While you can donate old T-shirts and jeans, you’re likely to just toss your used socks in the trash. But now, Smartwool wants you to give them your old socks—from any brand—so that they can recycle them into filling for dog beds.
It’s not clear how many socks end up filling landfills each year, but they’re one part of the massive problem of textile waste. In 2018, 11.3 million tons of textile waste went to landfills in the U.S. alone, according to the EPA, and another 3.2 million tons were burned. While socks may make up a small portion of that waste, consumers were still looking for a solution about what to do with their old socks besides throwing them away, according to a survey Smartwool recently conducted.
“A lot of organizations won’t take donated used socks, so oftentimes consumers just don’t know what to do,” says Alicia Chin, the head of sustainability and social impact at the company. Many who responded to that Smartwool survey said they throw out one to three pairs of socks a year, so the company began looking for a solution, and partnered with Material Return, a North Carolina-based company that turns textile waste into new products. Smartwool decided to create dog beds, though it hasn’t ventured into pet products before, because of how that item fits with their “fun loving, outdoor” brand, Chin says.
Smartwool’s sock take-back program will run between April 21 and May 2, with sock collection bins at participating stores nationwide—for any (clean) socks, not just Smartwool products. People can also go to the Smartwool site to request prepaid postage and mail their used socks to the Material Return (an option that will be available year-round, even when the return bins at stores are gone). The company emphasizes that donated socks should be clean, and the sock-stuffing dog beds will be available to purchase from Smartwool later this year.
While the dog beds will be a limited run product, Smartwool says it’s just the start of what socks can be transformed into. This initiative is the first iteration of its Second Cut Project, which will give products a “second cut at life,” and part of the company’s broader goal to make all its products circular by 2030. “We know that the fashion and apparel world has a huge impact on the environment, in terms of climate change, in terms of waste,” Chin says. “Circularly is really a key part of that to extend the life of our virgin raw materials.”
Eventually, Smartwool wants to expand its take-back program to all products, not only socks, and design products with circularity in mind. The company has been focused on cutting pre-consumer waste, meaning the waste that comes from the manufacturing process (it takes scraps and turns it into insulation, for example). The Second Cut Project addresses post-consumer waste as well, and the goal, Chin says, is to have zero material waste from a pre- or post-consumer lens.
“In terms of where we’re going, dog beds—that’s just the beginning,” Chin says. “Ultimately, our goal here is to work with Material Return to actually take those stocks, turn it back into yarn, and then be able to create new products out of it. The sky’s the limit from where we go from there.”