This startup will turn your ratty old underwear into furniture and bedding

It’s easy to repair, resell or donate old shoes and clothes. But what about old underwear? They go straight to the trash, which means around 11 million pounds of underwear ends up in a landfill every day.

This may seem like a minor issue, since the underwear is small. But globally, it’s a big deal, as the industry produces around 150 billion pairs of underwear each year. Since many underwear contains plastic-based synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester, these materials do not biodegrade, but sit in the landfill for hundreds of years, breaking into tiny fragments called microfibers that end up in our waterways, poisoning animals and humans.

[Photo: courtesy Parade]

Parade, a two-year-old underwear startup, wants to prevent that. Today, it is launching a recycling program for underwear of all brands. Anyone can request a free shipping label and biodegradable bag, which is then sent to TerraCycle to be sorted, cleaned, and turned into materials that can be used in things like home insulation and bedding. Those who participate receive a 20% coupon to use on Parade products. Cami Téllez, founder and CEO of Parade, says this is an important step in making the industry more sustainable, although the ultimate goal is to create a system where underwear can be recycled by underwear in a fully circular pattern.

Exactly two years ago, Téllez left Columbia University to start Parade at the age of 21. As the founder of Generation Z, she believed that many of the brands inherited from the $250 billion lingerie market were failing to meet the needs of the next generation of consumers, from a lack of body inclusivity to overly sexualized advertising. With Parade, Téllez wanted to address issues relevant to his peers. “Underwear is in this high-potential space at the crossroads of sex, gender, politics, fashion and sustainability,” she says.

[Photo: courtesy Parade]

For its part, Parade uses nylon reclaimed from the floors of garment factory cutting rooms and recycled into fabric, as well as Tencel, a biodegradable fabric made from wood pulp. However, many customers have written to the company asking what to do once Parade underwear has reached the end of its life. Until now, there were no good options, as there are no services to repair old underwear and, for hygienic reasons, organizations do not accept them as donations.

To create a national underwear recycling program, Téllez partnered with TerraCycle, which recycles products that can’t go through curbside recycling programs, from cigarette butts to bags of potato chips. Starting today, consumers can go to Parade’s website to request a shipping label and a biodegradable bag, which they can fill with used underwear of all kinds, of any Brand. Underwear doesn’t have to be in good condition, but Parade asks customers to wash them before sending them out.

The underwear is then shipped to one of TerraCycle’s material recovery facilities, where it is sorted by material type and cleaned. It is then mechanically shredded and reprocessed into a recycled material called “low-quality textile”. TerraCycle sells this low-quality product to companies that use it in products such as home insulation, bedding, carpet padding, upholstery, and vehicle interiors.

TerraCycle sells a zero-waste clothing box that individuals and businesses can buy to fill with clothes, including underwear, that will be recycled, but it costs between $123 and $313 depending on the size of the box. But in this case, Parade bears the cost of recycling, so it’s completely free for consumers. For Téllez, it was important to make this program accessible to all consumers, not just Parade customers. “The underwear industry hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about a product’s end of life,” she says. “We wanted to make it as easy and transparent as possible for anyone to dispose of their underwear responsibly.”

As I reported, TerraCycle’s big breakthrough was persuading brands to pay for recycling on behalf of consumers as part of their sustainability efforts. However, brands often cap the amount they are willing to spend on a particular recycling program. Last year, he faced a lawsuit from an environmental nonprofit for being unclear about those budget constraints. In response, TerraCycle said it would make it clear to consumers if participation in a particular program was restricted. In this case, Parade has confirmed that it has set no limits to this program and is committed to carrying it out over the long term, to allow everyone to recycle their underwear.

But ultimately, Téllez recognizes that this recycling program is only an intermediate step in the brand’s sustainability goals. Parade wants to create a fully circular system where underwear can be recycled into underwear, meaning raw materials would not need to be used for new products.

The wider apparel industry is currently working on fabric-to-fabric recycling solutions. I reported on the Green Machine, a technology developed by the Hong Kong government and backed by H&M, which shreds fabrics and rethreads them. And last week I wrote about how Levi’s now makes its 501 jeans with a new material called Circulose which is made by liquefying old jeans and turning them into viscose polymers. For now, all of these technologies are still in their infancy and will take time to evolve.

Téllez is keeping tabs on these new approaches, but until they become mainstream, she believes a program like the one with TerraCycle is an important step. “The immediate step is to keep as much underwear out of landfills as possible,” she says.

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