WSI Mary Kay Textiles Upcycle Challenge, SDG 12WSI

Design a product, service or initiative that will create a "circular economy" that encourages the reuse or repurposing of uniforms and/or other used clothing, reducing waste that ends up in landfills and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from decomposing textiles.

When we talk about the need for recycling, most of us think about reusing glass bottles and keeping plastic bottles from polluting the ocean. That kind of recycling is incredibly important, but there are other parts of the economy where reuse and recycling – or upcycling – are equally critical. Take fashion, for example. Or, more specifically, that most utilitarian form of fashion: uniforms.

There are countless reasons why organizations – academic, security, military, service industry, corporate, athletic, and the list goes on – may require a uniform. Uniforms create a consistent and professional appearance, they're easily recognized, and they promote unity.

But what happens when you are no longer a part of an organization or it’s time for a refresh? Those perfectly good articles of clothing are more than likely doomed for the landfill.

Globally, it’s estimated that 80% of discarded textiles wind up in landfills. That earns the clothing and textiles industry the #2 spot on the list of the worst-polluting industries, second ony to the petrochemical industry. Making matters worse, the clothing that does end up in landfills can sit there decomposing for 200-plus years and emitting methane – a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon – into the air as it decomposes.

A few large-scale companies have taken steps towards creating a “closed-loop” manufacturing process, collecting and repurposing old uniforms rather than wasting the materials. But not nearly enough action has been taken. To put things in perspective, just in Britain alone, some 33.4 million uniforms are purchased annually – and less than 5% of uniforms are recycled.

What can we do to fight this? Create a "circular" economy where systems aim to eliminate waste through continual use and reuse of resources. When reuse, recycling, repair, refurbishment, or remanufacturing are promoted, we end up with a sustainable circular system.

Your challenge is to consider the different types of actions that organizations, communities, or governments can take to encourage the upcycling of unwanted clothing, especially uniforms, to generate less waste and create a circular economy around the clothing and textile industry.

To help you brainstorm, here are some thought-starters:

  • In 2019, the Atlanta International Airport welcomed a 5000% increase in visitors as a result of hosting the Super Bowl. To combat the additional waste generated, they teamed up with global textile solutions provider Unifi, collecting plastic bottles to be transformed into REPREVE® recycled fiber for use in athletic and fashion apparel. How could companies find meaningful partnerships like this to combat uniform textile waste and/or repurposing?
  • Major retailers have started offering discount and reward programs to customers who donate clothing to be recycled. Are there different kinds of incentive programs or cost-savings that organizations could provide to help encourage employees to responsibly recycle their unwanted uniforms?
  • How can organizations rethink the repurposing of old uniforms through partnerships, collaborations, or mutually beneficial efforts to create environmental, social and financial benefits for all involved?
  • What if organizations who utilize uniforms create a greater awareness among employees about the resources for discarding uniforms and the environmental impact it has?
  • What if we could issue a tax credit incentive to large companies with mandated uniforms who recycle a certain percentage each year or manufacture them from recycled materials?

Mary Kay

One of the original glass ceiling breakers, Mary Kay Ash founded her beauty company more than 55 years ago with three goals: develop rewarding opportunities for women, offer irresistible products, and make the world a better place. That dream has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar company with millions of independent sales force members in nearly 40 countries. Mary Kay is dedicated to investing in the science behind beauty and manufacturing cutting-edge skin care, color cosmetics, nutritional supplements and fragrances. Mary Kay is committed to empowering women and their families by partnering with organizations from around the world, focusing on supporting cancer research, protecting survivors from domestic abuse, beautifying our communities, and encouraging children to follow their dreams. Mary Kay Ash’s original vision continues to shine—one lipstick at a time. Learn more at

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“Global youth are already actively solving the world’s most complex problems thanks to innovative thinking and disruptive solutions. At Mary Kay, we are committed to offsetting our environmental impact by implementing positive programs such as creating a circular economy for textiles and plastics, planting trees and responsibly sourcing materials.”

Deborah Gibbins / Chief Operating Officer, Mary Kay

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