Rags to Revenue: Creating New Startups From Textile Waste

Every year, around 13 million tons of clothes, shoes, sheets, and other textiles end up in U.S. landfills. Your old t-shirt isn't just taking up...

Every year, around 13 million tons of clothes, shoes, sheets, and other textiles end up in U.S. landfills. Your old t-shirt isn't just taking up space at the dump, it's also releasing methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide. In San Francisco, where the city is on a mission to achieve zero waste by 2020, textile waste is still a problem. But the City of San Francisco hopes that citizens can help solve it—while creating new local jobs at the same time.

What if textile waste in the city was turned into a new local product or service instead of going in the trash? GOOD partnered with the City of San Francisco, Goodwill, and the experience design firm Adaptive Path to pose the challenge through Improve SF, an online platform hosted by the Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation.

We kicked off the challenge last weekend at Goodwill's headquarters, where visitors learned a little about what happens behind the scenes there. As a social enterprise, Goodwill's core purpose is using the funds generated from their stores to help people transform their lives through work; they help disadvantaged people get training, life skills coaching, and find new jobs.

SFGoodwill receives millions of donated items each year, and resells as many as possible in their stores. But they also deal with the challenge of textile waste, since a large percentage of what shows up at their doorstep isn't actually suitable to sell. They end having to send bundles of old clothes overseas, where they can't help support local jobs and startups.

The next day, armed with new knowledge about textile waste, our groups of volunteer innovators headed over to Adaptive Path to learn from experts in design. Adaptive Path led everyone through the design process, starting with sending everyone out onto the street to talk to other San Franciscans about the issues of textile waste and local jobs. Teams talked to everyone from Swiss tourists—who explained that their government sends citizens bags in the mail for old clothes, and has also set up special collection bins—to homeless people, who explained what challenges they'd had in getting and keeping jobs.

After more research, teams discussed insights and dove into brainstorming, and a process called "service storming" that helps build out ideas for new services. The day ended with prototyping and sharing concepts. Groups talked about ideas like pop-up training centers for sewing in vacant buildings, trackable tags that can tell the stories of where clothes go, and mobile job centers built into old food trucks. You'll start to see the results show up on ImproveSF in the next few days.

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, share your own ideas on the platform—if you have a winning concept, you'll be connected with co-working space, mentorship, prototyping materials from Goodwill, and promotion on GOOD. Post your idea before September 27.

This project is part of GOOD's series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress. Top two images courtesy of Greg Habiby

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