Open letter to I:CO fashion recycling

This post is an open letter and questionnaire to the I:CO clothes collecting company (and it´s partner companies) that works in many fashion retail shops taking in donated clothes and recycling them. The following paragraphs have been copied from the I:CO website and written in to conversation form for easier reading. The post is long, I know, so bare with me. It has loads of good questions about clothes collecting and recycling as a business. I hope I:CO or some of their partner companies answer them.

"The challenge"

I:CO: Every year, millions of tons of used textiles and shoes are produced. These represent important raw materials which are currently not being reused at all as, after wearing, most of it is simply tossed in the garbage. Although some of it is used again through recycling – for example as house insulating material – once this house is demolished, the textile raw material is lost forever. Therefore all of the existing collection structures only make sense if the following basic requirements are met: They must be part of a professional sorting and analysis process that ensures that each discarded T-shirt and each discarded shoe finds its way into a new product – over and over again.

OPT: This is true. We consume way too many textiles per year. And there are even more manufactured, which some are never sold. It is important that there are organizations that collect the used pieces and recycle them. But it is very important that if the company´s policy and strategy is to be ecological and ethical, that their working methods should also be transparent. It is the only way truly be green.

"Rewear and Upcycling"

I:CO: Our solution for achieving this closed loop product cycle is REWEAR & UPCYCLING. REWEAR means that, firstly, what is still wearable is worn again. This ensures that the energy which once went into making the product is respected and optimally used. After all, we get rid of a car just because we no longer like the color. UPCYCLING means that a discarded textile or shoe is used to create a new product of equal or better quality. Items that can no longer be worn go into an UPCYCLING process and are thus retained in the loop – so that a pair of jeans today can be turned into a new pair of jeans in the future. We are implementing the I:CO formula together with our partner companies who are traders, industrialists, recycling specialists and charitable organizations.

OPT: Yes, it is wise to keep the clothes that are still wearable in use as long as possible. How much of I:CO´s collected clothes are REWEAR (% and tons) per year? And how much goes to UPCYCLE? What are the companies that you partner up in these recycling methods? I´m guessing you sell the still usable clothes to second hand retail shops. What type of products are made from the repurposed textiles? Where are these goods being produced? Turning a pair of jeans into a new pair is not possible as it is. I have not heard of any company who is able to do this so the statement is a bit off in my opinion. It demands fibre manipulation and good materials. Most denims are not high quality enough (plus they often have elastane in them that makes the process even more difficult) to be spun into new fabrics. Who are you working with in getting this done?

I:CO: You can go shopping with pleasure and without a bad conscience – because your consumption is part of a natural process in which your used textiles are permanently reused to make new products.

OPT: The most ecological thing is to prevent clothes from becoming waste in the first place. So please don´t encourage your retailer´s customers to buy more with a conscience as it is not sustainable. Fashion consumers should be educated into consuming less and taking care of the things they buy. And of course recycle as much as possible when they are done. Ecological fashion should be slow fashion.

I:CO: Our mission is to collect your used shoes and textiles, logistically bring them together, analyze them, and determine their next best use. But we can only do this with your help. You can be part of the solution, by returning your discarded clothing and shoes to the natural cycle. I:CO is part of the SOEX GROUP and is based in Switzerland. I:CO has its collection points all over the world. SOEX GROUP has more than 2,000 employees worldwide and currently processes around 700 tons of used items every day in more than 90 countries.

OPT: It is good that you have brought the donation possibility close to the consumer - where they buy their clothes. But what is your logistical map? Shipping clothes around the world is not ecological. How far do they have to travel to become recycled? Do you have a sorting station in each country and state that you have the donation boxes in? I did not find a map about this on your website.

"Turning old into new"

I:CO: We are a global commitment to our environment. Each one of us can get involved and make a contribution to something big without any great effort. Sustainable consumption. Isn’t that an oxymoron? No, it’s not. The name I:CO stands for “I collect.“ Our system is as follows: We can all give back our discarded clothing, shoes or accessories such as belts or bags to the places we bought them. Worldwide I:CO provides the infrastructure to ensure that the valuable raw materials from these old textiles enter a closed loop production cycle and remain there. From collection to recycling, consumer goods are recycled and put to a new use. In this way every consumer and every participating company is actively contributing to climate protection. Did you know that the production of a T-shirt consumes between 10,000 and 30,000 liters of water and means additional CO2 emissions of 3.6 kg. With a recycling process, only 5 to 10 percent of these quantities are used or produced!

OPT: This is exactly why recycling fashion is so important. It saves so much of our precious resources. It would be great to see some numbers on how many pieces of fashion you collected and where they ended up after I:CO sorted them. After all, I:CO is only a fashion collecting and sorting business. It does not recycle the clothes itself, but partners up with other organizations handle them from there on.

"Why is it worthwhile joining in?"

I:CO: The I:CO system is simple yet ingenious. Numerous commercial partners are involved, including global players such as Esprit, H&M, C&A, Adler and Reno. Their customers deposit used textiles with them, and thus create space for new things. How do you benefit? In exchange, customers receive a discount voucher with which they can immediately get money off a new purchase.

OPT: The discount voucher is a great incentive for consumers to use the donation boxes. But don´t you think it also encourages them to buy more new fashions when the green thing would be to get them buy less? Just think about it. How many kilos of clothes did a retailer collect in a month or year? And compare this to the kilos/amount of clothes that they sold more of new clothes with this donation discount? If the amount is more sold than donated, the donation campaign is green washing for the retail store. This could be easily monitored by adding a campaign code to the purchases made with this voucher to see the actual amount in the sales reports. In my mind the retailers should be doing this clothes collecting campaign for free (no discount vouchers) as a part of their service. After all it would send a much stronger message to the consumer that they take responsibility for their products and that they are being recycled properly. Also, in the name of transparency, do you pay the retailer for this service, or do they pay I:CO? In an ethical business the money-flow is also transparent.

I:CO: We arrange their (donated clothes) environmentally-friendly removal, sorting and reuse. This creates the basis for the permanent, 100 % reuse of resources. The aim is to integrate all collected textiles and shoes into a recycling process by 2020, while completely eliminating waste products.

OPT: How is the removal and sorting process environmentally-friendly? Do you use electric cars and trucks? Are the sorting stations powered with green energy? How do they manage all the collected clothes that are not re-wearable / re-sellable or upclycable? Landfill? Energy waste burning?

I:CO: Did you know that it is already possible to recycle 30 % of the old items collected – and that figure is rising. Textiles are used, for example, as insulation material for the construction industry, for cushioning and filling material, for stuffed toys, insoles or bags; shoes are turned into floorings, keyrings, protective packaging, pellets or hard casing.

OPT: Only 30% is recyclable? Of all the fashions I:CO collects? That is not as much as I had hoped. I´m glad to hear the reuse percentage is rising. What happens to the rest (70%)? Why are they not recyclable? Maybe the consumer should avoid buying that type of fashion in the first place is it is also a waste problem for I:CO. From what I´ve seen at Finnish clothes sorting centers the problem usually is especially cheap shoes and bags. They rarely make it to round two.

I:CO: In every country in which I:CO collects textiles and shoes the following rule applies: A recycling plant is built when used goods exceed a volume of 500 tons per day – and this creates jobs too! This is a major economic factor as well, and particularly in the world’s poorest countries. With what is known as downcycling, parts of sneakers are already being turned into running tracks or underlay for children’s playgrounds.

OPT: Sorting waste is a big business and I´m all for it! It is a respectable job in my book and everyone should do it at some point so they start respecting clothes more. Where do you have your sorting centers? Can you post a map? Where do the countries and regions with less incoming donations send their collections?

"Multiplying strengths"

I:CO: All players involved in I:CO are making a contribution to the environment and our society. Those who join in help to prevent millions of tons of valuable raw material from being simply tossed in the garbage. For every returned kilogram of clothing, linen or shoes, the I:CO partner companies also donate two eurocents to the CharityStar fund. Once 1,000 euros has been reached, this sum is paid out to a charitable project. Implementing good ideas ourselves, and helping to get other good ideas moving – that is the I:CO philosophy.

OPT: Giving a percentage of ones entire business to charity is a way to make green and sustainable business. How much was donated (euros) last year? I can also calculate it myself if it would say how much was collected via I:CO donation boxes (kilos)?

I:CO: We specialize in the environmentally conscious, confidential handling of retailer and manufacturer overstocks, overruns, surplus goods, liquidations, stocks and fabric rolls, production samples, returns as well as damaged goods. From collection to sorting and grading analysis to professional recycling, we provide a simple, hassle-free, end-to-end service solution that is tailored to your company’s needs. Whether the goods are from single stores or central warehouses, we have world-class systems in place to optimally manage your program efficiently and responsibly.

OPT: I see it as a good thing that I:CO manages also fashion retailers overstock and other unsold goods. It is a service that should be away from the retailer. We´ve all heard of the horror stories about unsold clothes being cut up in the back rooms of clothing stores. I just hope that the retailers give the clothes to I:CO in re-sellable condition so they would be counted as REWEAR. But how much (%) of the whole I:CO inventory is this lot that is donated direct from the retailer (not second hand)? It would give a great perspective on how much fashion retailers produce extra.

I:CO slogan is "TAKE RESPONSIBILITY – ECOLOGICAL CONCEPT MEETS CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY". Therefore I sincerely hope that I:CO answers at least some of my questions and posts the answers also to their website. After all, transparent business is the only green business.

Photos: I:CO instagram

Outi Les Pyy

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  2. Great piece. I have those same questions for places like H&M and Uniqlo too. :-)