How SuperCircle CEO Chloe Songer Gets Big Brands to Buy Into Circular Fashion

In this Q&A Chloe Songer, tells how she and her partner made their first business model work—centered around a single product – recyclable shoes. And how SuperCircle has since managed to pull in major brands and retailers to bring back all sorts of garments to be made into new products.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

May 23, 2024

7 Min Read

Chloe Songer, CEO and co-founder of SuperCircle, began working in fashion at an early age. She loved the industry. But as she got to see the underbelly of the fashion supply chain, she was hit hard by apparel production’s environmental impact. “It was impossible to ignore,” she says.

So Songer, a 40 Under 40 Award recipient, set out to push circular fashion – it was at a time when circularity had little buy in within this industry.

In this Q&A she tells how she and her partner made their first business model work—centered around a single product – recyclable shoes. And how SuperCircle has since managed to pull in major brands and retailers to bring back all sorts of garments to be made into new products.

Waste360: How did you got into fashion, and specifically sustainable fashion?

Songer: My mom was an artist, and my grandmother was in the beauty industry. I grew up with a love for art and design. My initial exposure to fashion was through collecting Vogue magazines throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s. 

I was also part of the climate movement in Northern California. I was a trained ‘Inconvenient Truth’ presenter and led climate research and education programs through Stanford and Berkeley in high school.

In college, I interned at Vogue China, and moved to China post grad where I worked [in the production space] at Alexander Wang Group. I got exposure to the underbelly of the fashion supply chain very early in my career. The impact apparel production has on people and planet was impossible to ignore.

I then spent four years at Gap Inc where I saw production — and consumption — at mass scale and recognized the need for larger systems change. This led my first co-founder and I to start our first business, Thousand Fell, to create footwear that was designed for disassembly and create a single product line operating in a closed loop system. 

Waste360: What did you have to prove out to design a recyclable sneaker and how did you do it?

Songer: When my co-founder and I launched Thousand Fell, our circular sneaker brand, we became obsessed with the idea that “clothing isn’t trash.”

We needed to prove out a business model that apparel or footwear could not only be taken back and recycled, but that consumers would participate in a trade-in model if incentivized correctly. 

We started with footwear because although it was a tough product from a design perspective, basic sneakers are a ‘high frequency basic’ product category, one that people run through and replace quickly.  We could expect to start collecting worn sneakers within 12 to 18 months. 

It took about two years of material development and R&D to create a sneaker that could be pulled apart and recycled. We use three design principles — easy disassembly; using bio-based alternatives to traditional plastics and coatings; and opting for materials that could be effectively recycled. The upper is composed of a bio leather with a bio-resin coating. This allowed for high recyclability. We use biofoams and postindustrial food waste components— a replacement for traditional plastic inserts. And the outsoles are made using natural and recycled rubber and designed for disassembly.

When we started Thousand Fell, customers would email in to initiate a trade in, and we’d send them a prepaid shipping label.  Within the first 18 months, 40-plus percent of our customers sent sneakers back. We proved that you could build a brand centered around trade in— as long as it was easy, and customers were incentivized. It was the $0.05 bottle rebate applied to fashion. 

This experience was ultimately the springboard for launching SuperCircle.

Waste360: What was your first charge at SuperCircle, and what were you up against?

Songer: The goal was to build circular technology and reverse logistics for the retail industry at large. But given the market back in 2019 — there wasn’t enough conviction around circular business models— we needed to build a proof of concept with our own singular product line in Thousand Fell.

In 2021, we met Reformation and, alongside Thousand Fell, we spent 8 to 10 months building the beta tech platform and reverse logistics network that would become SuperCircle. Alongside Reformation, we built dynamic recycling feeds and recycling streams for the main staple fibers across [multiple fibers]. What started as a manual trade-in program transformed into an automated digital system that could power post-consumer collection directly from brands.

Waste360: What are you still learning at the helm at SuperCircle? How is this helping advance circular textiles models?

Songer: The main learning is that we figured out how to unlock profitable business models for textile recycling. Textiles don’t operate like a standard commodities market — there isn’t enough value just from selling clean fiber, especially when it comes to pre- and post-consumer garments that have to be collected and processed. 

We figured out how to create return on investment positive — or profit and loss positive — value propositions for retail brands through our post-consumer trade in and inventory solutions programs. This is enabling recycling to be more quickly adopted by large multinational retailers.

Waste360: What do you find most important about the work happening at SuperCircle?

Songer: Circularity requires investment in logistics and technology. We are helping to build critical infrastructure to power the American circular textile economy.

This is incredibly important given that we are — in what I consider — to be a global textile crisis. Between 2005 and 2015, consumer consumption of clothing almost doubled. We are in a situation today where 60 percent of clothing manufactured hits a landfill in 12 months of manufacture date. 

Clothing is no longer a higher price point, longer-use product category.

Twenty years ago, the volumes of clothing were such that excess and used clothing could be processed through donation systems. Today, 80-plus percent of what’s donated is exported into international textile markets. These markets don’t have the demand to utilize all this clothing — nor do they have the textile processing capability.

At SuperCircle we’re hyper focused on recycling these clothes — and building the infrastructure to process textiles waste both locally and on a global scale.

Waste360: What might a typical day look like for you?

Songer: I’m trying a new thing this year! When I wake up in the morning, I’m trying not to look at my phone or join a Zoom call for at least 90 minutes to calm my parasympathetic nervous system and start the day off strong.

But once the day kicks off, we are in total build mode, moving as fast as we can.

I’m in a lot of meetings through the day and into the evening, back-to-back. BUT what is energizing is the number and variety of incredible people I get to work with every day, both internal to SuperCircle and external with brand and supply chain partners who are focused on building the future of circular fashion.

I’m working really closely with our brand partnerships, sales, marketing, product, and commercial teams to think through new brand opportunities, new partnership opportunities throughout the supply chain, and new commercial opportunities.

Waste360: What do you like spending your time doing outside of work?

Songer: It’s been really important to stay active. I love fitness and I’m obsessed with boxing and megaformer. 

I also love thrifting and the “act of curation” – I go into the zone.

I love discovering, following, and curating vintage furniture, new furniture designers and galleries, and others as well as vintage glass. I have a neat collection growing.

I prioritize shopping for resale and secondhand. I also spend a lot of time window shopping, where I discover new designers, independent designers, and sustainable brands, and get a feel for what is happening in the space.

Waste360: What next for SuperCircle?

Songer: We are looking ahead at the next two years of growth. We have had some incredible brands sign on over the last year — including J. Crew, Uniqlo, Parachute Home, ALC, Subset, Maggie Sottero (in the bridal space).

Over the next two years, we plan to roll out with a number of larger enterprise brands and big box retailers and continue to work towards establishing recycling as a standard practice in the retail industry in the U.S.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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