06 Jan

13 Brands Using Take-Back Schemes to Recycle Waste Responsibly

Are take-back schemes a legitimate way to recycle fashion waste, or are they a waste of time?

Brands need to think about their products’ afterlife

More and more shoppers and fashion brands are realising that producing better is not enough anymore. Brands need to produce less while also thinking about their garments’ afterlife, which is why circularity and circular fashion have grown in popularity in recent years. And shoppers need to buy less, ensuring they take care of their garments and dispose of them responsibly.

Circular fashion is about designing waste and pollution out of our clothes and ensuring they help regenerate natural systems at the end of their (long) lives. It is based partly on William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design philosophy. Circular fashion moves away from the traditional linear take-make-dispose business model. A growing number of brands are looking for ways to use what’s already been created and give shoppers options for recycling, upcycling, and donating clothes they don’t want anymore.

As a result, we’re seeing numerous fashion brands promote recycling or take-back schemes. But what are these take-back schemes exactly? Are they good for people and the environment? And are there sustainable brands using take-back programs to which you can donate your old clothes with confidence? Let’s take a look.

What are take-back schemes exactly?

First things first, what is a take-back scheme? According to the Circular Economy Practitioner Guide, a take-back scheme “is an initiative organised by a manufacturer or retailer, to collect used products or materials from consumers and reintroduce them to the original processing and manufacturing cycle.”

For example, you might have heard about H&M’s Garment Collection program, which allows you to put old clothes into in-store recycling bins to be given a new life in exchange for a voucher.

Are take-back schemes good for people and the planet?

It’s encouraging to see brands starting to transition to more circular business models, but take-back schemes are far from perfect solutions to a much deeper systemic issue.

On paper, take-back schemes are far better than simply throwing your clothes in the trash: they make it easy for shoppers to donate clothes, helping to boost the recycling rate and divert clothes out of landfills.

But the truth is, with many high street brands, it’s hard to know what happens to our clothes once they’ve been dropped into in-store recycling bins. For example, H&M says, “​​Once you’ve dropped off your previously loved fashion in one of [its] garment collecting boxes, [its] business partner I:CO takes over. They empty the boxes and sort the contents into three categories:

  • Rewear: Wearable clothes are marketed as second hand clothing.
  • Reuse: If the clothes or textiles are not suitable for rewear, they’re turned into other products, such as remake collections or cleaning cloths.
  • Recycle: All other clothes and textiles are shredded into textile fibres and used to make insulation materials, for example.”

While this all sounds nice, the brand doesn’t give more details, such as where the clothes are being remarketed or what percentage of the clothes are reworn, reused, or recycled.

We now know recycling textiles is not as easy as it seems and that the fashion industry still lacks proper systems and processes to take care of discarded clothing. Breaking down materials in a recycling system is emissions-intensive and reinforces the unfortunate societal norm that says an item can be disposable after one use. In the fashion industry, fabrics and textiles have not traditionally been the most straightforward items to recycle, and there remains a lot of confusion around how to recycle clothing.

Plus, as Head of Ratings Kristian Hardiman highlighted in our guide to recycled clothing materials, while we are seeing positive steps in the right direction, “the reality is that the fashion industry as we know it is fraught with fractured systems. Regardless of the material and its impact, there is an underlying issue: too much virgin material is being used to make our clothing.” This overabundance has led to colossal textile waste issues from numerous areas of the production line, including pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.

And that’s if the brand chooses to recycle clothes. Some prefer to donate clothes left in in-store bins to charities, such as Zara, which gives old clothes to local charities and organisations. The issue is that charity stores continue to have massive problems with receiving soiled, torn, or otherwise unsuitable textiles that can’t be sold or given away. In some cases, charities are forced to spend money sorting and disposing of this material, of which an estimated 25% goes directly to landfill. An additional 40-50% is exported into the problematic global second hand clothing trade, which swamps the local textile market of countries such as Ghana.

Finally, some have argued that some take-back schemes may simply be tokenistic gestures. Having in-store collection bins and encouraging shoppers to bring old clothes back isn’t enough to counter the detrimental environmental impacts of encouraging over-consumption and over-production—especially if consumers are given discounts or vouchers to use towards a new purchase, perpetuating the vicious cycle.

At the end of the day, take-back schemes are great if they are part of a greater plan to move to a circular business model that doesn’t keep pushing shoppers to consume, and if the brand behind it is fully transparent about what happens to donated clothes.

13 brands using take-back schemes to recycle waste responsibly

Luckily, such brands exist. If you want to give your old clothes a new life but want to make sure the brands you are donating them to are working to reduce their environmental and social impact and change the fashion industry for the better, today’s your lucky day. Here are 11 sustainable and ethical fashion brands using take-back schemes to recycle waste the right way.

MUD Jeans

Rated: Great
A man wears navy jeans and a blue top

As a circular brand, MUD Jeans makes sure no MUD Jeans jeans are wasted, but all stay in its denim loop. On top of that, the brand also takes back other brands (made of at least 96% cotton), taking care of the transportation costs and handling costs to get these jeans to its recycling partner in Valencia.

See the rating.

Shop MUD Jeans.

Swedish Stockings

Rated: Great

While Swedish Stockings is aiming to “close the loop” and turn old stockings into new ones, the technology isn’t there yet on a commercial level. Until then, they are collecting thousands of pairs of tights, grinding them up, and turning them into stylish moulded fibreglass tables. To participate in this wonderful sustainable process, simply collect and send in three or more pairs of synthetic pantyhose from any brand.

See the rating.

Shop Swedish Stockings.

Girlfriend Collective

Rated: Good
Two women wearing sports leggings and crop tops in burgundy and green

When you’re finished with your old Girlfriend Collective bras, leggings, and shorts, you can send them to the brand to be recycled into new ones. You’ll get $15 store credit, avoid creating more waste on the planet, and help Girlfriend Collective close the loop. It’s a total win-win.

See the rating.

Shop Girlfriend Collective.

Patagonia

Rated: Good

Through its Worn Wear program, the brand accepts used Patagonia clothing that functions perfectly and is in good condition. When you trade in your quality, well-loved Patagonia gear, you’ll get credit toward purchases in Patagonia retail stores and websites.

See the rating.

Shop Patagonia.

Reformation

Rated: Good

Together with thredUP, Reformation just made it a whole lot easier for you to give those questionable purchases a second life. Sell your old clothes for Ref credit or recycle them and thredUP will donate €‌6 to the Circular Fashion Fund (CFF), a nonprofit that’s helping to make the circular economy a reality.

See the rating.

Shop Reformation.

Underprotection

Rated: Good
woman wearing sustainably made sleepwear by ethical brand Underprotection

Danish-brand Underprotection combines ethics and aesthetics to create underwear, loungewear, and swimwear from sustainable materials like recycled polyester and organic cotton. Through its Take-back Program, when you drop off or send in your pieces to it, you’ll receive a 30% off reward as a thank you for helping to support circularity and contributing to the new life of Underprotection pieces.

See the rating.

Shop Underprotection.

Shop Underprotection @ Curate.

Shop Underprotection @ LVR Sustainable.

 

Neem

Rated: Good

Self-described as ‘Obsessively sustainable’, Neem design and make stunning menswear from recycled materials. With a purchase of their Wear Well Bag, customers receive a compostable returns bag to send in their unwanted shirts to be recycled into new shirts and £30 credit towards their first order. Helping to protect the planet, one shirt at a time.

See the rating.

Shop Neem.

Etiko

Rated: Great
person wearing blue and white ethical sneakers by Etiko

Etiko’s Take Back Program allows you to recycle your worn out Etiko sneakers and thongs at the end of their life. All footwear returned to the brand will be recycled via a Melbourne-based company called Save Our Soles. Initially, the returned footwear will be made into indoor matting whilst Etiko continues to assess the best way to incorporate them into future Etiko sneaker soles. Simply drop off your pre-loved Etiko footwear into the shop in Brunswick on Sydney Road if you are local, or you can mail them. For every pair of Etiko sneakers returned, the brand will give you a $10 gift voucher, and for every pair of Etiko thongs, the brand will provide a $5 gift voucher to put towards your next purchase.

See the rating.

Shop Etiko.

O My Bag

Rated: Good

If you have an old O My Bag in your closet that you no longer use, bring it back to the brand in exchange for a 20% discount or to swap with another vintage item—this way, the brand keeps the circular economy in motion and avoids adding to landfills. O My Bag will find your bag a new owner during its sample sale or use it in an exchange with another vintage O My Bag. The brand also donates some of its handed in bags to Lena Library in the Netherlands, an initiative that encourages borrowing fashion items.

See the rating.

Shop O My Bag.

Rifò

Rated: Good

Rifò wants to be the first brand in Italy that produces clothing with recycled materials and at the same time offers a service to people to dispose of their old clothes so that they are transformed into new products. Rifò is also a circular economy project, the bridge between different realities that care about the environment and saving natural resources. The brand collaborates with local companies dealing with textile recycling for years to give individuals the opportunity to contribute to a circular economy project.

See the rating.

Shop Rifò.

KENT

Rated: Great

KENT produces the first verified compostable underwear, made from organic cotton and designed to return to nature in 90 days when composted or planted, feeding the soil and growing new plants (or future pants). If you don’t have access to compost yourself, you can join the Compost Club, and KENT will compost briefs past their prime on your behalf. Bonus—you’ll get $10 to spend on your next pair of undies.

See the rating.

Shop KENT.

Boyish

Rated: Great
Woman in dark wash ethical fringe trousers

Love the & Other Stories vibe, but hate their fast fashion business model? Boyish has all the quality, fit, and authentic washes that you could want without the harmful practices. The Boyish Consignment Shop is a place for you to purchase pre-worn items at reduced prices and resell jeans that don’t suit you anymore to give them a second life. In return, you earn money towards a new pair and nothing goes to waste.

See the rating.

Shop Boyish.

Pala Eyewear

Rated: Good
sustainable sunglasses by Pala Eyewear

Pala Eyewear offers high quality, long lasting eyewear while committing to sustainable and ethical practices, helping to create social welfare and minimising their impact on the planet. Seeking to promote the shift to a circular economy, for those in the UK, they save your old frames. These are collected and sent to their recycling partners to be broken down and upcycled into new products!

See the rating.

Shop Pala Eyewear.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world's most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use the Directory to search thousands of rated brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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