In fashion, the design room is the laboratory where each new season begins — and where the waste stream starts, too.

Designers, seamstresses, pattern-makers and cutters hover around the dress form, cutting, pinning and draping a style that can eventually end up on a clothing line.

But once that sampling process is done, all around that mannequin are piles of cutting waste, leftover sample yardage, swatches of various colors, and mutilated samples that are of no use to the design house. This waste is generated every season and the responsible disposal of it is an enormous problem for the industry, one that has a multitude of environmental repercussions.

Fabscrap, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, is addressing it by opening a Mid-Atlantic hub in Philadelphia in the artist-and-designer-filled Bok building on Nov. 15, World Recycling Day.

Fabscrap hopes to sign up 20 to 25 brands for service in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and South Jersey areas in the next year. Companies send the group more each year “because they are happy to find a responsible good outlet for all their design materials,” said Jessica Schreiber, Fabscrap’s CEO. “They start with fabric, but then we’ll receive buttons, leathers, yarn, ribbon, etc.”

Fabscrap’s fashion roots

In 2016, Fabscrap, opened in Brooklyn to work with fashion, interior design, and entertainment companies, collecting their unwanted fabrics to recycle and save from landfills. It has worked with 550 brands and, for a small fee, picks up an average of 6,000 pounds of textiles a week from customers. It sorts and decides what can be reused, recycled or sold. The group will soon reach its one millionth pound spared from a landfill.

This facility will work with local recycling company Retrievr, a residential textile collection company, to collect waste here. The former Bok school’s 6,800-square-foot cafeteria now will house 16 fabric-sorting stations, a fabric resale shop and an area to showcase the work of one designer a month who uses recycled materials in clothes.

This month’s designer is the sustainable clothing store Grant Blvd.

Volunteers, totaling 7,000 so far in New York, are compensated with five pounds of free fabric per three-hour session and will sort the fabric by fiber for resale. Some smaller scraps are sold to companies that shred it for use as insulation or fabric stuffing.

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Urban Outfitters eager to recycle

Fabscrap received a working capital grant from Philly-based fashion company Urban Outfitters Inc. to secure the new facility and provide general operating funds for the first two years here.

Fabscrap first began working with Urban in 2019 as Allie Noll, the firm’s manager of global sustainability and sourcing operations, searched for a company to recycle its waste from the sampling process. In 2019, she was connected with Fabscrap and shipped 246 pounds of cutting waste to the New York facility. In 2020, Fabscrap recycled more than 1,100 pounds for the Philly-based company. That’s when the partnership talks began.

“It happened pretty mutually,“ said Fabscrap’s Schreiber. “We were looking to grow and needed support,” while Urban wanted to explore a deeper commitment to sustainability.

“Urban suggested Philadelphia and we already had great connections with organizations, institutions, and programs in Philadelphia so it seemed like the right next step,” she said. To date, the company has signed on Urban and its brands; Wolhide, Lillies and Loaves, and Cupid Intimates and just finished service agreements with eight other companies in the area.

“We’re expecting about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds per month, and then growing after that as we meet more of the industry here, as well as companies in Baltimore, DC, and southern New Jersey,” she said.

Globally, 53 million tons of textiles are used to create clothing each year and about 12% of that is wasted during design and production, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to create a circular economy that eliminates waste and pollution.

The scale of the problem in Philadelphia is harder to quantify. While the Office of Sustainability has figures for residential textile waste (linens, clothing and towels tossed by households), it has none for commercial waste because businesses contract with their own private haulers, which aren’t required to report those figures to the city.

Nordstrom helps assemble the data

“The main thing that we are hearing is that it’s precisely because commercial textile waste is not measured or tracked that Fabscrap services are so needed,” Schreiber said. At its offices, each bag collected is weighed, sorted by company and fiber, and kept in a database. Each company can see how much it has recycled in a year, a useful metric for sustainability reports.

Nordstrom has also partnered with Fabscrap with a grant to fund the Fabscrap Partner Portal, which allows every customer access to its diversion and environmental impact data, increasing supply chain visibility, and improving decisions throughout the supply chain.

Residential textile waste is 6% to 6.5% of the total waste stream here. To calculate those figures, the city does a waste characterization study by picking through samplings of trash over several months and weighing it by category.

Helena Rudoff, waste reduction lead in the city’s Office of Sustainability, estimates that residential and commercial textiles together could be 10% to 15% of the total waste stream.

“Right now, if you are a design house or another business and only being serviced by the Streets Department, your textiles aren’t being recycled.”

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Philadelphia trash goes to landfills, such as the 250-acre Waste Management facility in Fairless Hills, Bucks County or to be burned at the Covanta facility in Chester. The Waste Management site, opened in 2016, is already close to 50% full and it is hard to know how long it will take to become filled.

“Their work not only conserves landfill space but also gives new value to the energy and raw materials that went into producing these textiles,” said Waste Management’s John Hambrose, referring to Fabscrap’s work.

The number of stakeholders interested in re-thinking waste here is growing each month. “The issue with waste is, we eventually run out of places to put it, " said the city’s Rudoff. “Textiles are high-value waste, meaning the value of the material if you recycle it is higher than if it goes to a landfill.”

She works with such groups as Circular Philadelphia, which opened in June, and hopes eventually to work on the policy side of the problem. In New York, by law, if a fashion house generates more than 10% of its waste in textiles, it has to be recycled.

Samantha Wittchen, director of programs and operations at Circular Philadelphia, is working on a Textile Recycling Task force, along with Rachel Mednick of All Together Now PA.

Wittchen would like to attract a large-scale textile recycling facility to open in the Philadelphia region. Right now, the closest ones are in North Carolina. Better data can help them effect policy changes locally similar to what New York City has in place and would be even more powerful if statewide data could be captured.

“Are there opportunities at the state level to ban putting textiles in a landfill?” said Wittchen.

Kabira Stokes, CEO of Retrievr, said her broader vision for her group and for the city, is also to set up a full circular textile recycling plant somewhere in Pennsylvania. “It’s the only way we will be able to certify that the responsible outcomes are happening with what people are giving us.”

For Schreiber and her co-founder and creative director, Camille Tagle, the mission for Fabscrap has always included education, especially at the university level.

For five years, Tagle has worked with Drexel University senior fashion design majors in a capstone project that has her selecting and donating fabric for them to create a design using zero waste design practices. “Those students have gone on and worked in the industry and they get their companies to work with Fabscrap or to focus on more sustainable practices,” Tagle said.