Recycling and Repurposing: Jessica Schreiber

By Joel De La Rosa

Recycling and Repurposing: Jessica Schreiber

"Sustainability" seems to be a buzzword in the fashion industry. How can an industry that capitalizes on discarding the old and embracing the new be sustainable? At idioma we prefer the term "responsible" for that very reason. However, Jessica at FabScrap never gave up on finding solutions to this very large issue in our industry. I have personally volunteered at the company to help organize and sort excess fabrics that would then be recycled or reused, and I recommend it to anybody with some free time that would like to help out. I had the pleasure to ask Jessica some questions about her work.

JOEL DE LA ROSA: FabScrap is a Non-Profit organization that works with companies to dispose of fabric, to either recycle or reuse it. How does FabScrap work? Or what does it entail?

JESSICA SCHREIBER: We provide reusable FabScrap bags for businesses to fill with unwanted or excess textiles, trims, yarns, or leather. Clients can receive 2 types of bags which hold up to 50 lbs of material each: black bags for proprietary materials and brown bags for everything else. Full bags are picked up and brought to our warehouse in Brooklyn for sorting. There is not yet a mechanized system for sorting textiles by fiber type or for the removal of stickers, staples, and fabric headers, so all sorting is done by hand with the help of local volunteers. To date, we’ve mobilized over 5,000 independent local artisans, designers, students, makers, environmentalists, and textile enthusiasts to donate their time and energy to sort through material in our warehouse.

More than half of the material we receive is suitable for reuse which includes fabric greater than one yard, as well as all pieces of spandex, leather, trims, and yarns. We sell these textiles by the pound, with additional discounts for students at the FabScrap warehouse, and by the yard through our online shop, at regular pop-up shops at regional design schools, and at our new fabric thrift store in Manhattan. We provide free material to other non-profits, teachers, charitable projects, and to all volunteers. Proprietary materials and any fabric less than one yard are shredded / down-cycled.

JD: Since I have volunteered and worked as a sorter, I know that you basically divide up the fabrics into different categories as some of the fibers are natural and others are synthetic. May you share more on why?

JS: It basically has to do with what options exist for those material categories. We sort all non-proprietary material into the following categories: reuse, spandex, 100% cotton, 100% poly, 100% wool, shred, paper, and landfill. We want to reuse everything we can, so if something is more than 1 yard, leather of any size, or particularly special, we save it! We also keep buttons and pins. Next, looking at the small swatches and headers, we’re sorting out all spandex. Spandex cannot be shredded (it melts in the process) so material with spandex content gets saved for reuse. The 100% cotton, poly, and wool we sort only to measure the volume of fabric we are receiving of each type. This helps us prepare to send this material to fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies when they are ready. Everything else gets shredded. We recycle all paper labels. What’s going to landfill is used zippers, broken rubber bands, slipcovers, and binders.

JD: What are some challenges FabScrap faces?

JS: We’ve grown really fast! We’re now working with over 450 fashion, interior design, and entertainment companies. So, we’ve had to scale quickly – which comes with its own set of challenges. We are always looking for new ways to make fabric more accessible, to reach new volunteers, and provide a better service for our brand partners. One specific challenge is getting all of our data ready for reporting each year!

JD: FabScrap has already become this sort of institution for sustainability in fashion, and I see you guys as pioneers. Are there any innovative projects for the future that you would like to share?

JS: Thank you! We’re really excited to return to our plans to open our operations in Los Angles. COVID-19 put all that on hold in a big way. We’re also planning work to reduce the amount of waste at its source. Mills are sending swatches and headers to designers to showcase their new fabrics each season, but after a review, most of these are tossed out! 75% of our incoming material are headers. It takes the most time to process and is most likely to be shredded! We’re working on a way to grade the packaging of these swatches in terms of its recyclability, and as a next step, hoping to work with mills and brands to use sample yardage instead – because it can be reused!

Not ours, but I’d also like to share #PayUp which is holding brands accountable for orders they’ve placed pre-COVID and factories have already completed. This is both an environmental and social justice issue! For fashion to change it needs to confront both. The 15 Percent Pledge started by Aurora James is asking retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. That’s another one to watch!

JD: What has been the best way to get across the importance of recycling and reusing in the fashion industry?

JS: It’s actually really hard to find research about the impacts of keeping fabric from landfill! But I think numbers really resonate with people. We found that every 10 pounds of fabric saved from landfill has the same CO2 reducing benefit as planting a tree! The bulk of that positive impact is in using what already exists and NOT having to create more material from virgin resources and avoiding all the environmental harm that comes along with that. In a smaller part, keeping material from landfill means less plastics (from synthetic fibers) entering our waterways. When speaking with brands, I focus on the data where I can – it helps shows that their operational changes do actually make a difference.

We really try to educate brands and consumers about the volume of textiles that are being discarded. It provides context for why we need to be talking about recycling this material, not just donating it. There is more than can ever possibly be reused! We need to find more circular and sustainable ways to deal with the raw materials.

JD: What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs in fashion?

JS: Two things: not everyone working in fashion is a designer! And make sure you are solving a problem! I technically work in fashion, I suppose, but my background is waste management. I think fashion needs to be collaborating with every possible industry to solve its biggest challenges. It needs the expertise of engineers and financiers and supply chain experts and educators! Which brings me to problem solving! Make sure what you’re creating solves a problem, big or small, for someone else. I think it helps provide meaning and helps you connect with customers.

JD: What resources do you recommend for designers & artists that are interested in sustainability for them to go out and learn more?

JS: I would check out 'Overdressed' and 'The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth Cline'. 'The Story of Stuff' is an online video project that is awesome! I would spend time learning from Fashion for All Foundation, Custom Collaborative, and Intersectional Environmentalist on ways fashion and sustainability need to be more purposefully inclusive. I would recommend volunteering at FabScrap! It’s great hands on experience. 

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