber: I really hope companies begin to see themselves as stewards of the planet, take responsibility for their impact, and work to reduce it. There is a lot we can do as individuals, but businesses have exponentially more influence, power, and impact with their choices. I hope we move in a direction that is beyond sustainability and ask ourselves: How can we evolve and build companies that are truly regenerative?