Each year, Andy Ruben bought his daughter new shinguards for soccer, stashing the old gear and waiting for the replacements to labor through the delivery system to his door.
But as he watched local girls outgrow their own sports equipment, Ruben realized that the items he wanted were gathering dust in garages and closets around his neighborhood.
“Our whole retail model over the last 50 years has focused on keeping the industrial machine churning out items,” said Ruben, who until 2007 had an up-close view as the head of sustainability at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the king of mass-produced goods. “But if my friend already has shinguards that he’s not using, I don’t need to buy them for myself.”
So Ruben and environmentalist Adam Werbach dreamed up Yerdle, a website they launched during last year’s Black Friday shopping swarm.
Members use the platform to offer underutilized goods — clothing, electronics, even pianos — to friends and acquaintances free of charge. Ruben said the setup, which now has 18,000 participants, is less anonymous than Craigslist and more eco-minded than Facebook.
The young San Francisco company is one of the newest manifestations of what’s known as collective consumerism, or the circular or sharing economy.
Instead of trying to shrink a product’s environmental footprint from the production side by making it with less material, advocates — especially clothing and shoe companies — are trying to extend its usefulness on the consumer end.
Retailers such as Hello Rewind are selling goods and products reworked from discarded scraps. Textile makers are experimenting with longer-lasting fabrics. Some businesses are asking shoppers to scale back their buying.
“It fits perfectly with the new movement toward sustainability in the fashion industry,” said British designer Orsola de Castro, whose From Somewhere brand is considered an eco-apparel pioneer. “Hyper production and the sheer availability of cheap clothing has made us forget the value of maintaining and repurposing clothes and textiles.”
Each year, Americans trash a prodigious portion of their closets: 26 billion pounds of apparel, textiles and footwear, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The amount thrown out by consumers surged 40% in 2009 from 1999 and is expected to zoom up another 40% by 2019, the agency said.
The effort to scale it all back has been around for years via thrift stores, clothing swaps and resale shops. In 23 years of operation, Nike Inc.'s Reuse-a-Shoe program has turned 28 million pairs of used athletic footwear into coatings for playing courts, running tracks and other sports surfaces.
Despite its do-gooder glow, the circular economy isn’t free of detractors. They say it encourages “green washing,” a phenomenon in which companies claim to be eco-friendly but end up contributing the same amount of waste as their peers or more.
Others are skeptical of the movement’s profit-earning potential.
Even Yerdle’s Ruben, who anticipates $1.3 million in angel investor funding by year-end, said he’s still experimenting with how to make money. Potential tactics include paid transactions between users, from which Yerdle would take a commission, or moving services with a fee, he said.
Still, collective consumerism has gained traction as more companies tout quality over quantity amid rising textile prices and fast-fashion fatigue. There’s also the problem of tragic accidents in foreign sweatshops, such as the recent Bangladeshi factory building collapse that killed more than 1,000 people, many of them sewing garments for Western retailers.
In addition, global warming and other environmental concerns have piqued Americans’ curiosity about their consumption patterns.
Many major retailers are starting with the easiest tactic: recycling.
H&M; started its Long Live Fashion program this year, giving customers a 15%-off voucher for each bag of old clothing brought into stores. Garments too ratty to be worn are reincarnated as new material such as insulation and carpet padding. Intact garb is sent abroad as secondhand goods.
North Face has a similar setup, known as Clothes the Loop. Gap ran its own version in 2010. And Levi Strauss & Co., through a partnership with Goodwill, uses its product care tags to encourage customers to donate unwanted clothing.
But even with discounts and other incentives, 64% of Americans don’t want to drive more than five miles to drop off their old clothing or shoes, according to USAgain, which recycles textiles. Many prefer the convenience of a nearby trash can.
So some companies are trying to add extra value to worn-out fabrics and unwanted scraps by using them to create products that improve on the original, a concept known as upcycling.
Liz Bordessa and her daughter, Christina Johnson, launched Upcycle It Now to give Bordessa’s tailoring and alterations business a boost after the recession. The Long Beach company now partners with Patagonia to make yoga mat slings from old board shorts and dog jackets out of used rain gear and fleece outerwear.
Last summer, Topshop featured a small collection of clothing made from discarded materials. Looptworks of Portland, Ore., offers repurposed goods such as laptop sleeves built from scrap wet-suit neoprene.
This winter Dutch company Mud Jeans introduced a leasing program, in which customers rent denim for a monthly fee instead of buying new pants. Mud takes apart the jeans when they’re returned and uses the material to create new fashions.
Venerable French fashion house Hermes has a project called Petit H, in which leftover scraps from products such as its silk scarves or its $100,000 Birkin handbags are reincarnated as hammocks, stools or toy sailboats.
But many companies are using an incomplete definition of upcycling, said William McDonough, a designer, architect and coauthor of the books “Cradle to Cradle” and “The Upcycle.”
Often, he said, new products made from used clothing actually cause more toxic substances to be dumped into the environment. Even though there’s less raw fabric being produced, dyes used to freshen worn scraps can seep into water supplies. Patching a torn garment for resale often involves metal zippers or buttons that can’t be recycled down the line.
A shirt made from pieces of unidentifiable material shipped in from multiple locations isn’t necessarily more sustainable than a similar garment constructed from locally sourced organic cotton that could someday be broken down into high-end rag paper, he said.
“What happens to these molecules when we’re done with them?” McDonough said. “How do we design a textile that, once we tire of it, can power our technology or go back to biology and be put back to human use without poisoning our biosphere?”
Creating products capable of going full circle is an ephemeral and difficult task. A few companies now believe the solution is to eliminate apparel waste starting at the source, by urging consumers to shop less and take better care of their clothing.
Patagonia, as part of its Common Threads initiative, has helped customers repair more than 30,000 items since January 2012 and plans this fall to attach do-it-yourself repair guides to some products. And since the holiday shopping season, the brand has used a billboard in New York to urge customers to “don’t buy what you don’t need.”
There’s a similar philosophy of “fewer, better things” at San Francisco e-commerce company Cuyana, which asks consumers to carefully curate their closets with a few key pieces instead of buying on impulse.
Using a strategy that co-founder Shilpa Shah calls “the retail version of farm-to-table,” Cuyana goes to a single country to source fabric and manufacture garments for each collection. The strategy helps lower transportation costs, enabling the brand to keep prices low while maintaining quality.
The company, which avoids wholesale brokers, also sells exclusively online to avoid bricks-and-mortar maintenance expenses and to better manage inventory levels.
“We’ve always believed in longevity, and we’ve always been anti-fast fashion,” Shah said. “But we’re not preaching minimalism. We just want our products to go further.”