This is part one of a three-part series on Boiseans who innovate in the three Rs—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Top-40 radio pumped out of the speakers in Rohit Sharma's small SUV, but typically, he said, he listens to audiobooks by or about his heroes, people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.
"We need people like that, who can do things out of the box," Sharma said. "It's all about making an impact."
By that metric, Sharma may soon be his own hero. He's the founder of ShareTagg, a business startup that picks up people's used clothing curbside and sells it to secondhand stores across the Treasure Valley. Profit and expansion are Sharma's goals, but creating a business model and culture around buying and selling used clothing are at the center of its environmental (and fashionable) mission.
Sharma makes all his own pickups, and on a crisp autumn Saturday morning, he mounted the Americana Boulevard hill onto Emerald Street, turning into the parking lot of Studio Boise, a photo studio where he has a working relationship with its manager, Kat Watkins.
"We're very community-based, and we like to think we're environmentally friendly," she said. "We're always down to collaborate."
Models and photographers who use Studio Boise go through more clothing than most, Watkins said, and plenty of it ends up at the studio, but it wasn't until Watkins cleaned out her own closet that she realized how much of a hassle getting it to a secondhand store can be.
"I had a bag of clothes in my car for two months, and when I saw [ShareTagg], I thought it was so convenient," she said, adding, "When you're busy, when you have kids, it's really easy when someone can pick it up for you."
Sharma reached out to her via Instagram to tell her about his business, and since then, Watkins has made it known to Studio Boise clients that she can collect their used clothing. This particular Saturday was Sharma's second visit to the Boise Bench neighborhood studio, and the haul was several bags with approximately 60 pounds of clothes from four different people.
For Watkins, as it is with many of Sharma's clients, the benefit of the service is convenience. Going to a secondhand store to sell old clothing can be a chore, and not an especially urgent one. More urgent is the impact of the textile industry on the environment.
"It's one of the world's most-polluting industries," said Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2012) and The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good (2019). "I think we're more aware than ever about food's environmental impact, the plastic industry's environmental impact—but our knowledge about clothing's impact is still lagging for whatever reason."
Indeed, where plenty of ink has been spilled on what single-use plastics, transportation and agriculture do to the environment, Cline said when she has conversations about textiles, she tends to start with the fact that it contributes approximately 8% of the world's carbon emissions, more than international flights and overseas shipping.
Those emissions come from all sides. Synthetic fabrics like polyester, which account for nearly half of the world's clothing, are basically plastics, and their production emits a whole host of toxic chemicals and consumes massive amounts of electricity, which, in many parts of the world, is sourced from coal-fired power plants. Efforts are underway to mitigate those effects: In 2017, Textile Exchange, a nonprofit, asked more than 50 companies—including Adidas, H&M, Gap and Ikea—to up their use of recycled polyester. Its goal was an increase of 25% by 2020, but in 2018, Textile Exchange had big news: The signatories to its agreement had exceeded their goal by 11% two years ahead of schedule.
There are significant environmental advantages to making clothes from recycled polyester. It requires 59% less energy and 32% fewer carbon emissions to produce than its "virgin" counterpart. Moreover, it would reduce the need to extract petrochemicals from the earth. Polyester is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and if PET sounds familiar, it's because it's the same stuff as disposable straws and crushable plastic containers.
"It's the exact same material as is in a plastic bottle. In that way, single-use plastics are sneaking into our lives by way of our closet," Cline said.
Cotton is just as environmentally thorny. Globally, it takes an average of 10,000 liters of water to grow a pound of cotton. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes 20,000 liters of water to grow enough of it to make a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. It's also a titanic sector of the global economy, with up to 250 million people using it as a source of income, most of them spread out across the developing world. Ironically, the nations that will be most heavily affected by the adverse consequences of climate change disproportionately rely on the cotton industry.
What's more, the fashion, clothing and textile industries are deeply globalized in ways that other heavily polluting industries are not. It combines raw natural resources, energy production, transportation, labor, branding, retail and manufacturing in other countries to fill closets with new clothes in America.
For Cline, it's also a window into people's personal environmental impacts, and she opens her latest book, The Conscious Closet, with a closet-cleaning exercise with tips for acquiring and disposing of their duds ethically.
"[Closet clean-outs are] something we all do anyway, and it's free. You can start now," she said. "The difference between the cleanout I describe in the book and the way people usually go about it is, I try to get people to think beyond the cleanout: What's going to happen to these clothes?"
- Harrison Berry
- Sharma conducts curbside pickups of used clothing, which he sells at several secondhand clothing stores in Boise.
At most of Sharma's stops, he doesn't ever see his clients. At one such stop, in a neighborhood above Chinden Boulevard near Eagle Road, two bags full of clothes had been left at the client's front door. After carefully labeling each bag with the name of its donor, he stepped back into his car and gave the collar of his Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt a tug. Every item he wore that day, he said, he'd bought secondhand, all of it for less than $30. For him, a turning point for ShareTagg and its mission will be when people don't just sell him their used clothes, but start buying used clothes themselves and minimizing their reliance on new clothing.
ShareTagg found its niche by making disposal of that clothing easy for people, and Sharma said that many of his customers would be happy to give him their clothing for free. Instead, Sharma has created a system in which his customers accrue points based on the value of the garments they give him, and those points can be redeemed for gift cards or donated to charities.
- Harrison Berry
- Bags of clothing must be carefully labeled.
ShareTagg's cut comes from the margins, and though the company hasn't yet turned a profit, Sharma said it will as he scales up his operations. It isn't Sharma's first idea for a business. In fact, he said it's his eighth or ninth, and he credits his business mentor and Oliver Russell Founder Russ Stoddard with helping him turn his passions for fashion and the environment into a company.
"For me, being with him for 30 minutes—I can express myself," Sharma said.
Stoddard has almost 30 years of experience in business mentoring, and in that time, he said he has helped usher hundreds of people into the business world, introducing the idea of social benefit to all. He said he was "immediately impressed" with Sharma, whom he said has an intuitive grasp of why so much clothing ends up in the landfill, and how to make money solving the problem.
"His initial step is, there are so many people who take their clothes to the Youth Ranch, there are many, many more who have discarded clothes that don't ever quite get it to the Youth Ranch, so it ends up going out into the trash," Stoddard said. "He realizes that one of the great issues is simply convenience: how can you actually make this convenient for people."
Sharma appears in Stoddard's office doorway for weekly half-hour sessions, during which they discuss, sometimes in fine detail, ShareTagg's progress and putting a social good at the core of its mission. Social good is something Stoddard knows intimately—it's an idea he helped pioneer at Oliver Russell. Since its founding, the company has donated approximately $2.6 million to charitable organizations. By his reckoning, that's $233 per day, but it's a pittance compared to the cumulative impact of coding non-economic benefit into its clients' branding efforts, or mentoring up-and-coming business leaders with a sense that companies can use their economic clout for good.
Companies can have a great deal of sway. Patagonia gives 1% of total sales to environmental groups and making commitments regarding the ethical sourcing of materials. In 2008, Rose Marcario was brought on as the company's chief financial officer. Today, she's the CEO, and during her tenure, Patagonia's profits have tripled, according to Business Insider. Her secret: She found production efficiencies, eliminated waste and reduced packaging materials.
"I think you have a free-market approach that in many ways allows [entrepreneurs] to work with more urgency to solve a problem," Stoddard said.
- Harrison Berry
- Sharma's first stop was secondhand store Plato's Closet.
Sharma's final pickup that Saturday was at a home outside Middleton, well outside of his typical range—"This pickup doesn't make sense to me at all, but if [the client] tells one person, it will be worth it," he said. From there, he sped off to the secondhand store Plato's Closet, where there was already a line forming of people looking to sell their own clothes.
Plato's Closet's business model is, in many ways, as straightforward as ShareTagg's. It buys used clothing and sells it back to people. Franchise Owner Justin Barney said as many as 100 people come by per day to sell their clothes, and for a lot of his customers, there are social and economic factors that drive a robust market in used goods. He understands those factors well.
"What interested me, learning about Plato's Closet and what they do, it's great how it gives customers an opportunity to make a bit of cash on what they're doing, and people can see the brand names of currently popular styles," he said. "Growing up I had nothing name brand. We were fairly poor, and I couldn't afford name brands, and it felt difficult to fit in at school. It's a good thing for our community: Everyone can wear name-brand things at low prices."
Admittedly, Barney is less familiar with the environmental side of his business, though taking steps to bring it in line with his customers' values has led him to make some changes, and as of Earth Day 2019, he has banned single-use plastic bags from the store, offering his customers paper bags at cost.
"Just being part of a franchise, I'd heard of other locations being required to quit plastics, and learning it wasn't a big deal. I thought about customer backlash, but no, they had a good experience, and I thought it was ridiculous how much plastic we were giving away," he said.
Plato's Closet is as much at the whim of supply and demand as any company, and what stock Barney can't sell, he puts in the GemText bin behind the store. According to the last Ada County Landfill waste stream survey, 2.2% of the landfill's contents by weight are textiles, and nationally, textiles are the fastest-growing category of waste, with the Environmental Protection Agency estimating that it makes up 5% of all landfill space. GemText, a regional private pickup service, is part of the fight to keep textiles in circulation and dispose of them responsibly.
"In the business, you'd consider us collector/haulers," said Owner Sandy Navidi. "Just like waste management doesn't actually recycle the plastic, paper or aluminum, that's how we fit as well. We're the first step in the process. Just like they do, we try and get the recyclable material into the hands of someone who would be next in the process to do something with it."
Every year, the company picks up between 800,000 and 1 million pounds of material from its bins, which are deposited at 115 locations in the Treasure Valley, and many others in the Spokane, Washington; and the Portland, Oregon, metro areas. From there, the material is sorted between the "wiper" market, which buys and breaks down cotton and polyester, turning them into industrial absorbing and polishing products; and the fiber market, which recycles materials for textile production. When China started turning away American recyclables in early 2018, many of the textiles that would have been recycled there ended up at American recycling firms, flooding the fiber market and bottoming out prices. Navidi said that's what makes the wiper and resale markets the last real stops before clothing ends up in the landfill, and what makes companies like ShareTagg especially important.
"They're on the forefront," she said. "It's exciting to see what's happening, and that people are understanding that textile is a resource, and once you're done wearing it, it's cool to see the innovation that's starting to happen."
Plato's Closet is Sharma's first stop, and what it doesn't buy, he takes to Runway Fashion Exchange, Kids Again, Uptown Cheapskate and Kid to Kid, with the intent of getting the maximum value for his clients. In the future, he said he'd like to have enough clients that he can hire other people to do pickups for him, and eventually, he could port the ShareTagg business to other cities. It would mean more money, he said, but it would also be proof of his concept and a sign that people are beginning to be more aware of the environmental implications of their closets.
"I always wanted a startup that's for everyone," he said. "I want a service where people can get involved."