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Why This B Corp Created a ‘Two-Prong’ End-of-Life Garment Solution

Tentree couldn’t find an off-the-shelf circularity solution that fit its needs. So, it decided to craft its own.

The result is what the British Columbia-based retailer dubs a first-of-its-kind collaboration between resale platform Treet and textile recycler SuperCircle to offer a “two-prong rehoming solution” for castoff Tentree garments.

Fashion retailers have, for the most part, separated their resale and recycling channels, leaving consumers to do the guesswork of where to pitch the clothes they no longer want. The problem with this, said Kathleen Buckingham, Tentree’s sustainability director, is that it creates an additional point of friction.

People are also prone to overestimate how sellable their items actually are, she said. In a best-case scenario, the rejects from charitable donations and takeback programs get downcycled into rags, stuffing and insulation. Most of the time, however, there’s no real way to really tell if they’re ending up in the landfill or incinerator. Developing nations such as Chile and Ghana are also drowning in the Global North’s dregs, a significant portion of which becomes trash on arrival.

It was SuperCircle’s promise to provide brands such as Reformation with hitherto unavailable visibility that appealed to the tree-planting B Corp in the first place. Tentree was already working with blockchain expert TextileGenesis to track its products from farm to point of sale. Now, SuperCircle’s data-centered approach, which it deploys through the use of digital twins, will equip it to understand that journey through to their end of life, Buckingham said.

Customers, for their part, will have an “easy journey.” To dispatch items to this one-stop shop, all they have to do is print out a free shipping label, slap it on a box and send it off through the postal service. In return, they’ll receive a discount code for a future Tentree purchase. The better the quality of the clothes they send in, the bigger their reward.

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More action will take place behind the scenes. At SuperCircle’s warehouse, the returns will be separated into resalable and non-resalable items. The good stuff will be forwarded to Treet for posting on a white-label digital storefront in the hopes that it’ll spark joy with someone else. Garments that appear worse for wear will be fed into SuperCircle’s smart sorting system, where every T-shirt, sweater and legging is scanned, identified and shunted into the correct material stream for further processing.

When volumes of would-be feedstock hit critical mass, SuperCircle fans out its aggregated bales among a network of recyclers in the Americas and Europe, including Martex, Unifi and Renewcell, for converting into new outputs, downcycling or, as a last resort, funneled into waste into energy. (Nothing goes into the landfill, SuperCircle has said.)

“We’re creating clean material,” Stuart Ahlum, SuperCircle’s co-founder and COO, previously 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.” He and his partner, Chloe Songer, first conceived of SuperCircle as a way to recycle used footwear from their brand, Thousand Fell. For the concept to make business sense, they knew they had to think beyond their own products.

Knowing where every last hoodie ends up will allow Tentree to tweak the way it operates and “really be able to design for circularity,” Buckingham said. Eventually, SuperCircle may be able to code items by their most common points of failure—faulty zippers, for example, or abrasion hot spots—which would help the retailer make better drawing-board decisions. Equally useful will be the carbon, water and energy savings snapshots that SuperCircle offers, and not just because they’ll stave off the suspicions of greenwashing that stalk nebulous claims.

“That will help us be able to quantify impacts,” she said. “And I think that’s really important because if we’re going to see change, we need to start making better choices based on data.” It’s for this reason that it benefits Tentree to reabsorb as much of its garments through its own scheme, not ones belonging to competitors’, Buckingham added.

Doing all this would have been next to impossible without the economies of scale that third parties like SuperCircle and Treet provide. Before arriving at the current arrangement, Tentree asked a team from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a deep dive into its options for circularity. As a small brand, it realized, the costs of creating something on its own, including reverse engineering its logistics, were “quite prohibitive,” she said. A single company like Tentree isn’t able to reach the minimum volumes required by some recyclers on its own, either.

Buckingham admits that managing the SuperCircle-Treet tag team “isn’t free.” But then again, neither is the planet, she said, declining to reveal how much the program is costing the company.

Still, there is an obvious appetite for tackling fashion’s growing waste problem, especially now that European regulators are eyeing a mandatory extended producer responsibility scheme for textiles. Investing in existing recycling technologies and infrastructures could help the sector achieve 80 percent circularity by 2030, according to a report published last year by Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company. In the past year alone, SuperCircle and Treet have each raised millions of dollars in seed funding from investors such as BBG Ventures and Techstars.

“We’ve used too [many] resources, and we need a dramatic shift in the way companies are thinking and this is one of them,” she said. At some point, Tentree hopes to purchase some of that recycled feedstock back, closing the loop on its products.

For now, it’s too early for Buckingham to estimate how much used clothing it will shift through its efforts, though she’s hopeful that thrift-happy Gen Z-ers could open up a whole new market for the retailer. Tentree could also formalize its repair component, which at the moment is unofficial and somewhat ad-hoc.

“Ultimately, we want to keep things in circulation,” she added. “Ultimately, we want people to keep wearing [our clothes] as long as possible. And that should be the norm.”