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Smartwool wants your old socks

The Smartwool's Second Cut Project turns old socks into dog beds.

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Textiles contribute 11.3 million tons of waste to landfills each year. How much of that is old socks? While that isn’t easy to answer, Smartwool, which sells approximately 9 million pairs of socks per year, wants to make sure that socks don’t go to waste in the future. Enter: Smartwool’s Second Cut Project.

“A recent survey we conducted uncovered that while over 80 percent of respondents recycle their used clothing, they don’t engage the same way when it comes to socks,” said Alicia Chin, senior manager of sustainability and social impact at Smartwool. “Forty-six percent are unaware of how to recycle them, resulting in 91 percent throwing away more than one pair of socks per year.”

Smartwool is looking to change this with its Second Cut Project.

How Smartwool’s Second Cut Project works

From April 21 to May 2, 2021, consumers can recycle any brand or material of sock in any condition (as long as they’re clean) at drop-off bins at more than 250 participating specialty retailers nationwide. (Single socks also accepted!) On an ongoing basis beyond the May 2 cutoff, customers can also ship old socks directly to Smartwool. A pre-paid postage recycling bag that fits 10 to 15 pairs of socks is available through the Smartwool website when a purchase is made.

The recycled socks obtained through this program will be shredded and used as filling for a limited run dog bed that Smartwool will sell later this year.

Chin added, “Depending on the quantity and quality of what we’re able to take back, we will also be working closely with our partner, Material Return, to recycle socks back into yarn for us to create new accessories.”

Smartwool’s circular business model

The idea for the Sock Take-Back campaign came about in a brainstorming session a couple of years ago.

“We were looking at everything we could do to reduce our overall carbon impact,” said Anne Wiper, VP and general merchandising manager. “The core material in our socks is merino wool, so we had a good start in sustainability since it’s the standard for natural performance material.” Smartwool eventually switched from using virgin nylon to recycled nylon in its socks, but wanted to take it a step further. The company wondered: Could old socks be shredded and used as dog bed filling?

Read more: The outdoor industry is chasing endless circularity

“We tested shredding on a very small scale in my Cuisinart and realized it could work,” said Wiper.

The Sock Take-Back campaign is one step in Smartwool’s plan to reach 100 percent product circularity by 2030. Smartwool is working to extend the life of its products and invest in regenerative agriculture. However, a recycling model would allow the company to use less virgin raw material, which means less greenhouse gas emissions.

“By implementing a circular business model, we’re extending the life of raw materials, presenting a new sourcing stream, providing a solution to enable our consumers to be more sustainable, and, arguably most important, reducing our environmental impact,” said Chin.

She added that Smartwool will be looking for ways to design its socks for deconstruction, which may mean developing new materials, so they can be recycled in the future.

“As an outdoor brand, our success is dependent on thriving natural environments,” Chin said. “We therefore have a responsibility to not only reduce our environmental impact, but to be a steward of the earth—to conserve and revitalize nature, land, air, and waterways and ultimately leave the planet happier and healthier.”