Smartwool Wants to Turn Your Old Socks Into Dog Beds

This is just the beginning of its plans for total circularity.

Smartwool sock collection
Collecting socks for recycling.

Smartwool/Franzi Charen

One item of clothing you do not usually find at thrift stores is socks. There's good reason for that. Socks see more wear and tear than anything else, and not everyone wants to wear a stranger's old socks if they don't have to. So they end up in landfills, contributing to the 11.3 million tons of textiles that get tossed every year.

Smartwool is a big sock maker that wants to make a change to this inherent wastefulness. Starting on April 21 this year, it kicks off a new initiative called the Second Cut Project, which is its first step toward making all apparel circular by 2030 and toward keeping good materials out of the landfill. 

For a limited time (April 21 to May 2), anyone can participate in the sock take-back program, dropping off old clean socks of all styles, brands, fabrics, or states of disrepair in collection bins at retailers around the country. There is also the option to mail it to Smartwool. Once this event is over, people can recycle their socks year-round when they make a purchase on Smartwool.com by opting in to receive a pre-paid bag to recycle their socks via mail.

What Happens to the Old Socks?

Smartwool passes them on to Material Return, a company from North Carolina that will expertly "deconstruct hard-to-recycle socks and turn them into new goods." Molly Hemstreet, co-executive director at Material Return, describes the sock recycling process to Treehugger:

"It has several basic steps. First, we collect and sort the fibers. Then, the fibers are 'opened' or ground into what we call 'shoddy.' These fibers are then run though our machine to make yarn, and depending on how the yarn is created, it can then be knit (like socks) or woven (like fabric on your sofa). In addition, many 'shoddy' fibers are down-cycled into fiber fill, insulation, and acoustic material, which is the process we’re utilizing to make dog beds."
ground up socks
Socks are ground up to make 'shoddy'. Smartwool/Franzi Charen

Early batches of old socks will be turned into filling for dog beds, as Hemstreet said, but the eventual goal is to use the upcycled material in additional ways. Alicia Chin, senior manager of Sustainability and Social Impact at Smartwool, said: "Depending on the quantity and quality of socks we’re able to take back, we will be working closely with our partner, Material Return, to recycle socks back into yarn for us to create new accessories."

She did not specify what those accessories might be but went on: "Designing for recyclability or disassembly is also a key priority of ours moving forward. We are planning to use socks we receive through our initial take-back program as fill for a limited run of dog beds, perfect for our fun-loving outdoor consumer, and as mentioned above, eventually recycling socks into yarn to create new products."

Smartwool hopes to take back all of its clothing someday — not just socks — and intends to design products with total circularity in mind. Considering how wasteful the fashion industry is, it's great to see a company tackling the issue head-on and taking the first step to set up a collection and recycling system that could eventually handle greater volume. 

As Chin said, "The Second Cut Project gives us the framework to innovate through our entire product creation process, and this is just the beginning."

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