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What These Textile Recyclers and Clothing Resellers Say About Fashion’s Circular Future

When most people think about recycled clothing, they think of charity, Goodwill, Salvation Army, secondhand donations—dot-org, not dot-com.

But the fact is, recycling clothes and textiles is already a big business and one that’s only going to grow bigger for years to come.

According to a study by Markets and Markets, the textile recycling market was valued in 2022 at $6.9 billion and expected to reach $9.4 billion by 2027, and by 2050 apparel will account for a quarter of the world’s carbon production, potentially raising demand for recycling.

It’s a trend Adam Baruchowitz saw coming back in 2004 when he started Wearable Collections, by putting bins inside of New York-area apartment buildings that he’d pick up and sell as secondhand or as recyclable textiles. A decade later, he was setting up a collection table shop at farmers markets and by the eve of Covid, he was collecting and re-selling 2.5 million pounds of material each year and hosting 31 greenmarket events each week.

The value proposition Baruchowitz identified early on came from the sorting end of the chain.

“You’re getting paid for 50 percent of the stuff [secondhand clothing], which the sorters will make money from. The other 50 percent from the rags and stuff, they lose money on, so I’ve been more obsessed with this 50 percent [of textiles], thinking that when you change the economic value proposition of that 50 percent, now you’re changing the incentive base to collect,” he told Sourcing Journal. “And when you change the incentive base to collect, you’re likely going to divert more from landfills and there’s going to be more reason for more people to get into the game.”

But finding that quality second-run clothing gets harder and harder as the gospel of sustainability spreads and more and more consumers sell their best used items through online channels like Poshmark.

Recycling Banks for clothes and shoes. Chris Harris/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Out in western New York, St. Pauly Textiles has been profitable in the recycled clothing business, but second-generation owner Joe Howlett has never seen it as busy as it is now.

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“A lot of that comes down to people being more cognizant of their finances and wanting to get something at a much more reasonable price, but in addition to that, people are becoming more conscientious of the environment,” Howlett told Sourcing Journal. “Educating the general public that we don’t want this stuff going into the landfill is just a matter of getting that mindset.”

St. Pauly Textiles in Farmington, N.Y. was started by Howlett’s father in 1996 and has little trouble filling up its donation sheds.

“Basically, what we do is set up relationships with different non-profit groups collecting clothing, usually using it as a fund-raiser,” Howlett said. “We’re purchasing the product that comes in and we’re able to sell it.”

Izzy and Maya Howlett at the St. Pauly Textiles recycling drop in Farmington, N.Y. Courtesy St. Pauly Textiles

Whereas Baruchowitz seeks out quality secondhand clothing to maximize his profit on the recycled rest, Howlett puts his focus on resale first and recycled textiles a distant second. Howlett believes that as momentum for recycling mounts it will eventually run afoul of the fashion industry, which relies on consumers regularly buying new products to maintain profits.

“Our biggest focus is trying to get the highest quality clothing to go around the world; that’s one of the biggest pushes we need to have across the board,” he said. “I know it’s not a popular thing for people who manufacture clothing to make it at a higher quality—which essentially means it’s lasting longer, which means people aren’t buying new. But for sustainability in the future, we have to have higher quality clothing in the second market. Fast fashion is a detriment.”

Last week in Dubai, Howlett was one of a record 204 attendees for the annual convention for SMART, the trade organization representing recycling in the clothing and textiles industries since 1932.

“What the companies have always done in the industry is to look for a way to make some money for their waste, or at least get rid of the cost of waste,” Steve Rees, SMART president and founder of his own textile recycling company Wipeco, told Sourcing Journal. “More and more municipalities and more and more governments are trying to figure out landfill issues and textiles are one of the last behemoth things… It’s at a point where it’s gone from companies to a real focus on communities.”

Wipeco Industries is an industrial supply company which produces wiping rags from a mix of secondhand clothing, reclaimed linens from hospitals and hotels and other businesses, as well as unused partial rolls of fabric. He said pushes for labeling on clothing that will allow a garment to be tracked through a QR code would be especially helpful for recyclers needing to separate certain fabrics before they can be mashed into a pulp and repurposed.

Adam Baruchowitz, founder of Wearable Collections, outside his favorite neighborhood coffee shop in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Adam Baruchowitz, founder of Wearable Collections, outside his favorite neighborhood coffee shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. Matt Hickman/Sourcing Journal

“Right now we can break down 95 to 100 percent cotton goods, only some polyesters and for any blended materials—unless it’s being chopped into fiber, it doesn’t work,” Rees said. “So any info on a garment that can be scanned quickly can definitely help stream textiles into higher value.”

Ninety companies and 14 nations were represented at SMART, including India and Pakistan, where Rees said a majority of the recycling workforce exists now. This makes Dubai a strategic site for a conference because of its geographic location and its relatively easy visa protocols.

“A lot of our conversation right now is based on closing the loop,” Rees said. “The talk was about how, as an industry, we need to have a seat at the table.” Governments and municipalities have to “get the message out” that people shouldn’t just throw their clothes and textiles in the garbage, Rees said.

Howlett, a regular at these conferences, said there was a “buzz” in Dubai he hadn’t felt before.

“I think there was an energy that’s difficult to quantify,” he said, adding, “The buzz was, ‘hey, we all need to work together and get better.’”

Howlett said the push to make recycling the norm will take a combination effort from for-profit and non-profit organizations alike.

“The need is so strong that everyone wants to be part of it,” he said. “I’ve always been taught that you don’t have to be a nonprofit to do the right thing.”

CheckSammy bags and bins. Courtesy of CheckSammy

The collection bins inside of buildings that Baruchowitz helped pioneer nearly 20 years ago, is being taken to the next level of technology by Dallas-based CheckSammy, which earlier this month presented its novel approach to recycling of not just clothing but electronics and plastic devices too at the Aspen Ideas Summit.

Operating since 2018, CheckSammy has programmed its bins from coast to coast to signal when they are more than 75 percent full. That triggers a fleet of more than 5,000 gig economy drivers to come get the haul and deliver it to hubs, called “sustainability centers,” where advanced technology is used to separate and bundle and bale each product type, providing statistics of how much of each type was present in each load.

“We’re aggregating on mass specific commodities and it’s in one door and out the other,” CheckSammy co-founder and CEO Sam Scoten told Sourcing Journal. “We’re basically collecting the product, putting them into bailing machines where we get 1,000-pound bricks, then they’re on a 53-foot [truck], like a Jenga, and they’re on to the next destination.”

Scoten said the process of hiring thousands of drivers is not so different from a ride-sharing service.

“Our typical hauler will have a 20-foot box truck, but it could also be a 53-foot rig, or a semi,” Scoten said. “The onboarding process makes sure that they’re fully insured, fully compliant and they’re permitted in the jurisdiction that they’re working.”

Scoten said placing bins inside of residential settings proves to be the best for getting the coveted secondhand clothes of quality.

“You have to control the source and the source is typically going to be from the individual’s closet, i.e., their residence,” Scoten said. “The benefit of a multifamily structure is you could have 100 residents or 500 to 600 and you have to have a mechanism to come back to collect, and that’s been the beauty of the bin-and-bag process is that process starts by educating not only the property management, but by educating the suppliers of the textiles, which would be the residents.”

When the QR coded bins and bags are brought to the center, they are weighed immediately.

“We actually narrow it right down to exactly what is inside the bag,” Scoten said. “Is it men’s wear? Women’s wear? What’s the seasonality? Are there children’s products in there? We can get very granular on the data and then we hand those items off to either institutional buyers or charitable entities.”

Bins with bundled textiles at a CheckSammy sustainability center. Courtesy of CheckSammy

Scoten said today CheckSammy is the largest sustainability operator in North America, a superlative they claim thanks to vertical integration.

“We’re a for-profit entity…We’re about maximizing shareholder returns, but we’re also about doing the right thing,” Scoten said. “We found the system was broken where you have one company doing the operations, another is doing the data collection, a third is going to do the de-branding and so on. But we’re a one-stop shop… We can come to our clients and say when we collect, we will show you the data right down to the poundage, what it is we’re taking off the property, the cadence, and customize that process over a period of time by cutting costs and then coming back to them with their sustainability [figures].”

That process has allowed CheckSammy to remain profitable every year it’s been in operation, even through the pandemic.

“It’s a very powerful marketplace that we built and it is a profitable way of approaching [recycling] but at the same time mitigating the waste to landfill and nobody has done what we’ve we’ve done if you look at the couriers to the waste operators, to some of the bespoke recyclers that are out there,” Scoten said. “It’s phenomenal. But it all comes down to the core and the core is the logistics.”

Baruchowitz’s business was all but leveled by the pandemic. With social distancing putting a halt to farmers markets, he had to sell his fleet of “Feed the Monster” emblazoned trucks, and dismiss the staff of Wearable Collections, which is now Baruchowitz alone.

Wearable Collections table at a greenmarket event in New York City. Courtesy of Wearable Collections

He’s now hosting about eight greenmarkets per week, down significantly from the 31 pre-Covid, but with his expenses cut to the bare minimum, the former Wall Street day trader can see the second life of his American Dream.

“There’s a lot of pressure on do-gooders to do good, you know? I want to prove out through a company that you can do well by doing good,” Baruchowitz said. “You know how many billions of dollars needs to be invested to really change this for the better? This is not like some moonshot prize, this is systemic change that needs to happen, and who benefits from that?”

While he believes in environmental cause, the word “sustainability” is one Baruchowitz would to see chucked into the landfill.

“I don’t even like to use the word sustainability,” Baruchowitz said. “I’m strictly talking about circularity because circularity means something to me. It’s like thinking about the end of life at the beginning phase and taking responsibility for it in the middle.”