Combating textile waste is half of Ethel Studio's vision statement, but probably takes up most of my time. Other brands deal with age-old inventory challenges, but we have raw material inventory challenges. The constant flow of fabric scraps coming in and going out of our studio is a constant game of tetras. Yet the challenges go far beyond our physical space limitations.
When I first started out on this adventure in 2018, I had just moved to Minneapolis and started cold emailing designers and brands to get them on board with us collecting their fabric scraps. At the time I was shocked by the response I was getting, a pretty high success rate as far as cold emails go (I think due in part to the collaborative environment in the Twin Cities). At first, since there was no precedence of individuals or companies collecting scraps at a the scale I was gearing up for, there was no system of value or value exchange set in place. In New York City where I was coming from, it seemed pretty clear: it costs money to haul away trash or recycling of any kind from a factory's location, and FabScrap seemed to have pretty much set the bar for the price per bag of hauling away fabric scraps from fashion offices too. Yet there was little to no framework for this here.
Several sustainability-oriented individuals told me I should be charging the companies I collect scraps from as I'm providing a service to them. And I do agree that I am providing a service for them, but the industry here seems to small to pursue a business model based on charging for scrap collection (that’s a whole other topic for another day). In an ideal circular economy situation, a brand would take full responsibility of their textile waste and reincorporate them into their production or have them recycled by other designers or another industry, which generally costs money. But I just did not see that happening right away here.
In the beginning I was saying yes to pretty much any and all fabric scraps anyone would offer. I wanted to see what was out there and at the time I felt I wasn't in the position of asking for specific fabric types. Well, times have changed. I spent a LOT of time, many hours of my labor, and plenty of paying for others' labor sorting out fabrics that we never could use in our designs. The biggest issue was knitted fabrics, mostly having elastane/Lycra content, a fabric we all love wearing for comfort and fit, but is currently not able to be mechanically or chemically recycled at scale (yet). It's also painfully difficult to find local designers who can/want to sew scraps of knitted fabrics together. (They exist! but few and far between. Please call me up if you're interested!). The number of hours we've spent trying to find designers to test out using scraps and hustle these scraps to people over the past few years has been immeasurable. Yes, I'm in this to fight the good fight, eliminating textile waste is central to my mission with Ethel Studio and in my own life, but there's a point where it becomes too much. There was a point where I had to redefine the scope of our impact: to let go of the things that I can't change currently in order to focus on all the many things that I CAN change. This is all to say that we've further redefined our guidelines for fabric scrap collection / donations in 2020 to not include knits, prints, or other novelties that we can’t utilize. Challenges still exist of course, but I’m feeling really good about this step: it’s taken some of the huge weight off my shoulders.
Yet, there's a long way to go, and I'm still toiling over aspects of this pre-consumer textile waste puzzle. Am I encouraging waste by collecting fabrics from designers? Will designers feel no remorse for generating lots of waste because they know someone will come and pick it up from them for free (at least for now)?
In the short term, I don't entirely think so, at least not with what we're dealing with here in the Twin Cities. I work with small designers who are creating incredible and thoughtful designs while working to revive the local textile economy: not just for their company but for all the local stakeholders they work with. I sense a reviving of localized manufacturing in cities across the US, and especially here in the Twin Cities. It's a slow process, but I am hopeful that that is the trajectory. I am also hopeful that brands will begin to place material efficiency right next to time (and thus money) efficiency when planning their material usage and cutting process.
Needless to say, I'm left with more questions than answers amidst lots of sleepless nights. The issue of pre-consumer textile waste is a messy and evolving one with lots of ups and downs especially as a small business in Minnesota. But every day we're chipping away, trying to look for better solutions, new partnerships, new methods, new ideas. Thank you for following along on our wild ride!
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