The potential to recover textiles at an enormous scale is evolving. New technologies are coming online, enabling some commercial ventures to process up to tens of thousands of tons of textile discards a month— if they can get a hold of the materials.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

October 19, 2023

5 Min Read
SuperCircle
SuperCircle

Over 34 billion pounds of textiles are tossed annually in the U.S.; 85 percent of that is landfilled or burned, leaving just 15 percent to be recycled, by one two-year-old report. That number has likely climbed as fast fashion gains force, driving a steady increase in textile discards by 10-fold since the 1960s. Thrift shops and similar textile collection points can’t handle the influx, and they have limited to no means of moving what’s left at their door to outlets that could keep it in circulation.

Enter SuperCircle, a recycling management system that connects fashion brands that do consumer takeback programs to waste management pros. Leveraging technology and reverse logistics, SuperCircle handles collection, sortation, and aggregation of apparel, footwear, and accessories that come from individuals’ closets or arrive in bulk from warehouses.

SuperCircle Co-founders Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum have worked in the circular economy space for six years, once selling their own recyclable footwear brand. They offered a takeback and trade in program. Figuring out how to connect with waste management industries to advance this circular concept was no small feat.

“We learned quickly that to recycle one shoe we would need several different waste partners, and we needed volumes to make recycling worthwhile,” Songer says.

The potential to recover at enormous scale is there and evolving. New technologies are coming online, enabling some commercial ventures to process up to tens of thousands of tons of textile discards a month— if they can get a hold of the materials.

But retailers and brands typically do not have reverse logistics for recycling built into their business model. Further, few of them independently have enough volume coming back to effectively recycle on their own.

“We need to create aggregate systems across brands to recycle at scale. That’s where SuperCircle comes in. We are linking brands with the waste management industry to get end-of-life textiles to the proper outlets,” Songer says.

Most excess inventory is in consumers’ closets, and the challenge is figuring out how to get it out economically and at scale. The young New York City-based company does it a couple of ways.

One is through a free mail-in service. Consumers put a prepaid return label on the package and drop it off at the United States Postal Service or United Parcel Service.

But a core strategy to drive down collection costs while rounding up massive volumes has been a hub and spoke model to aggregate materials from multiple sources, then slow truck them to one of SuperCircle’s facilities.

 

“E-commerce [operations] want products back fast to put back on the shelf, but we do not need that speed. We can drop collection costs considerably through cheaper shipping,” Ahlum says.

 

Once the packages reach the warehouses, operators open and scan them; the system leverages brands’ records to identify fabric type, ultimately informing which feed to send the garment too.

 

Building clean feeds has been a must because the processors that the bales move on to are rarely generic fiber recyclers. They each do specific fibers, cotton polyester, etc., Ahlum says.  SuperCircle’s system can sort a few garments at a time, or at the bulk inventory level – processing tens of thousands of garments at once.

Engaging and incentivizing consumers has been a huge part of making these takeback programs work.  The carrot sticks are an easy, free process and store credits earned for sending in the clothes.

For retailers and brands, it’s been a way to take ownership of end-of-life materials by tracking and reporting on what gets recycled. At the same time, they are driving a deeper engagement with their customer base.

“It’s a wonderful way to bring customers back to the brand.  You can spend $50,000 on a Facebook campaign [to promote your brand], or you can spend $50,000 to recycle for your customers and build better, longer term relationships,” Songer says.

They’ve been powerful programs, not only helping generate strong loyalty by offering customers a free outlet for clothes they no longer want, but showing them that their discards still have value.

SuperCircle works with a couple of apparel makers that offer both recycling and resale options. And it’s done in one place, with the idea being to have a one-stop shop with a single, holistic branded experience.

A.L.C., a New York City luxury brand, leverages this model with a platform where consumers can resell through a contract A.L.C. has with peer-to-peer trading company Archive. Consumers list and sell garments they no longer want on A.L.C.’s website and ship direct to buyers. If their belongings are in no condition to sell, they simply click “recycle” and send them off to SuperCircle.

Archive integrates with a brand’s product catalog data so that images and product descriptions are pre-populated and recommends a listing price so there is no guesswork for the seller, says Emily Gittins, co-founder & CEO, Archive.

“Similarly, buyers have the opportunity to shop in a trustworthy environment, through a curated and easy-to-navigate experience,” she says.

Through its partnerships with Archive and SuperCircle, A.L.C. takes clothing in any condition from any brand for both resale and recycling.

Galvanizing and engaging its customers in a meaningful way has been the greatest payback, says Hallie Shaw, senior vice president, A.L.C. 

“The concept of community is central to our brand identity, and our commitment to limiting the impact we have on our shared environment is the driving force behind [our] platform. It was designed to empower our customers to be part of our journey towards greater sustainability by extending the lifecycle of clothing and reducing waste going into landfills,” she says.

For SuperCircle, collaboration has been key to working toward bridging a gap that is still quite broad, industrywide.

Says Songer: “We are trying to build infrastructure for collections at the same time recyclers are trying to build commercialization for recycling. So together as a whole industry we can get to a point where we can collect, process, and recycle at scale.”

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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