85% of our wardrobes go to waste, likely without the intent to recycle them, and our disposed clothing ends up in landfills. These include items we may have thought went on to be recycled – in some sustainable way. The complex and intricate problem of garment recycling has sparked SuperCircle, the tech and reverse logistics platform that bridges the gap between retail and textile waste through innovative business relationships that scale the recyclability of discarded textiles.
“We always had this intention of, and this realization very early, even before the launch of [Thousand Fell]† You can design for circularity but you really need to build this engine to power circularity. And that is the unsexy stuff – the take-back, logistics, and tech. What SuperCircle is and the way we describe it is the tech and logistics infrastructure to link the retail brands with the waste management industry” states SuperCircle co-founder Chloe Songer.
Recycling is in the DNA of the Thousand Fell brand, and its founders Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum are taking the same business plan and strategy for their footwear brand that has managed to recycle over 3,000 pairs of their shoes per quarter with a capacity for 6,000 at its start in May 2020. Songer and Ahlum have spent an additional 18 months in research and development of footwear, from uppers to soles, and for a recycling program that has been a signature to the Thousand Fell name.
Songer shares, “There are awesome recycling partners like the New Denim Project, Renewcell – as well as, established industrial recycling partners that already recycle massive tonnage waste industrially that you can plug into if you can get enough volume prepped the right way. Brands have the intent on recycling, but there has been no link. No link for how to get back post-consumer waste; how to get it back affordably? How do you sort it? Or, how do you trace and track it to know exactly what the item is? †
What SuperCircle does for brands, including the Thousand Fell footwear brand, is manage logistics of the recycling process from waste to reusable material. There are three principal parts of this logistic acrobatics; tech, shipping, and warehousing. Each covers the broader pain points of the post-consumer fashion industry.
“One of the biggest problems right now is sorting because if you take a grab bag or a ‘mass’ bag and you don’t know what’s in it,” Songer explains. “Most of those items end up having to go through down cycling waste streams. So our tech systems solve a lot of that. We plug in with a brand partner’s website. We pull in all order management history from stores and online. Based on a customer email, we can see what items they’ve purchased – and we know product data, the entire material breakdown. We are tracing them back to our warehouse [and] the system strikes out a set of rules based on the product data, or the fiber data.”
With tech, SuperCircle incentivizes consumers with the digital platform necessary to manage and file the amount of clothing, the materials within, and the distribution of garments among the brands and brand partners. From there, customers can participate in recycling while tracking their carbon footprint.
Secondly, SuperCirle and its founders, Songer and Ahlum, have built relationships with proprietary shipping services UPS and USPS. Through these facilitators, SuperCircle has created a shipping network capable of regionally aggregating and collecting products for the lowest rates at the lowest environmental impact possible.
The two preliminary steps culminate at the warehouse network SuperCircle has established to maintain the inventory of fabric and garment waste. Used and damaged products get sorted for specific recycling processes designed to make the most of the waste material.
“We were able to create these custom bails in a way that recyclers can use. That’s the biggest disconnect right now. There is no way for brands that have a ton of inventory liability, or individuals who have a ton of clothing in their closet, to actually get the product to recyclers, in a way recyclers can use it,” says co-founder Stuart Ahlum.
SuperCircle meets the recycling demands of private recycling companies through the receiving and sorting network, achieving a system that curates bails of materials. Imagine 1-2 tons of garments made with cotton, say 10,000+ t-shirts, sorted from tons of garment waste, and working with designated recyclers to recycle materials responsibly. The effort is exemplary of what it will take to reach a level of sustainability in the fashion industry that avoids the high level of carbon production it partakes in.
An opportunity for retailers, brands, manufacturers, and other industrial departments to get involved will make the process more viable. SuperCircle is using cross-brand aggregation to foster post-consumer recycling viability, as they align with environmental impact with the needs of the business. Incentivizing participation lessons the effort for consumer involvement in the recycling eco-system, retarding the pipeline of textile waste abroad flow haphazardly. Tons of bails end up in underdeveloped countries of the people who have as much aspirational taste as a first-world economy.
As 98% of textile waste ends up in local or international landfills, fashion is at odds with the global economy. In detail, clothing often designed, manufactured, and sold in the global-north traverses the continents into places in Africa, Latin America, and India, causing a humanitarian crisis and often stifling the opportunities for local fashion designers in these areas. A projected 100 billion garments will find their way to a United States landfill in the next five years, and less than 1% of actual garment waste is recycled.
SuperCircle is the evolution of waste management solutions and is presenting it at scale. Any thoughtful scaling operation prior to SuperCircle has been insufficient, and why founders Songer and Ahlum are asking brands and consumers to participate.