Textile waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the United States. Since 2000, textile waste has grown by 80%, while other waste streams grew by 25%1.  The EPA estimates that more than 17 million tons of textiles were created in 2018 alone, yet less than 15% of that was recycled. 

At RTR, we’re proud of our work to keep clothing out of landfills. Not only does our business model displace the need for the production of new garments; we estimate that in total we’ve diverted 1.1 million pre-loved styles from landfill via resale, donation and recycling as of June 2021. But, beyond these efforts, we recognize there is much more work that needs to be done to support scaled textile reuse and recycling in the U.S.

That’s why we are excited to be founding members of the American Circular Textiles (ACT) policy group, a new multi-stakeholder initiative collectively working towards solutions around textile recovery and reuse. ACT was founded by CSG (Circular Services Group), RRS (Resource Recycling Systems) and 10 other founding members spanning reuse and rental services to align the circular fashion community on tackling textile waste by developing supportive policy to scale end-of-life solutions.

To give the inside scoop on everything ACT, we sat down with CSG Founder and ACT co-founder Rachel Kibbe to talk textile waste, circular fashion and more. 

Before you dive in, here’s a few key phrases to know! 

A circular economy, as defined by the EPA, “reduces material waste, redesigns materials to be less resource-intensive and recaptures ‘waste’ as a resource to manufacture new material and products.”

Circular fashion concerns the entire life cycle of a garment (as opposed to ending at point-of-sale), from production to maintaining and lengthening its life cycle, to responsibly returning materials to the biosphere when the garment is no longer wearable.

End-of-life solutions refer to recycling, reuse and any other method that would divert textiles from landfill once they are no longer usable. 

RTR: Can you share a little on your background in sustainability, and the work you do with Circular Services Group? 

RACHEL KIBBE: In 2011, I founded one of the first online e-commerce platforms for sustainable fashion after attending Parsons for fashion design. At Parsons, I had what can only be described as a spiritual download: I received the overwhelming sense that the fashion industry’s wheels were about to fall off, and that it needed more change leadership, both environmentally and socially. That’s where my idea to launch a platform where you could shop according to ethical and sustainable criteria came from. 

As the years went on, I began to think a lot about fashion change leadership, not just in terms of how our clothes are made, but also how we can extend their life and how we can keep them out of the waste stream.  After  7 years, I merged my business with a large-scale municipal used clothing collector and worked directly in municipal textile waste management for a number of years. Since then, I’ve independently advised global retailers, NGOs and circular service providers on a range of sustainability and circularity issues, from standing up clothing collection programs and recycling pilots, to supply chain mapping and responsible management of excess inventory and returns. The range of our work at CSG continues to broaden.  

I’m presently working on projects from policy and regulation, to upstream solutions at textile mills and post-consumer footwear recycling.  I’m also a Co-host and Executive Producer of a weekly fashion, culture and climate podcast called Hot Buttons, joined by journalist Christina Binkley and founder/CEO Shilla Kim-Parker.

RTR: Can you describe the current state of textile recycling for fashion retailers? How likely is it that a brand is recycling unworn, unsold garments?

RK: True post-consumer (used clothing)  textile-to-textile recycling is mostly in a pilot phase. The majority of recycled fibers on the market for polyester are produced from plastic bottles and not other textiles or, in the case of recycled cotton, from post-industrial cutting room scraps. 

There are relatively small-scale post-consumer recycling projects that have huge potential. However, for the most part, if a brand is taking back your clothes for what they might call recycling, they are reselling them into a supply chain that will either export them for resale or downcycle for insulation and rags.

RTR: If progress isn’t made in regards to textile waste, what is at risk both for the fashion industry and the environment? 

RK: Textiles are our fastest growing waste stream in the US which, in itself, exacerbates climate change exponentially. Not to mention a taxpayer expense. You, citizens, are paying to haul fast fashion to your dumps.  Aside from that, to continue to extract mass quantities of virgin resources from the planet over and over to make new things is insanity. We won’t have a fashion industry if we continue on this trajectory. There won’t be resources to grow and make things. We won’t have safe homes and working environments. The math just doesn’t work and the impact is already apparent — we have all stepped outside and seen the fires, hurricanes, unseasonably warm or cold weather. This will only get worse if we remain dependent on a take-make-waste, extraction, extraction, extraction, model. 

RTR: Do you see a world in which traditional fashion retailers (vs. circular fashion players) become involved in the full life cycle of their garments, as opposed to simply getting them out the door? What could that look like?

RK: They have no choice and we need them to have no choice. Aftercare, repair, alterations, resale, rental, designing for circularity and durability should be non-starters.  Recycling will depend on systemic scale for the math to work — to have meaningful volumes of recycled materials, we need the collection, sortation and reprocessing systems at a scale that will replace virgin materials.  This means that everyone will need to play a role — traditional retailers and circular fashion players — otherwise it won’t work. 

“We won’t have a fashion industry if we continue on this trajectory. There won’t be resources to grow and make things.”

RTR: What advice do you have for eco-minded consumers looking to downsize their wardrobes without (directly or indirectly) risking having those garments end up in a landfill *right now*? 

RK: Swap with friends or resell online — there are so many resources out there.  I am a member of a Facebook Buy Nothing group where I post a picture of pretty much anything and someone in my neighborhood will want it and come pick it up!  I’m at a point where I don’t have to worry about giving things away that might be exported because we have so many options, from resale marketplaces to an informal economy of neighbors and friends for swapping and trading. Also, if you live in NYC as I do, the street is its own swapping economy. Put something on the sidewalk and poof, it’s gone. 

RTR: How do you hope consumer involvement in textile waste & recycling — both from an awareness and a participation standpoint — changes in the near future? In the long term?

RK: I hope people understand that when we choose to buy something, whether it’s used or new, we are responsible for caring for it, repairing it, and finally finding it a next life. I think understanding the responsibility that comes with consumption will help us consume less, and be more thoughtful.

RTR: How was ACT created? What inspired the creation of this group?

RK:  ACT came together from a letter I wrote in collaboration with Marisa Adler, a Senior Consultant from RRS (Resource Recycling Systems) as a response to the New York bill, the Fashion Act. We pushed for resale and circularity’s inclusion in the bill according to a waste hierarchy, among other things. 

While we didn’t get our wishes, the support we gathered from stakeholders along the way made it clear that there is a need for domestic textile waste policy, and a group to focus on these issues in a non-competitive environment.  ACT is a collective impact initiative to align on textile waste policy and we are a collaboration between many different organizations who play a role in the fashion and textile ecosystem in the US.  

Our 2022 goal is to write a policy position paper on reuse for policy makers and the fashion industry at large. Our next phase will be to do the same for recycling. We are action oriented and want to make tangible change.

RTR: What sort of brands and companies comprise ACT? What voices are currently coming to the table, shaping these policy discussions, and who do you hope is inspired to join in?

RK: We are starting at the top of the waste hierarchy with a focus on resale, which includes rental. In that spirit our 11 founding members are some of the largest, most credible and most promising resale and rental platforms in the nation, like Rent the Runway! 

Next we will bring on brands and retailers, along with observer members like NGOs, nonprofits and governmental organizations. We hope eventually every organization with a meaningful interest in the success of domestic apparel and footwear circularity joins the group. For now, because of resources, capacity and a desire to stay extremely focused, we are keeping the membership numbers tight. 

RTR: What are you most excited about as this committee kicks off its work?

RK: I’m most excited about the willingness of this nascent industry to collaborate and work towards policy change. To be in a room with some of the most promising founders and leaders in the circular economy  working toward a shared goal — when outside of that room they may be competitors — is meaningful. There are many places to grow beyond our initial work.  That’s also exciting. 

RTR: What are ACT’s immediate next steps? 

RK: Marisa and I are very focused. We see a big future for ACT, but we’ll get there through bite-sized goals. Our immediate next steps are working towards the goal of a policy paper we can all endorse. We hold monthly learning sessions on policy mechanisms, on everything from EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) to tax policy, so that [members] are informed and can make challenging decisions as a group.

RTR: Outlining a preferred materials management approach is one of the first steps ACT will take. Can you explain in layman’s terms what this means?

RK: This is a hierarchical approach to end-of-life solutions, also defined by the EPA, that puts a preference to manage materials in the order of least environmental impact to the most. What that means is reuse — which includes resale, rental and repair — is at the top, while waste to energy, landfill and incineration are at the bottom. Upcycling, recycling, and downcycling are in the middle.

RTR: Where can consumers go to learn more about the goals of ACT? How will ACT communicate progress to consumers? 

RK: Great question. To the credit of the collaboration between RRS and CSG, along with our founding members, we’ve gotten this off the ground quickly. We are just now at a place where we are seriously considering  how to shape our public presence.  We had great press announcements about our launch, including  WWD, Business of Fashion and Ecotextile News. We will continue to share our progress with the press, and will likely stand up a website with more information on our group soon.

P.S.: Want to learn more about Rent the Runway’s long-term commitments to Mother Nature? Dive into our Impact Strategy here, or read a Q&A with RTR Sr. Director of Sustainability Megan Farrell for all the need-to-know details. 

1 Kelsea Schumacher, Amanda L. Forster. (National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD), NIST Special Publication (SP) 1500-207, May 22. Https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.SP.1500-207