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‘Talking Trash’ Recycling Roundtable Suggests FTC Suffers From Textiles Blind Spot

“Today we’re going to bring together a range of experts to talk about recycling claims,” James Kohm, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) enforcement division, said Tuesday as he kicked off “Talking Trash,” a roundtable about recyclable claims in advertising.

The conversation, which took place at the FTC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., couldn’t have come at a better time. The FTC is looking to update the environmental marketing guidelines known as the Green Guides for the first time since 2012. Panelists such as Kate Bailey, chief policy officer for the Association of Plastics Recyclers; Anne Germain, chief operating officer at the National Waste & Recycling Association; and Anthony Tusino, senior program officer for plastic policy advocacy at the World Wildlife Fund cast a gimlet eye on what should or should not be considered “recyclable” in light of how reasonable consumers might interpret that assertion. Are the frequently misunderstood chasing-arrows symbols on packaging still fit for purpose? Is crushing glass to use as landfill cover still considered recycling? And just why are people dumping dirty diapers in their blue bins?

One thing the event didn’t cover, however, was fashion and textiles, something that Sharon Silbermann, textile waste committee chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, was quick to point out during one of the audience Q&A sessions.

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“I wish there was someone on the panel from fashion,” she said. “So much of plastic gets recycled, downcycled, into clothing—60 to 70 percent of your wardrobes are plastic. They’re polyester, they’re nylon, they’re acrylic. We’ve come to rely on them: the leggings you wear, the bike shorts you wear to exercise, and every time you do that, every time you sweat in them, the volatile chemicals that are in them are carcinogens and hormone disruptors.”

As Silbermann spoke, a broad coalition of brands, retailers, recyclers and nonprofits, including the American Circular Textiles Group (ACT), the American Apparel & Footwear Federation, Collective Fashion Justice, Debrand, Everlane, Recurate, Reformation, ThredUp, the New Standard Institute, Supercircle and UpWest, dispatched a letter to the FTC urging it to include textile reuse and recycling in its discussions.

Co-written by Rachel Kibbe, executive director of ACT, and Hilary Jochmans, founder of public policy community PoliticallyInFashion, the letter detailed how much “technology, consumer awareness and interest” have changed in the decade-plus since the Green Guides were last revised.

“Recycling has become more prevalent throughout the US, but there is growing confusion about textiles which, among other items, include footwear, apparel and accessories,” it said. “Unlike most other household recyclables, textiles can be reused, repaired in addition to recycled. But there are questions surrounding what textiles should be reused, repaired or recycled, if they are actually recyclable, and how to recycle them. Addressing these issues [is] critical and timely.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average American chucks out 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles every year. Just 15 percent of that is reused or downcycled, Kibbe and Jochmans wrote. Worse, less than 1 percent is actually recycled into new garments, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Overall, 85 percent of those castoffs end up in landfills, where they will remain in near perpetuity.

Echoing Silbermann, the letter said that the FTC’s failure to include textiles in its roundtable was a “missed opportunity.”

“Recycling clothes at their end of life is a challenge because footwear, accessories and apparel often contain a mix of synthetic and organic fibers, which require different recycling methods,” it said. “Additionally, there is confusion around distinguishing between the terms reuse and recycling, as well as how pre- and post-consumer recycling are handled, and how they are marketed.”

The good news? Consumers, brands, nonprofits and states are catching on to the urgency of finding solutions, the letter said. Individuals are looking for ways to reuse and, when that is no longer possible, recycle them. Brands are facilitating take-back programs, while nonprofits and for-profits alike are collecting and sorting items for their highest possible use. Meanwhile, states are looking at different routes for dealing with textile waste, including extended producer responsibility.

The economic and job opportunity for increased textile recycling in the United States is “meaningful,” Kibbe and Jochmans wrote. They highlighted a recent Global Market Insights study that estimates textile recycling to blow past $8.5 billion in value by 2033. ACT member ThredUp projects the global resale market to surpass $350 billion by 2027.

“However, as these entities work to weave together a comprehensive solution, it is important that the marketing of these approaches be in-line with the FTC’s expressed intent of the Green Guides: to ‘explain how reasonable consumers likely interpret each such claim, describe the basic elements necessary to substantiate it, and present options for qualifying it to avoid deception,’” the letter said.

When reached for comment, the FTC said it does not comment on letters or requests from external parties.

The Green Guides have been cited in recent lawsuits taking brands to task for what they say are “misleading” or “exaggerated” product sustainability claims. One complaint against H&M claimed that the retailer was flouting FTC regulations by implying “environmental benefits that do not exist.” Another, directed at Nike, said that the Just Do It firm contravened the agency’s recommendations by “mispresenting” its products, through labeling, marketing and advertising, as better for the environment than they actually are.

Kohm made it clear that the Green Guides are not environmental policy because the FTC has neither the “mandate nor power” to do that.

“What we are about is making sure that claims are not deceptive,” he said. “If you have environmental policy considerations, those are best addressed to the much larger building down the street at the EPA or to the even larger building up on the hill on the other side of the FTC.”

Even so, the current landscape of green assertions feels like a kind of “Wild West,” Quinta Warren, associate director of sustainability policy at Consumer Reports, said at “Talking Trash.”

“I mean, producers and manufacturers are making claims…sure, they’re guided by the Green Guides, but there are no rules, there are no, at least, first-time penalties,” she said. “And so consumers are stuck paying the price for that. I do think we need rules. I’m firmly in support of rulemaking.”

Peter Blair, policy director for the nonprofit Just Zero, said that current conditions have created a Catch-22.

“What is the evidence that there’s deceptive marketing claims and where’s the enforcement? But there hasn’t been, so is there a problem?” he said. “The reality is the Guides have a lot of ambiguities in them. There are examples that do not cover the array of claims and qualifiers that you can make.”

Blair said that talk about regulation almost always brings up concerns that it will stunt innovation or limit the ability of companies to adapt.

“And I just don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I think if you set a clear standard, the companies will be empowered to meet them.”