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Startup brands like the shoe company Thousand Fell are bringing circular economics to the fashion industry

Jonathan Shieber
·3-min read

Thousand Fell, the environmentally conscious, direct-to-consumer shoe retailer that launched last November, has revealed the details of the recycling program that's a core component of its pitch to consumers. The company, which has now sold enough shoes to start seeing its early buyers begin recycling them after 10 months of ownership, expects to recycle roughly 3,000 pairs per quarter by 2021, with the capacity to scale up to 6,000 pairs of shoes. The recycling feature, through partnerships with United Parcel Service and TerraCycle, offers customers the option to avoid simply throwing out the shoes for $20 in cash that the company pays out upon receipt of the old shoes.

With the initiative, Thousand Fell joins a growing number of companies in consumer retail that are experimenting with various strategies to incorporate reuse into the life cycle of their products. Nike operates a "reuse-a-shoe" program at some of its stores, which collects used athletic shoes from any brand for recycling. Several companies are offering denim recycling drop-off locations to take old jeans and convert the material into other products.

What's more, Thousand Fell's recycling partner, TerraCycle, has developed a milkman model for reusing packaging to replace consumer packaged items like dry goods, beverages, desserts, and home and beauty products under its Loop brand (and in partnership with Kroger and Walgreens). Across retail, zero-waste packaging and delivery options (and companies emphasizing a more sustainable, circular approach to consumption) are attracting increased interest from investors across the board, with everything from delivery companies to novel packaging materials attracting investor interest.

 

"Thousand Fell owns the material feeds and covers the cost of recycling, as well as the resale or reintegration of recycled material back into new shoes and the issuance of the $20 recycling cash that is sent back to the consumer once they recycle," wrote Thousand Fell co-founder Stuart Ahlum, in an email.

Clothing and textiles account for 17% of all landfill waste, and shoes are particularly wasteful. Shoes account for 10% of retail production capacity but about 25% of textile waste. The company sells its environmentally friendly shoes for under $100, a price point that makes them more accessible to price-conscious consumers, according to Ahlum.

UPS will run shipping for the Thousand Fell sneaker recycling program and make its network of shipping locations -- including within Staples stores -- available for drop-off of Thousand Fell's shoes. With TerraCycle, Thousand Fell will ensure that the old sneakers will be sustainably recycled and diverted from landfills. UPS' Ware2Go business is also providing fulfillment and warehousing services for Thousand Fell, the companies said in a statement earlier this week.

Meanwhile, TerraCycle and Thousand Fell are developing a closed-loop process where old sneakers will be reintegrated into the supply chain to make new sneakers. Through Thousand Fell, shoe buyers can track their purchase history and the carbon footprint of their sneakers at the company's website -- and register their sneakers once they've received them. The registration allows customers to initiate the recycling process at a drop-off location or directly ship their shoes back to TerraCycle.

"This enterprise partnership between UPS, TerraCycle and Thousand Fell is the reverse logistics engine that powers the circular economy. It solves the critical problem of collecting worn products back from customers — at scale and at cost," Ahlum wrote in an email.