Only 14 percent of textiles are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and socks are one of the most commonly discarded pieces of apparel. To combat this, brands are working to whittle away at this special kind of waste.
Smartwool, for one, launched its Second Cut take-back program to create a circular pathway for end-of-life textiles. Since inaugurating the program two years ago, the manufacturer of Merino wool active apparel says it has collected more than 725,000 socks and diverted over 54,200 pounds of socks from landfills. To participate, customers add a pre-paid, mail-in bag to their Smartwool cart at checkout.
The VF-owned brand recently released its first circular sock, the Second Cut Hike Sock. It says the sock delivers the same qualities as its original Classic Hike Sock but is made with repurposed yarn from those collected discards. Though the brand takes back socks from any brand, the Second Cut Hike Sock is made exclusively with items of Smartwool origin, which amounted to 12.5 percent of donations.
After a few years of experimentation and thousands of donations, Smartwool is re-spinning these items into new yarn. That repurposed yarn is then blended with responsibly sourced Merino wool and designed with an elasticized arch and seamless toe. The Denver-based company teamed up with the North Carolina-based circularity manufacturing facility, Material Return, to develop and refine this process.
“Smartwool’s partnership with Material Return has ultimately led to a closed-loop model that goes beyond recycling,” John Ramsey, director of product development at Smartwool, said. “We were able to accomplish this through new and innovative technology, team collaboration and consumer participation. Investing in this process has enabled Smartwool to take leaps forward toward our goal of shifting towards a more circular business model.”
The VF Corp-owned brand’s first product featuring consumer donations was Smartwool’s Second Cut K9 Camp Cushion dog beds, where donated socks from any brand were repurposed into bed filling. With the goal of becoming 100 percent circular by 2030, Smartwool partnered with Material Return, which is part of The Industrial Commons group focused on local and sustainable solutions for textile manufacturing and waste, on the dog bed project in December 2021.
“The textile manufacturing industry in the Southeast U.S. is experiencing a resurgence, and critically—one that is sustainable, cooperative and benefiting local communities,” Molly Hemstreet, co-executive director of The Industrial Commons, said at the time. “The partnership with Smartwool aligns with our commitment to create transformational and generational long-term change—marrying environmental goals with economic ones by diverting textile waste from landfills to create beautiful new products.”
Priced at $22, the Second Cut Hike socks are in-line with the cost of the rest of the company’s offerings, which range from $16 to $36. Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) will be a participating retailer. All 20 of the retailer’s northeastern stores will be participating in the Second Cut campaign with collection bins available for customers, until the end of the month, to donate their used (but clean) socks to then be recycled.
“I am immensely proud to partner with Smartwool on their Second Cut Program once again this year,” Kerry Muricchio, vice president of merchandising at EMS, said. “It’s an honor to work alongside a company that values sustainability and the importance of reducing waste. Together, we can create a more conscious and eco-friendly future.”
Meanwhile, Goldtoe has debuted its free recycling program in partnership with international recycling company TerraCycle. Similar to Smartwool’s initiative, the program allows consumers to recycle socks of any brand which will then be made into new products. In return, recyclers receive points that can be used as donations to nonprofits, schools or charitable organizations of their choice.
“We are pleased to partner with TerraCycle to provide customers with an innovative yet simple way to divert waste from landfills by giving new life to their socks,” Emma Budzisz, Gildan’s vice president of marketing, said. “At Goldtoe, as part of leading apparel company Gildan, we believe that clothes should be made with respect from start to finish, and that includes the end-of-life of our garments.”
People interested in the recycling program can mail in used socks using a prepaid shipping label found on TerraCycle’s website. Once collected, the sock fabrics are separated into their respective categories (polyester and cotton, for example) and reused, upcycled or recycled as appropriate.
“While commonplace in our lives, socks can be difficult to recycle,” TerraCycle founder and CEO Tom Szaky said. “Though this program, Goldtoe is encouraging customers to embed responsible practices into their daily lives by cleaning out their drawers and doing some good for the planet and their community, all without compromising convenience.”