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Annual Convention: Lessons Learned from Tom Szaky

Since 1932, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) has served as the premiere source of networking, education and advocacy for promoting the interdependence of the for-profile textile reuse and recycling industry. While COVID-19 has affected the way we interact and share information with our members, that did not stop us from having an extremely successful Annual Convention (virtually) in 2021!

In case you missed our first entry in this series, we’re sharing “lessons learned” from our Convention’s speakers – all of whom are experts in their field. Next up, we’re highlighting Tom Szaky, CEO of Terracycle. Tom’s presentation, “Recycling and Reuse Before, During and After COVID-19” walked us through the theory of waste and how through complex business practices (and partnerships!) we can eliminate the idea of it.

Looking back on Mr. Szaky’s informative presentation, here’s what we learned:

  1. Prior to World War II, people thought differently about the way they used and treated their purchases. For instance, 100 years ago the average consumer purchased only two new clothing items per year which they expected to use for at least twenty years. During this “milk man” era, there was a massive focus on reuse and repair. Households would oftentimes mend their own clothing or seek out a cobbler to help repair their shoes. Those same items would likely be passed from one generation to the next to use for years to come. What changed? As Tom explained it to us during his presentation, after WW II focus shifted entirely – and, when it comes to clothing, the idea of “fast fashion” emerged. You might be surprised to hear that today, the average consumer purchases 66 apparel items per year, expecting to wear them each only three times. The result? On average, consumers throw away 80 pounds of clothing per year, which significantly impacts our environment.
  2. When it comes to influencing consumers’ buying decisions (and ultimately eliminating waste), the number one thing that must be considered is how convenient a product is. Interestingly, Tom shared some data with us on reusable diapers. While 50-85% of parents in countries like the United States, France and United Kingdom “trialed” cloth diapers for their children, only 2-3% actually stuck with the practice. The reason? Despite tons of environmental benefits, using cloth diapers is a massive inconvenience to parents. Therefore, in order to build sustainability programs, it is important to maintain how easy it is for consumers to ultimately use your product.
  3. Tom talked a lot with us about big-name brands working to promote sustainability and reuse in their business models. For instance, Old Navy has a flip flop recycling program that turns their used footwear into playground equipment. Companies like Target and Wal Mart also offer car seat “return” programs incentivized by significant discounts on new products. Target also promotes their “ReTote” reusable shopping bags which are made primarily of the disposable, single-use bags we’ve all learned to try and avoid. While recycling at times is not the most profitable for a company, participating in these types of programs helps them build reputational equity, allows them to layer their participation into marketing and public relations activities and more – all of which helps bring people back to their stores. Oftentimes, consumers are more likely to support a brand if they think their purchases help make a difference in some way!
  4. As a whole, Terracycle has existed for the past 18 years and has grown to operate in 22 countries across the globe. While we could offer what we feel is a feature-length article on all of the wonderful initiatives the company has developed, what Tom discussed with us most was what’s referred to as the Loop program. Through Loop, consumers can shop for all their favorite products, but without the waste. With heavy emphasis on reusable containers purchased with a 100% refundable deposit, consumers essentially “borrow” the packaging their products come in, which is then cleaned and reused upon its return. For more background on the program, check out this video.

While there is plenty more to share regarding Tom’s presentation, consider this blog a teaser of the wealth of knowledge he has to share. You can learn more about Terracycle online here, or follow Tom on Twitter here. For information on the importance of textile reuse and recycling, we invite you to visit the Frequently Asked Questions page of SMART’s website here.