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Why New York Fashion Act Critics Urge Reuse Over Textile Recycling

More tweaks might be in store for a groundbreaking New York bill that seeks to take fashion’s biggest brands to task for their social and environmental impacts.

Spearheaded by Circular Services Group founder Rachel Kibbe, the second call for amendments in a month comes from the textile management community which wants the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, ​​also known as Assembly Bill A8352, to prioritize reuse over recycling as the primary way to decouple industry growth from virgin resource extraction. This includes resale, donation, refurbishment, repair and rental in their various forms.

Writing to Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblywoman Anna R. Kelles, the legislation’s Democrat sponsors, organizations such as Fabscrap, ThredUp, Trove, Kept SKU, the OR Foundation, The Renewal Workshop and Wearable Collections said they are “concerned that this bill falls short of acknowledging, defining and proposing a binding solution to textile waste, which is a massive environmental harm owned by the fashion industry.” The lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment.

Textile waste is a mounting problem, both in the Empire State and elsewhere, they said. Every year, New Yorkers throw out 200 million pounds of textiles, or the equivalent of more than 440 Statues of Liberty. Globally, 73 percent of the materials used to produce clothing are landfilled or incinerated at the end of their life, while less than 1 percent of old garments go into making new ones.

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While requiring brands and retailers making at least $100 million in revenue to set binding science-based targets is critical, the organizations said, these goals typically cover only greenhouse-gas emissions, not the disposal of physical waste, which has turned developing nations such as Chile and Ghana into fast-fashion dumping grounds with informal landfills and obstructed waterways.

“Textile-waste management employs hundreds of thousands of people nationally and millions globally, however, there are neither legally binding policies surrounding waste reporting nor financial support for the collection, sortation, and responsible management of global textile waste,” they said. “Much of the cost of the fashion industry’s textile waste is shouldered by non-profits, private companies and tax dollars from our communities that pay for waste hauling. Large portions of what is collected eventually wind up in global communities that don’t have the waste management infrastructures to handle what they cannot sell.”

With the double whammy of Covid-19 and climate change driving domestic supply chain disruptions, keeping resources in circulation is “more important than ever before,” they added. Extending clothing use for an additional nine months can reduce their carbon, water and waste footprints by 20 percent to 30 percent, according to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme). Textile recycling, on the other hand, has its limits, since “virtually all” recycled fiber used in clothing hails from recycled PET bottles, which cannot be recycled again at scale. It also diverts feedstock from the bottling industry, which has an established recycling infrastructure, while doing nothing to discourage further fossil-fuel extraction for new plastic.

At the same time, the organizations would like to see fashion’s biggest polluters provide reparations to communities in the global south most affected by textile waste. They are urging the development of product durability standards, as well as consequences for the destruction of returned and excess inventory. Fashion companies will also need to provide customers with information such as end-of-life management and intended durability at the point of sale and on their websites, they said. If the garment isn’t part of an existing recycling supply chain, that needs to be “clearly stated.”

James Reinhart, CEO of ThredUp, which bills itself as the largest online consignment and thrift store, told Sourcing Journal that out of the estimated 36 billion items of apparel that are thrown away in the United States, as much as 95 percent could be reused or recycled. Establishing a “common sense” waste hierarchy that acknowledges that reuse is environmentally preferential to recycling will “further strengthen” the bill, he said.

There can be financial carrots, too. Resale, for example, is expected to double in value to $77 billion by 2025 as it outpaces the broader retail sector 11 times, ThredUp reported last year. With secondhand apparel currently accounting for less than 1 percent of the total apparel volume sold by brands and retailers with a resale component, such as Adidas, Madewell and Patagonia, there is plenty more where that came from.

“To broaden the bill’s influence, we should consider tax policy incentives to encourage brands and retailers to adopt reuse and other circular business models,” Reinhart added. “Further collaboration across public and private stakeholders in the industry will be the fastest path forward in ushering in a more sustainable and circular future for fashion.”

An earlier letter by a group of 20 human-rights, labor and fashion sustainability organizations pushed Biagi and Kelles to move beyond social and environmental disclosures and “truly hold brands accountable for their behavior” by requiring them to “actively identify, prevent, mitigate and account” for any adverse activities or face legal and fiscal ramifications.

“We are concerned that this bill falls short of what is needed to protect people and the environment from the multiple harms caused by the sector,” the letter said. “We know from failed policies like the U.K. Modern Slavery Act that disclosure bills often do not drive corporate accountability or protect human rights and the environment.”

Biagi and Kelles previously told Sourcing Journal that they’ll be incorporating these concerns and others into a final bill so that it can have the “greatest positive impact” on the industry. The measure is currently wending its way to the Senate and Assembly committees for budget negotiations, with a vote poised for late spring.

“We share a common goal of ensuring that the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act drives the most positive change for the people most impacted by the fashion industry,” Biaggi said. “Since announcing this bill, we are grateful for the attention and input we have received from all stakeholders, including those on this letter. The success of this legislation is dependent on a wide coalition of support, and we look forward to meeting with as many stakeholders as we can to advance the strongest piece of legislation that can be passed in New York.”