• A US clothing company is encouraging customers to return underwear they’ve bought from the firm instead of throwing it away.
  • Around 5 million kilogrammes of underwear a day ends up in landfill sites across the US.
  • The fashion industry could use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
  • The lost value from discarded clothes is $500 billion.

What do you do with your unwanted underwear? Chances are you throw them away.

Now a clothing company in Philadelphia, US, says it’s time to stop casting our undergarments aside. About 5 million kilogrammes of unwanted underwear ends up in landfill sites across the US every day, according to The Big Favorite.

It says it’s bringing circularity to underwear – “the one category remaining that can’t be donated or resold” – by encouraging customers to return their old undies to the company for recycling instead of throwing them away.

By asking customers to do this, The Big Favorite is assuming responsibility for the end-of-life stage of those garments. It uses the returned items to produce yarn, which is woven into fabric for new clothes. In return, customers get credits on their account which can be used for new purchases. Alternatively, their credit can be converted into a donation to a climate-friendly initiative.

“We know it’s sort of weird to think about sending back your understuff,” the company says on its website. “But throwing things into landfills is way grosser.” It asks that items are washed before they’re returned, and it promises all returned underwear is processed anonymously.

Make fashion circular
Cotton, chemicals, carbon and more are consumed in large quantities.
Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Serious circularity

If you find the idea of recycling underwear amusing – or perhaps even bemusing – there is a serious point to be made here.

The fashion industry has faced pressure to reduce its environmental impact for years. Around $500 billion a year is lost as a result of clothes “being barely worn and rarely recycled,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization that promotes the circular economy. The sector could also use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 unless current rates of production, consumption and disposal change for the better, the Foundation says.

sustainability

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

The World Economic Forum has created a series of initiatives to promote circularity.

1. Scale360° Playbook was designed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale.

Scale360° Playbook Journey
Image: Scale360° Playbook

Its unique hub-based approach - launched this September - is designed to prioritize circular innovation while fostering communities that allow innovators from around the world to share ideas and solutions. Emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together ideas and solutions through the UpLink, the Forum's open innovation platform.

Discover how the Scale360° Playbook can drive circular innovation in your community.

2. A new Circular Cars Initiative (CCI) embodies an ambition for a more circular automotive industry. It represents a coalition of more than 60 automakers, suppliers, research institutions, NGOs and international organizations committed to realizing this near-term ambition.

CCI has recently released a new series of circularity “roadmaps”, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), McKinsey & Co. and Accenture Strategy. These reports explain the specifics of this new circular transition.

Connect to Learn More

3. The World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Traceability for Sustainable Production initiative brings together manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and regulators to jointly establish solutions and provide a supporting ecosystem to increase supply chain visibility and accelerate sustainability and circularity across manufacturing and production sectors.

Connect to Learn More →

Some fashion firms are addressing such issues by joining initiatives to cut back on pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. And the United Nations has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to coordinate efforts across the industry.

Recycling clothes can be a tricky business. Some items are made from a combination of different fibres, some natural and some synthetic. Similarly, some garments – sports footwear in particular – contain plastic. The underwear from The Big Favorite is 100% cotton, which it says makes it easier to recycle into new items.

Ambitions for a new textiles economy
A more circular model could ease environmental pressures.
Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

In an interview with the fashion publication Vogue, The Big Favorite’s founder, Eleanor Turner, said: “Brands will try to approach circularity as an afterthought, but that’s inauthentic. It has to be part of your approach from the very beginning. Our products were specifically designed for their ‘end of life’ – they’re engineered to come apart easily.”

The Big Favorite itself has also been recycled. Originally a retailer selling workwear in the US, it was set up in the 1930s by one of Turner’s grandfathers, and she re-established the brand in 2020.