For the past two years I have spent a good amount of my time as academic grappling with the challenges of clothing that has reached the end of its consumer life cycle. It has taken me on an eye-opening journey around the United States and even to a secondhand market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My research examines the potential of post-consumer textile waste, primarily old clothing, to be used in new applications, including refashioned garments, accessories, and even non-apparel uses. Most clothing can be recycled in some way, but a lot of it ends up in landfills and I think that is a problem worthy of some intense investigation. Even retailers with take back programs allowing their customers to bring back old clothing, face the challenge of managing the volume of used clothing they receive. So this semester, my research team is digging deep and exploring some broad solutions. The team consists of fourteen people, both faculty and students, with expertise is fiber science, mechanical engineering, fashion design, fashion management, and product design. This dynamic mix of talent is a telling representation of the thinking required to address the post-consumer textile waste created as a byproduct of our growing fashion consumption and disposal habits. In addition, we received a generous donation of about 300 unsellable used garments from an apparel brand with a sustainable conscience and a successful take back program. With this talent and used garment inventory, we are learning how our fashion designers can influence the demand for materials used in their end-products by reimagining what a "new" used garment can look like. By examining the used garment in its fiber state, we are able to broaden our lens on non-apparel uses and explore other industry sectors that can be potential users of our refashioned products, including housewares and agriculture. Research team members with a focus on product design are guiding the team through these explorations, where we often discover the limitations posed by trying to reuse a product that was never really designed to be reused in another form. Questions about fabric content, finishing treatments and durability are common and require a pause for laboratory analysis to draw any conclusions. Here, we begin to re-imagine a fashion industry that creates new product with the foresight of end-of life management. This concept is emerging in the realm of corporate social responsibility considerations as part of "extended producer responsibility" requirements. Reducing the burden of clothing recycling for the consumer by asking manufacturers to provide predetermined end use solutions, could be a new industry sector powered by the variety of possible solutions. Our goal is to find the end-use solutions that will consume the largest volumes of post-consumer textile waste and this means starting small with experimentation that can inform the ability to scale and determine the reliability of the solutions. We are shredding, cutting and reforming clothing to test the limits of reuse in the hope that we will provide the apparel industry with some feasible solutions that expand current practices. As the semester dwindles down, we hope to make some insightful discoveries that will guide our research aspirations for 2017 and bring us closer to new life solutions for old clothes.
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