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Reformation’s Closed-Loop Sneaker Is Just the Beginning

Reformation is making sneakers with a twist.

The new shoe, the It Girl fave says, will be entirely closed loop, meaning it will be designed, manufactured and handled to leave no waste behind.

Arriving online and in stores on June 8, the Harlow is a responsibly sourced leather low-top that feeds directly into Reformation’s RefRecycling initiative, where it can be funneled into resale or disassembled into its constituent parts for recycling.

RefRecycling, which the California brand first launched in 2015, has been through several iterations, from a traditional takeback program to a partnership with secondhand e-tailer ThredUp. Now, the initiative is getting another makeover, this time with the help of SuperCircle, a tech platform and reverse logistics system that seeks to revolutionize clothing and footwear disposal.

“This is our first time really focusing on true fiber-to-fiber recycling—so not downcycling, not just taking clothes back for resale,” Kathleen Talbot, Reformation’s chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations, told Sourcing Journal.

Fashion brands, she noted, are in the business of making fashion, not building recycling infrastructure, which is why many find circularity a challenge to scale. Aggregating enough material to reach certain volume thresholds is another roadblock. By doing all the hard work of collection, sorting, grading, warehousing, shipping and diversion, SuperCircle offers a perfect “jump-off spot.”

It also finds a solution for the “ugly secret that nobody wants to talk about when we talk about resale,” which is the products that aren’t fit for extended use. Less than 1 percent of clothing gets recycled into new clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The vast majority is landfilled, incinerated or left to pollute the environment.

SuperCircle is the brainchild of Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum, the founders of New York sneaker brand Thousand Fell. To hear the duo describe it, Thousand Fell was created with the intention of growing something like SuperCircle. Indeed, the label’s footwear has proven to be the best test case for the scheme. Since Thousand Fell debuted in 2019, it has conducted thousands of castoffs through its network of designated recyclers, including Martex, Unifi and Renewcell, to squeeze the highest-value use from their components if resale is not an option.

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“We’re creating clean material,” Ahlum told Sourcing Journal. “So, rPET, cotton, nylon, rubber, cellulosics; regardless of the post-consumer state that it’s in, it goes into one of these feeds.” Nothing goes to landfill, he said. Items that cannot be directed out this way are turned into upholstery stuffing and rags, or, where or else fails, channeled into waste to energy.

Spinning off SuperCircle to make it available to the wider industry made complete sense. There simply hasn’t been a lot of effective garment recycling, which has engendered a lot of skepticism around circularity. Songer and Ahlum also saw a real need by brands for an end-of-life solution that didn’t amount to throwing used garments into a black box, never to be seen again.

“We really want to avoid this pipeline of used textiles [flooding] into the developing world,” Ahlum said. The United States is only the beginning. SuperCircle hopes to be able to establish a slew of regional facilities, underpinned by a robust shipping system, that can serve as the “chassis” for a global circular economy.

Reformation Harlow sneaker will be entirely closed loop, meaning it will be designed, manufactured and handled to leave no waste behind.
The Harlow is a responsibly sourced leather sneaker that feeds directly into Reformation’s RefRecycling initiative. Courtesy

Shoppers are a vital part of the SuperCircle equation, since they’re the ones sending back their preowned pieces. Customers of participating brands like Reformation can access a “SuperCircle Closet,” where they can find a list of their past purchases and select the ones they wish to part with. All that’s left to do after that is to box up the items, slap on the pre-paid shipping label and drop everything off at the post office or UPS. For their effort, they’ll receive credits for their next purchase at Reformation or elsewhere.

Registering the products this way helps SuperCircle’s smart sorting system quickly identify incoming products and direct them to the correct bale for the next step in the process. The more brands sign on—the platform hopes to onboard 40 next year—the more efficient and cost-effective things become. This includes resale, since the system plugs into companies like Archive, Arrive and Trove.

“We can take everything back through SuperCircle and then pull out the items before we sort them that look like they could go for resale,” Songer said. “Brands can stand up joint recycling and resale programs.”

Another benefit is the information SuperCircle makes available through a dashboard.

“We’re able to actually provide brands and customers with a clear snapshot of their environmental footprint and sustainability,” Ahlum said. “So, carbon, water and energy saved, pounds diverted from landfill, a full breakdown of where products have gone.”

Brands can wield this data to help inform the way they design products. A few drawing-board changes, for instance, could nudge the needle on how much more material ends up in textile-to-textile recycling versus being downcycled.

They can also buy the recycled outputs, helping them truly close the loop, Ahlum said. “So they’re contributing to something and then they’re actually also benefiting from it and the production side,” he added.

Brands currently pay to take part in SuperCircle, though it’s “pretty inexpensive,” Songer said. The goal is to “really build a system that the entire industry can take part in,” she said. “So it’s a simple, pretty low monthly tech fee just to cover our costs.”

Talbot sees Reformation’s embrace of SuperCircle as a “longer-term play” for the company, which has made sustainability a tentpole of its business model. While recycling is an “end of pipe” move, it’s an important one to provide customers, she said. Promoting responsible consumption is critical, but so is making sure textile waste doesn’t become waste.

“We’re saying this is the way of the future,” she said. “This is what the industry needs. This is what will help us protect feedstocks for some of these materials that we need to and want to invest in as part of our sustainability strategy. And so just like other brands have R&D that they’re putting in other things, we’re putting it into really trying to understand a takeback for recycling initiative.”

Working with SuperCircle also helps with the company’s climate commitment. Investing in circular models represents 20 percent of Reformation’s footprint reduction, Talbot said.

“Figuring out how we can keep the materials circulating within our own supply chains, or more broadly within the fashion system, is the next hard problem to solve,” she added. “And I think we’re all pretty motivated to support these sorts of ambitions. Now it’s just going to take brands that are willing to pilot and invest in this next transition.”