According to the ABC’s War on Waste, Australians discard 6,000kg of textiles every ten minutes. Textiles ending up in landfill is not only a waste of the resources that went into creating them, but when they break down in landfill they create methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
What started as Manrags, a company selling quality socks and undies, has now evolved into Upparel. It has seen a huge growth in business since committing to take responsibility for its products through continually improving the design, and offering reuse, repurposing and recycling services for textiles. We talked with Founder and CEO, Michael Elias, about Upparel's journey so far.
When we caught up with Michael, it happened to be right off the back of a momentous week for Upparel. They had officially rebranded from Manrags to Upparel, achieved the milestone of one million pieces of clothing kept out of landfill and were crowned Sustainability Champions of 2020 by the National Retail Association.
“[It’s been an] absolutely phenomenal week [and a] massive month. Our team's grown by three times what it was pre-pandemic,” Michael says of his team’s achievements. “We've had three warehouse moves and we've had a successful capital raise. We are very, very proud, fortunate and humbled by the last few months and this is only the beginning, right? We're so excited.”
When we ask why circularity is important to him, Michael explains, “I have two children, and I have a third due in less than two months’ time. What we pass on to them is our legacy. And what we don't want to pass on to them is an environment and a planet that we've ruined. We want to give them the best future possible. And that means that we need to look at a circular economy where we're not simply applying 'take-make-dispose' approach, we're looking at how do we keep things in circulation for as long as possible, as well as what this means from a development perspective at the very beginning of the process”.
When Manrags first launched it aimed to provide quality socks for men. A couple of years ago, Michael reflected on his own sock draw and realised there was nowhere for his socks to go at the end of their life but the bin. He realised what that meant for their customers all over the world. He came to the hard realisation that, essentially, his business was producing waste.
“That's when we stepped up and said, we're going to take responsibility for textile waste. We're going to take responsibility for the end life of our product. And we're going to look at how we become circular as a phased journey, to ensure that we are making more of a positive impact than we are a negative one,” Michael says. “I'm really excited that today as a business … for every single product that we produce, we divert ten products from landfill.”
His personal conscience was just one part of the decision to shift the business focus, the other was commercial. “We're out here to demonstrate that sustainability equals success,” Michael explains. “That's led to us having close to 100 brand partners now who are offering our textile recycling collection program. We're demonstrating that [when] you do the right thing, 50% of these customers come back and purchase from you within 30 days. For us, it's people, planet, profit. But for other people, [it’s] just profit,” he adds. “Why wouldn't you take this model and incorporate that into your brand and your offering?”
Upparel exists for the benefit of the next generation. They are working to eradicate textiles from landfill and they are currently on a journey to become as circular as possible with the essential products they offer.
We're not going to work with someone who's taking product and dumping it overseas, and not taking responsibility for it. We're setting these expectations of who we partner with because it's the right thing to do.
Upparel design its products with circular economy principles in mind and ensure textile resources stay in the economy as long as possible through reuse and, where reuse isn’t possible, recycling initiatives. It offers high-quality essential items such as socks and underwear and is seeking to continually improve how its items are manufactured.
“We've got a number of partnerships on the manufacturing side and this is forever changing and forever improving. Unfortunately, we had to let go of manufacturing partners that we had since day one because they couldn't join us on this journey,” Michael says. “[It’s] sad, but if we're to make a difference, we're going to have to make some calls on who we work with. As we become more informed and more educated around pieces along the way, we're making improvements and we're trying to work with everyone as much as possible. But it's not just about us, it's working collaboratively to both improve and be better together.”
Upparel’s textile recycling service allows customers to box up all their unwanted textiles and return them to the team at Upparel who sort the items to find the most appropriate destination for them. Upparel has a promise that no items it receives will be sent to landfill. Currently, 65 per cent of the items received are new or still appropriate for wear. These items are donated to their partners: Save the Children, Sacred Heart Mission, Ready Set Australia and St Kilda Mums, to name a few.
“We have an open door policy for social enterprise all over Australia, where they come in and take what they need,” Michael says. "We're making some pretty hard calls. We're not going to work with someone who's taking product and dumping it overseas, offshore, and not taking responsibility for it. We're setting these expectations of who we partner with because it's the right thing to do. And we're all learning along the way."
The remaining 35 per cent is assessed to be 'upcycled' into new items or recycled into new materials. For the items they recycle, they have partnered with Textiles Recyclers Australia (TRA). However, the textile recycling industry in Australia is still in its infancy. For this reason, they send product to TRA’s partner facility in India where items are shredded and spun into new yarn. This yarn is used to create new items such as blankets, rugs and insulation.
Michael has faced some significant challenges in his journey to prove this is a successful business model. “When we launched our sock recycling program, my board resigned on me because the business was about making money and the direction that we wanted to take it wasn't just that,” he explains. “No one hears these things, no one sees these things. Some of these people are now asking to come back and how they can help. You face a lot of challenges… But, you know, it had to make commercial sense. People couldn't see that; my board couldn't see it. But here we are today.”
His advice to other businesses: “Do something, just do something. Validate, refine, do the next thing, validate, refine. Don't come into this world [thinking], 'I'm going to be absolutely circular from day dot'. It's quite difficult. It's a journey and people, companies and the community will recognise and respect and appreciate [that]. We should be celebrating the successes along the way, before we achieve absolute circularity, which is very difficult… Just continue improving. It's not about trying to achieve the ultimate from day one. Every little thing counts, from packaging to the product itself”.
The Upparel team has proved its sustainable direction makes commercial sense. “Put simply, 12 months ago, recycling wasn’t part of who we were. Today, recycling contributes to 60 per cent of our bottom line. So that has made an enormous difference,” Michael says.
“From doing the right thing and introducing circularity we've seen a 220 per cent increase in revenue. We have had our community share us [on social media] over 20,000 times within a four-month period. And so, if you ever want to think about ‘will this get legs?’, it took a simple idea of recycling socks and taking responsibility for our own product to get the legs it did,” he says.
The business has been able to sustain this growth through the pandemic. “Economically, the business is better off,” Michael says. “I'm most proud that we've been able to grow during the COVID pandemic. I'm really proud that a lot of the people we have here in the team, some of them lost their businesses, and we were able to do something there. So that makes me happy that we've been able to provide that opportunity.”
The environmental benefits are also clear. “Diverting over 100-120,000 kg of textiles from landfill is amazing. [That’s] a million pieces of clothing. The flow-on greenhouse gases that have been prevented is close to half a million kilograms,” Michael explains. “I know we'll hit that five million [items diverted from landfill] target within less than a year now. Our trajectory is quite frightening. I think on another note, I’m really excited and focused on our product development. [Soon] we will release Australia's first recycled cotton socks.”
So, what’s next for Upparel? “How do we do something here domestically in Australia and increase the manufacturing side? Now [we're seeing] a lot of investment in recycling manufacturing — it's always around plastics, and cardboard and whatever else. On the textile side, we know that there's a lot of technology out there. There is a lot to do and there's a lot of opportunity – let's see Australia do a little bit more there. And hopefully we're at the forefront of that.”
“Don't throw your unwanted clothes in the bin," Michael urges. "You don't know if they're good for reuse for a charity or repurpose or recycle – that's our job. That's what we do. That's what we've become the authority in. Send us your old textiles and let us sort out a home for them.”