Q&A with Kristy Caylor, CEO of Trashie and For Days

Kristy Caylor is the CEO of Trashie, an innovative textile recycling company, and For Days, a zero-waste fashion brand. Trashie’s “Take Back Bag” allows customers to exchange their used clothing for rewards at a range of retailers. Their collection facility then methodically sorts used items, sells high-quality items to effective retailers, and sends other items to downcyclers and fiber to fiber recyclers. Before spearheading Trashie and For Days, Kristy worked with the Gap’s Product Red division and founded the luxury brand Maiyet.

It’s clear that throughout your career you’ve been interested in using fashion for positive social impact, whether with Product Red or your own brand Maiyet. Why make the leap to textile recycling and why is this one of the most pertinent social issues in fashion today?

I have an industrial engineering background, so I very much think in systems. When you zoom out and look at the fashion landscape as a whole, it is a very entrenched linear economy. But it’s senseless that we put so much money and energy into resources, transportation, packaging, warehousing, distribution, etc., when 85% of all of that effort ends up in landfills. From a long-term sustainability and business model perspective, I didn’t see a way that we would improve the overarching footprint and sustainability of the industry if we couldn’t figure out circularity.

A few years ago, I was doing work with the World Economic Forum, and I sat on a “Global Future Council on Consumerism” panel. We identified a shift in consumer behavior on two levels: one, sustainability meant something to people, even if they weren’t willing to pay more for it. But two, people did not like the idea of owning things forever. I saw an opportunity in these two observations: if you can help people alleviate what we call the “burden of stuff,” you can actually create a really powerful collection mechanism and set up a circular system.

Trashie’ unique business model is the take back bag: consumers pay $20 to send their used clothes, but receive $20 in credit to either For Days or other retailers. What makes Trashie a better alternative to donating clothes in a used clothing bin in a parking lot or garage?

First, the Take Back Bag is very convenient: you don’t have to seek out a donation center or go to a Buffalo Exchange and wait for them to reject your clothes. Instead, you return the Take Back Bag like an online return. We take everything, any brand, any condition: you throw it in the bag, scan a label, and ship it back to us.

Second, we have full transparency about where the clothes go. We share the process over video. We track and trace all of the graded items to their recycling destinations. Whereas most corner bins are just dumped into a bail and shipped offshore, which is essentially just offshoring trash.

The icing on the cake is the “Trashie Cash” that you can spend at a wide variety of retailers—we have rewards with all kinds of brands, like DoorDash, Uber, Walmart and Columbia.

You’re currently working with partners to integrate new recycling technologies, such as automated sorting, and fiber to fiber feedstock. Could you speak to some of the opportunities and challenges that these technologies present?

We’ll pretty much test any new technology at our facility: fiber to fiber scanning technology, automated sorting processes, etc. And we’ll feed our textiles into any type of post-consumer waste stream: reuse, resale, downcycling, or fiber to fiber.

But some of these technologies are quite new and need to be scaled. Fiber to fiber recycling, for example, is very sensitive: you need to provide 98% cotton to a cotton recycler or 100% polyester to a polyester recycler. Many prominent fiber to fiber companies are not even accepting post-consumer waste, because their technology requires a specific level of precision in the fiber.

The way Trashie sorts and grades used clothing right now is highly manual, but it’s also highly specific and fully traceable with data. We have 250 different grades, and we know where all of our pieces go. Whereas other companies might have eight grades, and no tracking.

Our philosophy is that recycling needs to work today, and we can’t wait for innovation to catch up. We need to solve this waste problem now. If we wait 10 years for more technological innovation, so much is going to end up in the landfill in the meantime.

We’ve built a system that works today. We’re not dependent on innovation, but innovation could help optimize.

Given how fast technologies are being developed, where do you see textile recycling in 10 years time? And what scale of an environmental impact can it have?

With our help, I hope we’re at least collecting, sorting, and grading used clothing responsibly. Again, if we’re just offshoring trash, we’re just displacing our problem.

I always go back to the fact that 70% of the world’s population wear used clothes. So our main goal is to responsibly redistribute textiles. Even innovation in downcycling – turning textiles into car insulation, carpet padding, bed filling, etc – is a great opportunity.

What should we think about advances in textile recycling when consumption keeps increasing? 

Yes, recycling capacity is behind the pace of growth. Unit consumption has gone up by 400% over the last 20 years. And Shein was the highest growth retailer of Q4 2023. So the reality is that this isn’t slowing down, it’s speeding up.

But without us, this would still be the case. That train has left the station, and it is at full speed. We’re just trying to mitigate the effect.

Where there’s a profit mechanism, and where there’s consumer demand, we’re not going to be able to change the upstream supply chain. But while brands, manufacturers, and consumers work on the labor and waste problems in the upstream supply chain, we’ll work on creating a low footprint, efficient collection system.

Are consumers becoming more aware of the importance of textile recycling?

Yes, but awareness is not the same as action. If you ask younger people what they’re concerned about, they say the planet. But they’re shopping at Shein. As long as there’s a $4 bikini, there’s going to be a young girl to buy it. That’s going to be hard to change unless we change taxes, duties, regulations, etc., to make these goods more expensive.

In the meantime, there are great, less expensive options for people to activate their good intentions. And that’s where our product comes in: you do the right thing and actually earn cash back in your pocket.