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Many may view the waste streams generated by the clothing industry as a purely environmental problem, but one business sees it differently. The founders of Looptworks, based in Portland, Oregon, saw an opportunity to help the textile industry become more environmentally responsible—and make a profit along the way.
“It’s an industry that, quite honestly, has one of the most antiquated supply chains. It’s ripe for innovation and moving things forward,” says Scott Hamlin, founder and CEO of Looptworks.
The scale of the problem in the clothing industry is massive. Worldwide, 150 billion new clothing items are produced annually, Hamlin says, and the average American consumer buys 70 clothing items per year. At the end of the day, over 85% of these clothing items end up in landfills and less than one percent of textiles on the planet get recycled.
Hamlin explains that there are essentially three pathways for handling unwanted garments or materials in the clothing industry:
- “Downcycling”: The predominant model where discarded, unsold, or otherwise unusable items or material are turned into a lower value item like cotton fibers, insulation, or rags. Waste material may also simply be sent to a landfill or incinerated.
- Recycling: The material or discarded items are turned back into their original state, similar to how aluminum cans are recycled and turned back into cans of similar value.
- “Upcycling”: Discarded materials are turned into higher value items than their original state.
Looptworks seized on the idea of upcycling.
One of their first customers was the National Basketball Association (NBA). Four players had been traded from the Portland Trail Blazers, but the team had already made jerseys for the players. According to NBA rules, the jerseys of traded players cannot be sold, so they had to be destroyed. Instead of sending them to a landfill, Looptworks approached the NBA and worked to upcycle the doomed material. The jerseys were turned into backpacks, fanny packs, scarves and jackets—and promptly sold out.
“When we started 11 years ago, when we talked about upcycling, people thought we were talking about riding a bike up a hill,” Hamlin says. “For a long time there was a lot education, and piloting and partnerships that we worked on.”
Hamlin says that now the tables have turned: Companies are often the ones approaching them about how to change their supply chain.
“A lot of companies now are coming to us with excess inventory, things that got left over at the factory level, or they are trying to create an end-of-life solution for their products,” Hamlin says. “We work together with them to create a zero-waste-to-landfill strategy, moving their products into circularity, which is full recycling.”
These new, innovative waste streams can save water, carbon emissions, and space in your local landfill. For example, Hamlin says that creating the average T-Shirt requires at least 400 gallons of water to make (to grow the cotton, dye the shirt, and complete other processes). That’s the same amount of water used if one were to take a 2.5-hour shower. By reusing or upcycling that material instead, you can squeeze additional use out of an existing product.
“When you purchase an upcycle item versus a virgin-made item, you’re extending the life of a material that already had that footprint and you’re avoiding the footprint of the virgin material,” Hamlin says.
Looptworks has not let up during the coronavirus pandemic. When United Airlines had 12,000 excess pounds of uniforms they helped to turn the material into 7,500 masks.
“We built a three-layer mask that is above and beyond what the original CDC requirements were, created the masks, and got those out to the United employees,” Hamlin says.
Overall, in 2020 the company donated almost 10,000 masks or mask kits to make home-made masks.
Looptworks also partnered with NBA player C.J. McCollum to donate masks to local Boys and Girls Clubs in Portland to ensure local communities who might not otherwise have access to masks were getting them.
Helping their community is not new for Looptworks. In 2019 the company won the Best For The World: Community Award from B Lab, a non-profit that measures a company’s social and environmental performance. In 2020, the company was a finalist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Dream Big Awards for Green/Sustainable Business Achievement.
For Hamlin, all these efforts are part of a needed fundamental rethink of the role of business in society.
“I want to encourage people who are working in companies or thinking of starting their own business to really rethink the way we do business. For years it’s been profit only,” Hamlin says. “This concept of using business as a force for good, there’s really no reason you can’t have meaning and purpose in the work that you do. That is a huge thing that business holistically needs to address and rethink.”