SuperCircle is the latest proof point of tech-enabled recycling at scale.
The founders — Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum — behind minimalist vegan sneaker label Thousand Fell have been working diligently on the industry’s textile waste conundrum.
“What we are building with Thousand Fell is almost like a pilot or map for the rest of the industry,” Songer said. “Thousand Fell works because we were able to be venture funded and to have a price point that allowed us to cover the cost of recycling, but it’s a really hard ask for a brand to put 10 to 20 percent of their margin back into recycling or reverse logistics particularly because the margins in retail are so tight.”
Thousand Fell launched right before the pandemic. The team demonstrated proof-of-concept partnerships with UPS and TerraCycle on the shipping and recycling logistics side of the business. Over the past two years, Thousand Fell has taken back 10,000 units of footwear for feeding into its recycling network. According to Songer, the company has been building the “full engine to power the circular economy,” which means a heavy lift (and ample funding) for the business. Along with Thousand Fell, Reformation, Mate the Label, TenTree and other brands (yet to be announced) are joining arms in the recycling nuance so that fiber-to-fiber recycling can happen across brands and at the scale necessary to be worthwhile.
For partners like Reformation, “It was an instant connection,” Songer said. Through Reformation, a few thousand people have signed up since the pilot launched in March.
“You’ll never be able to make recycling a revenue stream or a cost-neutral revenue stream that doesn’t feel like a tax to brands if each individual brand is trying to set up its own logistics system,” she said. “Recycling operates at scale. Tonnage waste is really important.”
SuperCircle built the tech infrastructure that allows customers, brand executives and supply chain partners (be it regional or national shipping partners) visibility into recycling as well as the shipping and warehousing system. Waste is aggregated by regional partners, such as UPS, and freighted to SuperCircle’s first warehouse in Houston.
As opposed to e-commerce returns needing to be processed more quickly, “It doesn’t matter if we recycle it in four months or two weeks,” Songer said. And that fact matters significantly in the cost. “We’re working on a really slow collection and ship back model.”
Warehousing capabilities also allow for aggregation of feedstock by fiber type, including cotton, polyester, nylon and rubber. (As with most recycling solutions, cotton-polyester blends are still a headache.)
“Ultimately, what we’re doing is building out and mapping against the majority of retail assortment by fiber type and being able to tie into this very robust and existing recycling network,” Ahlum added. “[SuperCircle] is the infrastructure and the technology that’s linking these industries that doesn’t already exist.”
A competitor for supply alongside thrift chains like Savers and Goodwill, SuperCircle will be able to collect 5,000 product units a day (once all its partners are on board). Even at full capacity, the business faces mounting and persisting textile waste and has to confront the ways in which producers cut corners today.
While outsourcing textile waste to jobbers, discounting items and trialing resale programs allows for some alleviation of excess, Songer said damaged inventory is still the afterthought and where SuperCircle hopes to come to the rescue. With additional knowledge partners like Textile Exchange and initiatives like Accelerating Circularity, SuperCircle hopes to continue to produce viable recycling data for industry benchmarking later this year.