I’ve written about our textile waste issue a few times before. Very quickly though — the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2013, 15 million tons of textile waste was generated, and 13 million tons were sent to landfill or incinerator (almost 11 million of that coming from the U.S. alone).
What I haven’t talked about is how much of that textile waste comes from the production lines. It is estimated that 400 billion square meters of textiles is produced annually. And of that, 60 billion square meters is cutting room floor waste. That makes about 23,166 square miles for those of use not on the metric scale. And to put that into perspective, it would also make it the 119th largest country in the world, larger than countries like Croatia or Costa Rica.
That also means that about 15-20% of the textiles that were intended for clothing that end up as waste. And because it’s easier and cheaper to toss than to recycle, most of this ends up in landfills (the U.S. EPA estiamtes that textile waste occupies nearly 5% of all landfill space), where it decomposes, releases greenhouse gases and contributes to global warming.
While this has become common practice in the industry, there are companies out there that are doing it better. And that’s where Rust & Fray comes in. Rust & Fray makes beautiful, limited-run, upcycled bags, using a near zero-waste approach.
A zero-waste approach strives to create products that, you guessed it, leave zero-waste. The zero-waste approach takes everything into account — from where the materials are coming from, to patterning the pieces in a way that there is no additional waste once the product is cut and sewn. Thus, it’s also a way to eliminate millions of tons of garbage every year.
Rust & Fray is incredibly focused on minimizing waste at all levels – starting with production and ending with the sale, where they limit our packaging to just a fabric bag that is made out of upcycled fabric, with no additional boxes or frills. Currently, in order to maintain the quality of their bags they do incur a little bit of waste (when materials get stained, torn or otherwise damaged, it has to be discarded), but they have set a goal for themselves to become a truly zero-waste company in the future.
To that end, Rust & Fray is paying careful attention to every single detail during their production process. First, the team hand-picks their materials, essentially leftovers, from other factories and workshops. They use factory-excess fabrics, as well as leftover leather, vegan leather and metal.
Then, they design their bags from the materials they source. So rather than the traditional design, then source, then manufacture approach taken by so many brands today, Rust & Fray innovates their designs based on their materials. They consider this to be not only the “art” of their business, but also the “heart.”
And because of how they source their materials, all of Rust & Fray’s products are few of a kind, limited-run and unique — on average they only make about 14 pieces per design.
Coming from a finance background, Donna Sitwat, who is the Chief Operating Officer and co-owner of Rust & Fray was converted to the world of ethical and sustainable fashion after watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. She began asking herself how she could be more green.
Then two years ago, she and her husband came across a manufacturer in Bangladesh that made bags from scraps. Inspired by her love for fashion and art, as well as her new drive to be more green, she saw this as a place where it could all come together. She felt this was her calling, so together with her husband, they decided to bring it to market in the U.S.
The initial run had a great reaction, but they felt it was not versatile enough for the U.S. market. So they set out to create their own brand that was more catered for the U.S. customer.
Theytook over the design process, and started going to small producers (10 workers or fewer) and contracted them for small orders to see their craftsmanship. They were impressed with the result.
Recently Rust & Fray also had the opportunity to partner with one of those small producers and buy 50% partnership into the factory, which would give them more control over the working conditions and policies in the factory. The factories that work with Rust & Fray employ underprivileged individuals; their workers work fair hours, in good working conditions and at paid living wages, giving them enough to support their families.
Growing up in Bangladesh, seeing a lot of poverty, Donna also wants to do as much as possible for women — with a goal of a 50% female workforce at her company. She believes that the only way to eradicate poverty is to create more opportunities for women, who will use that extra household income towards the education and well being of their children. Over time, this will result in a more educated and skilled workforce for the country and gradually lift it out of poverty with increased economic activity. The company’s plan is to start in Bangladesh and expand to other developing countries to create as much good as possible.
To date the company has upcycled 19,800 square feet of materials, employed 62 underprivileged people, and helped uplift 3 small entrepreneurs. And they’re just getting started.