For years, government and industry have been grappling with the challenge of plastic waste, but what about clothing? Like plastic, the fashion industry is one of the worst polluters on the planet, and when we’re done with what we wear, what we toss goes to the same place that our plastic waste goes: nowhere.
But what if we could find ways to recycle the fabrics that we leave behind? That’s the question that a team of innovators, called Fashion in Action, is trying to solve.
“This problem started because I had three giant trash bags and clothes in my car and I couldn't donate them to Goodwill because they're all closed,” said Dorothy Howard, a second-year master’s student in business administration at Portland State University. Like many retailers, Goodwill closed in response to COVID lockdown orders. “I started researching more about this topic and discovered that fashion is like one of the worst polluting industries there is. And it's most of fashion is plastic.”
Roughly 36 billion pounds of textile waste is discarded every year. Spying an opportunity, Howard organized with two other second-year MBA candidates, Crystal Van Wyck and Emily Noneman, to establish Fashion in Action.
The idea is simple. “We source discarded textile waste from the community with an emphasis on cotton natural fibers,” said Emily Noneman. “We take that discarded textile waste and we spin it into yarn to sell to mills, to manufacture it into fabric.”
By closing the loop in textile waste, Fashion in Action shows enormous promise toward progress on plastic waste. But it won’t be easy. The industry for textile recycling is relatively young. The Fashion in Action team will have to navigate uncharted terrain, meeting with textile experts and researching viable manufacturing methods to turn discarded textiles into usable yarn.
“It's a relatively young industry,” Howard said. “There are a few companies who are doing stuff like this, but it's so small and the technology is just not there yet—it's still being invented. We're hoping that technology will evolve over time and catch up. But it's hard to predict. We want it to happen, but we don't have control over it.”
“There's a lot of emerging technology that's right on the edge,” Crystal Van Wyck said. “So that's exciting.”
Crystal Van Wyck is a second-year master’s student in business administration. Originally from Portland, she has a background in sculpture and plans to build small businesses. Emily Noneman, a second-year master’s student in business administration, plans to expand her leadership in human relations. Dorothy Howard, a second-year master’s student in business administration, plans to work in sustainability marketing when she moves back to Florida, where she is from.