May Green Guru Spotlight: Enabling Consumers to Upcycle, Recycle and Extend Usage

H&ampM Collection Box
H&M Collection Bin for unwanted clothes.

H&M has a novel way to engage its customers in its sustainability efforts.  According to some estimates, as much as 95% of textiles and clothes that end up in landfills every year can be used again. As of February 2013, H&M has collection boxes in its stores that enable customers to reduce the environmental impact of their unwanted clothes (any brand, any condition) and it rewards them with a coupon for 15% off one item of their choice for doing it. H&M has teamed up with I:CO, which provides the infrastructure to ensure that the valuable raw materials from these old textiles enter a closed loop production cycle. With what is known as downcycling, parts of sneakers would be turned into running tracks or underlay for children’s playgrounds. I:CO also aims for upcycling, which involves a reusage process which creates a product of equal or higher value. To achieve this, the product must be designed correctly from the start. The system therefore depends a great deal on the initiative of manufacturers. In the I:CO system, the collected clothes are graded and hand-sorted with Zero Waste as the goal: (1) Rewear - Clothing that can be worn again is marketed worldwide as second-hand goods; (2)Reuse -Textiles that are no longer suitable to wear are re-purposed into other products, such as cleaning cloths; (3) Recycle -Textiles that can’t be reused get a new chance as textile fibers, or are used to manufacture products such as damping and insulating materials for the auto industry; (4)Energy -When rewear, reuse and recycle are not options, textiles are used to produce energy. Companies using I:CO to address the environmental impact of their products are Adidas, Puma, Foot Locker and Esprit among others.

Patagonia, a trailblazer in sustainability, launched its Common Threads Garment Recycling program back in 2005 and expanded it in 2011 to the Common Threads Initiative, with the ultimate aim of keeping the clothes it sells from ever reaching the landfill. Patagonia famously ran a full page ad in New York Times with one of its jackets and a headline that read, “Don’t Buy This Jacket”.  That is the “Reduce” part of its Common Threads Initiative which means Patagonia makes its products to last and asks customers to take a pledge to not buy what they don’t need. Repair, Reuse and Recycle are the other elements of the Common Threads Initiative - customers can send in their apparel for repairs (for a small charge), they can use Patagonia’s website and its eBay partnership to donate or sell their used apparel, or they can return Patagonia products to be recycled into new fiber or fabric or repurpose what can’t yet be recycled.

There would be significantly less e-waste if electronic product companies would emulate Patagonia and design their products to last a long time and encourage their customers to only buy what they really need!! Although many consumer electronics companies have some kind of a take-back or recycling program, Samsung goes one step further with its premium TVs, by incorporating the ability to upgrade into its design - its Evolution Kit allows a 2012 TV to function like a 2013 Smart TV.

Another powerful way to engage customers to help reduce your end-of-life environmental impact is by partnering with TerraCycle to repurpose or recycle your company’s packaging or product waste. TerraCycle upcycles and recycles traditionally non-recycable waste (including drink pouches, chip bags, tooth brushes and many more) into a large variety of consumer products. Would you like to buy the cool looking Clif Bar bike pouch or duffel bag? It is made from Clif Bar wrappers thanks to a partnership between Clif Bar and TerraCycle!!

Do you want to explore how some of these ideas can be used for your company’s products or do you have other ideas, suggestions or resources for how companies can enable and engage their customers to reduce the environmental impact of their products? Email with your ideas and questions.

Green Guru: Suparna Vashisht, May 2013

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