SHANGHAI — Every day, the world’s garment factories generate thousands of containers of textile waste. For the most part, they are offcuts, overproduction or orders that were abandoned, usually for production mistakes like being slightly off-color. Despite the many hours of labor and money invested in these fabrics, they are discarded and never used.
But more and more companies are trying to find solutions for the millions of tons of excess textiles the fashion industry produces each year. One of the most recent additions is the app The Squirrelz.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” said Bunny Yan, the 35-year-old founder. Her idea, she said, is simple: On the app, fashion houses, designers or garment factories can offer their offcuts, faulty productions or leftovers from old productions for free to anyone who is willing to pick it up or cover the shipping costs. For those offering textiles they no longer need, using the app is not just greener, but eliminates down-cycling costs.
The free app soft launched in the U.S. market earlier this month and Yan said she intends to make the app available to other markets at some point in the future. For now, only a small number of young fashion designers and students are using the app as something of a trial. But Yan said she hopes that The Squirrelz will hit 1 million users over the next year and half.
Several years ago, Yan noticed how common faulty orders were in China’s garment factories. After graduating from New York Fashion Institute and spending several years working for streetwear brands like Southpole, Yan was looking for a way to produce her own fashion line.
Once she started speaking to factories in China, the world’s largest producer of garments, she realized that the textiles they were throwing away were still usable. For a container full of cutoffs, factories paid garbage collectors 5 yuan ($0.75) to take it to a landfill.
“Factories won’t sell them because that’s not their main revenue stream — they don’t have the infrastructure to do that,” Yan said.
Millions of tons of apparel never make it into the world’s fashion stores, and are down-cycled shortly after they have been produced. Fabric waste in the production process adds to the issue.
In an MIT report, the amount of fabric produced by the garment industry in 2015 was estimated to be more than 400 billion square meters — enough to cover the state of California, the authors said.
But, according to the MIT report and other research, almost a quarter of that, or just under 100 billion square meters, is never used. “Offcuts, abandoned orders, there are so many things that can still be used, but there is just no talk between the industries,” Yan said.
Despite an up-cycling craze and a general trend towards more environmentally friendly production, right now, Yan said, “It’s just easier to dump everything in a landfill.”
At first, Yan focused on being a middle man between factories and fashion houses or designers — one at a time, linking a container of textiles with someone interested in still using it. It was a slow process she said, and limited in its scope.
She quit her small, Shanghai-based design company, secured $450,000 in seed funding and guidance from Chinaccelerator, one of Asia’s largest start-up accelerators. With the help of a team of six web developers and marketing experts, The Squirrelz was started as a free material trading platform.
Currently, materials ranging from shirt fabrics to headbands and buttons and Chinese knots are posted on the app. Designers are not the only ones who can use the app — photo studios, fashion schools, theaters or event planners can also use it to trade materials.
“I want to build up the demand, starting from the young designers,” Yan said. The app also offers a filter function for larger amounts of materials, which allows factories to offer offcuts only to those who can take several containers. The logistics companies that will ship the containers will pay bulk to The Squirrelz, income Yan is betting on to make the app profitable.
Other start-ups are trying to tackle similar issues, like The Renewal Workshop, which fixes small flaws in apparel and sells it back to its partner brands like Toad & Co. or directly on the workshop’s website.
But Yan said The Squirrelz makes it financially viable to be eco-friendly. Instead of throwing old fabrics away and paying for the down-cycling, someone else will pick them up — or cover the shipping costs. For designers, the shop can offer inspiration and allows them to experiment with new materials they might otherwise not have tried.
“There’s no financial pressure because you can just try new materials for free, and if you don’t want them, you can post them back on the site,” she said. “It’s so simple — I don’t know why nobody has thought of it before,” she said.