McDonough in LA Times


A new consuming philosophy: Reuse, remake, refrain

Advocates of collective consumerism oppose waste and want you to share your goods or just buy less. On the retailers’ end, they are getting creative.

By Tiffany Hsu

Each year, Andy Ruben bought his daughter new shinguards for soccer, stashing the old gear and waiting for the replacements to labor through the delivery system to his door.

But as he watched local girls outgrow their own sports equipment, Ruben realized that the items he wanted were gathering dust in garages and closets around his neighborhood.

“Our whole retail model over the last 50 years has focused on keeping the industrial machine churning out items,” said Ruben, who until 2007 had an up-close view as the head of sustainability at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the king of mass-produced goods. “But if my friend already has shinguards that he’s not using, I don’t need to buy them for myself.”

So Ruben and environmentalist Adam Werbach dreamed up Yerdle, a website they launched during last year’s Black Friday shopping swarm.

Members use the platform to offer underutilized goods — clothing, electronics, even pianos — to friends and acquaintances free of charge. Ruben said the setup, which now has 18,000 participants, is less anonymous thanCraigslist and more eco-minded than Facebook.

The young San Francisco company is one of the newest manifestations of what’s known as collective consumerism, or the circular or sharing economy.

Instead of trying to shrink a product’s environmental footprint from the production side by making it with less material, advocates — especially clothing and shoe companies — are trying to extend its usefulness on the consumer end…

…But even with discounts and other incentives, 64% of Americans don’t want to drive more than five miles to drop off their old clothing or shoes, according to USAgain, which recycles textiles. Many prefer the convenience of a nearby trash can.

So some companies are trying to add extra value to worn-out fabrics and unwanted scraps by using them to create products that improve on the original, a concept known as upcycling…

…But many companies are using an incomplete definition of upcycling, said William McDonough, a designer, architect and coauthor of the books “Cradle to Cradle” and “The Upcycle.”

Often, he said, new products made from used clothing actually cause more toxic substances to be dumped into the environment. Even though there’s less raw fabric being produced, dyes used to freshen worn scraps can seep into water supplies. Patching a torn garment for resale often involves metal zippers or buttons that can’t be recycled down the line.

A shirt made from pieces of unidentifiable material shipped in from multiple locations isn’t necessarily more sustainable than a similar garment constructed from locally sourced organic cotton that could someday be broken down into high-end rag paper, he said.

“What happens to these molecules when we’re done with them?” McDonough said. “How do we design a textile that, once we tire of it, can power our technology or go back to biology and be put back to human use without poisoning our biosphere?”

Read the full article here.