This brand is recycling underwear - here’s why
[Feb. 15, 2021: World Economic Forum]
What do you do with your unwanted underwear? Chances are you throw them away.
Now a clothing company in Philadelphia, US, says it’s time to stop casting our undergarments aside. About 5 million kilogrammes of unwanted underwear ends up in landfill sites across the US every day, according to The Big Favorite.
It says it’s bringing circularity to underwear – “the one category remaining that can’t be donated or resold” – by encouraging customers to return their old undies to the company for recycling instead of throwing them away.
By asking customers to do this, The Big Favorite is assuming responsibility for the end-of-life stage of those garments. It uses the returned items to produce yarn, which is woven into fabric for new clothes. In return, customers get credits on their account which can be used for new purchases. Alternatively, their credit can be converted into a donation to a climate-friendly initiative.
“We know it’s sort of weird to think about sending back your understuff,” the company says on its website. “But throwing things into landfills is way grosser.” It asks that items are washed before they’re returned, and it promises all returned underwear is processed anonymously.
If you find the idea of recycling underwear amusing – or perhaps even bemusing – there is a serious point to be made here.
The fashion industry has faced pressure to reduce its environmental impact for years. Around $500 billion a year is lost as a result of clothes “being barely worn and rarely recycled,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization that promotes the circular economy. The sector could also use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 unless current rates of production, consumption and disposal change for the better, the Foundation says.
Some fashion firms are addressing such issues by joining initiatives to cut back on pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. And the United Nations has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to coordinate efforts across the industry.
Recycling clothes can be a tricky business. Some items are made from a combination of different fibres, some natural and some synthetic. Similarly, some garments – sports footwear in particular – contain plastic. The underwear from The Big Favorite is 100% cotton, which it says makes it easier to recycle into new items.
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In an interview with the fashion publication Vogue, The Big Favorite’s founder, Eleanor Turner, said: “Brands will try to approach circularity as an afterthought, but that’s inauthentic. It has to be part of your approach from the very beginning. Our products were specifically designed for their ‘end of life’ – they’re engineered to come apart easily.”
The Big Favorite itself has also been recycled. Originally a retailer selling workwear in the US, it was set up in the 1930s by one of Turner’s grandfathers, and she re-established the brand in 2020.