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Photo: I:CO

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The Company That Might Fix Fashion's Waste Problem

Fashion's an industry that thrives on newness, and one unfortunate side effect of that is waste. Americans alone discard 21 billion pounds of clothing and footwear every year. Fortunately there's I:CO (it stands for I Collect), a company committed to fighting this problem. I:CO has partnered with brands like H&M, American Eagle, Levi's, North Face, and Puma to wean each off its natural resources addiction, working to replace those materials with recycled options over the next five years.

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"The I:CO infrastructure provides the basis for the sustainable, economic solution of the future - the "circular economy," I:CO managing director Nicole Kösegi tells Racked. "In an ideal world, materials will be able to flow ‘endlessly' which means that materials tied in products can be used over and over again for new products after the end of the products' life-cycles."

I:CO sorting

The company was founded in 2009 to solve the textile waste problem. Instead of dumping clothes into a landfill, I:CO provides an alternative where consumers can donate unwanted items to local retailers. Clothing is then delivered to an I:CO facility and a team of sorters. Ideally, clothes will be in good enough shape that they can be worn again — garments that meet these standards are resold to be bought, worn, and loved by someone else. The rest are organized by about 400 criteria and sent to different stations based on quality. Absorbent fabrics are put through a shredder to become windshield wipers. Others are pulled through massive rollers, and hard materials like buttons are sorted out before fabrics are pressed to fill stuffed animals or insulate a house.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of I:CO's upcycled fabrics is H&M, which launched its very own collection of clothing made out items collected at its stores. The "Close the Loop" collection is one of H&M's efforts to try and negate its effects on the environment. Comprised of a denim pantsuit, jeans, and overalls, the clothes are made of 20% reusable materials, with a goal of getting to 100% in the near future. Recycled fabrics aren't durable enough to make up an entire garment yet, so companies must blend recycled materials with natural cotton — a method that yields a product indiscernible from one made completely out of virgin materials.

I:CO clothes

I:CO guarantees that there's no drop in quality when reusable materials are used. "There is no difference regarding the look and feel of products you can buy in stores, between such using recycled cotton and virgin cotton, but they differ regarding the ecological footprint. It is way more ecological to wear recycled cotton," says Kösegi.

The North Face's punnily named Clothes the Loop program encourages customers to donate clothing of any condition to be recycled. The brand initiated Clothes the Loop at 10 stores in 2013 before launching it in all stores in 2015. Levi's also encourages — or bribes — customers to donate clothes by gifting a $10 off voucher per donation. Meanwhile, Puma's InCycle collection is engineered specifically to be biodegradable and fully recyclable. Once a customer is done with an item, they can drop it in an in-store bin. American Eagle also collects clothing and offers a 20% discount to those who donate.

Sustainability is a "trend" that might be here to stay out of necessity. "If the costs for primary materials continue to rise, recycled material will be an important alternative economically," testifies Kösegi.

Tod Foulk, the founder of Portland Fashion Week, which is dedicated to showcasing sustainable fashion, is pragmatic about the sustainable movement. "Really, I think the big boys jumped in because they had to," he tells Racked. "People now are realizing that the world has finite resources and the longer we can keep those going, the better. It's not a fad. It's a trend with a mission and within the next decade you'll see a lot more where sustainability's concerned. We're only seeing the beginning of it."

I:CO is making it extremely easy for brands to be a part of the green movement. All that's required is that stores collect and then send clothes to one of the German company's sorting facilities. H&M has already amassed 20,000 tons of clothing for I:CO and together the two "can change the way fashion is made," the brand's sustainability expert, Cecilia Brännsten, says. A Levi's spokesperson shares a similar sentiment with Racked, saying, "We chose to work with I:CO in part because they help move us closer to establishing the infrastructure to support closed loop products by 2020." Five years isn't far off; according to I:CO, 95% of garments can be recycled, which means that the only thing standing in the way is simple behavior change.

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