Inside a large industrial building in Jamaica, Queens, I sighed, taking a quick break from ripping staples off of fabric. My back was to the windows, but even if I wanted to look outside, I’d have a problem. A mountain of trash bags blocked any view, each stuffed with thousands of tiny fabric scraps from fashion companies around New York City. I had signed up to sort through the material, but after working for three long hours alongside five other volunteers, we had barely made it through five bags. Dozens remained.
I was at the headquarters of FabScrap, a textile recycling company that processes material leftover from fashion production. They’re just one of many well-intentioned textile recycling companies that have bumped up against a painful reality: There is simply too much clothing to process. As it stands, 84 percent of all unwanted clothes end up in landfills, according to Newsweek. In New York City alone, this comes to about 400 million pounds thrown away annually—6 percent of the city’s waste stream. Traditionally, unwanted secondhand clothes are sent abroad, but some countries have started to reject the goods. Technology to transform the old clothes into new items isn’t ready yet, so many recyclers and designers are focusing on something else: getting consumers to buy less.
“We have to educate consumers about the mindless consumption being forced down our throats,” says Adam Baruchowitz, the founder of Wearable Collections, a secondhand clothing retailer. “We need to be getting people to think twice about how quickly they consume things.”