In 1976, DC Comics offered a limited release of a comic book character called Ragman who borrows from the legends of the past and the mystical powers inherent in clothing and related items.
The Ragman hasn’t appeared since 2010, but whether or not DC Comics decides to revive this character, I am on a mission to change the world of clothing recycling and propel it into the 21st century. The timing is urgent.
In the United States, we have achieved a level of affluence and consumption that is unparalleled in the world. As such, Americans discard approximately 86 pounds of clothing and related items each year, which is the equivalent of 22 billion pounds annually. We only recycle 15 percent of that amount, which leaves about 10.5 million tons per year in landfills, giving clothing one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material.
According to the U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA), reuse—second only to reduction—enjoys the highest and best environmental and economic value. Economically, this movement is creating jobs around the world for the collection, handling and distribution of this valuable material. Many different types of business are engaged in the resale of textiles, including those developing new recycling methods, logistics companies that manage the flow and distribution and retailers of all sizes and formats.
As such, reuse fuels economies both here and abroad. From micro-entrepreneurs to larger family-owned businesses in every corner of the world, more than 70 percent of the world depends on second-hand clothing and accessories.
A quick historical survey reveals that the buying and selling of used clothing dates back more than 200 years into the early rise of Western civilization. There are stories of used clothing trade operations from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and other parts of Western Europe.
Closer to home, during the Victorian period, the Jewish communities of New York were involved in the used clothing trade, acquiring garments from the wealthy who discarded them when new fashions came in, or from the family of the recently deceased.
Other sources in the states included obsolete military uniforms and clothes taken from workhouse inmates or, items literally stolen from clothes washing lines. In many respects, the modern day incarnation of this business—and the issues pertaining to the sourcing, handling and distribution of used clothing—reflect the same challenges, stereotypes and misunderstandings of the past.
I came to this industry 14 years ago as a newcomer and have been fascinated by this history, and the breadth and scope of the industry that bears several names, including the “rag trade.”
While the business of buying discards and selling them to others was relegated to outsiders, often spurned and disparaged as “rag men,” the efficient laws of supply and demand continue to support the business fundamentals of this for-profit business trade of used clothing, shoes and related materials.
The environmental benefits are compelling. Recently, the EPA reported that the recycling of clothing, shoes and accessories has a more favorable impact to reducing carbon emissions than plastic, glass and yard trimming recycling combined. Even at the low level of two million tons annually of clothing recycling, this is the equivalent of removing one million cars from America’s highways.
I firmly believe that sustainability and economic viability are not mutually exclusive, but complimentarily. That’s why the U.S. needs meaningful, engaging and convenient recycling experiences for consumer recyclers and retail partners that champion The Reuse Movement. This approach creates the human connection and community-building that comes from reuse, allowing everyone to be a superhero by reducing waste, generating economic good and improving lives.
The economics of recycling for reuse support these initiatives, allow us to experiment, innovate, take measured risks and pursue ambitious goals. The pursuit of good intentions and social initiatives can be well-founded on a solid, sustainable business model.
Sustainability is here to stay and is being integrated at many levels of the retail and manufacturing industry. Not only is this smart, essential and valuable to our world, it is good business. Each day, we see more signs of growing awareness that clothing, shoes and other similar items can and should be recycled and reused. The Reuse Movement allows everyone to be a part of transforming—perhaps even saving—the recycling and waste reduction industry.
The Reuse Movement can transform our industry. The question is, when will the industry be completely on board? To my thinking, the old world efficacy and value of reuse infused with the new world of modern technology and scale of social media is a powerful combination. The positive human, environmental and economic rewards can be incredibly strong. Indeed, a superhero story in the making.
Ira Baseman is president of Community Recycling, a social-conscious, for-profit recycling company which has championed the reuse movement. Community Recycling scales clothing recycling and reuse for people while helping retail organizations build brand reputation and connectivity among their customers. Community Recycling engages more than 5,000 partner organizations in the U.S. and more than 50 countries in the reuse movement by reusing materials or turning them into new products, helping to grow local economies and provide jobs for people in the U.S. and abroad.