In this video, Jessica Schreiber shares her startup story and talks about the challenges of running her business, Fabscrap in New York City, during the pandemic. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Jessica Schreiber is fascinated by trash. And in New York City, where she runs a fashion recycling startup, there is plenty of it: residents alone produce some 12,000 tons of it a day. Back when she spent 5 years working at the city’s Department of Sanitation, she would rip open bags of household trash to examine the contents, something called “waste characterization” studies. 

“From a sociology perspective, I’d find it interesting how trash was different in different neighborhoods,” she says. Sometimes, she’d find remains of cake and paper plates and knew there had been a party. “You can see so much from waste.”

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In 2016, Schreiber left the agency to launch Fabscrap, a nonprofit that heads directly to the city’s world-famous fashion industry to pick up and resell textile cast-offs — yards of cotton, strips of wool, pieces of luxurious silk, linen and leather. As commercial waste, the scraps aren’t eligible for the city’s residential recycling programs, and, more often than not, end up in landfills. “That to me was unacceptable,” she said. Such “trash” could be valuable to newbie designers, fashion students and crafters of all sorts, she reasoned. 

By summer 2019, Schreiber’s scrappy idea had blossomed into a full-fledged operation, signing up over 350 designers — big names like Marc Jacobs, Eileen Fisher and Oscar de la Renta — plus furniture makers and costume studios. Fabscrap charges a waste-pickup fee, providing big reusable bags that designers can fill with up to 50 pounds of textile waste. Then, a small army of volunteers sorts all the material (there is no mechanized system) so it can be resold or — less ideally — shredded to make insulation. In June 2019, she and co-founder Camille Tagle opened a brick-and-mortar thrift store on W. 26th Street, near the city’s garment district and design schools, for customers to purchase low-cost discarded fabrics in-person. 

In a glamorous twist that Schreiber — a self-described “trash nerd” — couldn’t have imagined while working in sanitation, a reporter from fashion bible Vogue penned a first-person essay in August 2019 about serving as a Fabscrap volunteer at the company’s Brooklyn warehouse. Rooting through the piles of textile waste in the company of other sustainable-minded fashionistas, “I felt a burning desire to sift through more forgotten materials,” the reporter wrote.

With interest surging, and an annual budget hovering at about $500,000, Schreiber opened an additional warehouse in Brooklyn and made plans to expand to Los Angeles. 

The Road Back 

And then, as everyone knows, the pandemic hit — and for Schreiber, like pretty much every business owner, it has been a heartbreaking setback. “Running full force into a brick wall is what that felt like from this end,” Schreiber says. “Because we were so prepped and ready for growth and expansion. And instead we ended up closing for several months.”

During that time, Fabscrap turned its attention to its nascent e-commerce business. “It’s always something that’s growing faster than we can keep up with,” she says. “That really kept us afloat.” The company’s employees — it’s a 10-person staff — worked half-days from home, shipping fabric scraps to loyal customers and new pandemic-inspired hobbyists. 

“Sewing is seeing a resurgence,” Schreiber says. But months went by. A poignant day was June 1, the same day Fabscrap had opened its 26th Street shop a year prior in a festive ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We were closed on our 1-year anniversary,” she says. 

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And then, right as funds were stretched, the company won a $25,000 grant from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. “We had just been closed for 4 months, so the timing of that and the amount was really great,” says Schreiber.

The fund, originally created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, aims to get money into the hands of those who work behind the scenes in fashion. Since Covid hit, it has distributed more than $5 million to designers, manufacturers and fashion companies across the U.S. “It is more vital than ever that the American fashion community come together to support one another with meaningful actions,” Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour said in a June statement

By July, Fabscrap’s store was open again, this time by appointment-only rather than drop-in — and currently remains open, as are the company’s warehouses. While only two people at a time can shop per hour, “I would say the majority of our appointments are full,” Schreiber says. Who’s shopping? “Students, artists, crafters, new designers, a lot of customer designers, set productions, puppet makers, jewelry, people who do mending,” Schreiber ticks off in a list. “I am always amazed at the different work people are doing.”

While a dark winter stretches ahead, Schreiber remains hopeful. Like death and taxes, there will always be trash to sort. She still plans an expansion to LA and might possibly develop a franchise model so Fabscrab can operate in international markets. “I still think all of those things are possible,” she says. “Timeline is unknown, but I am still planning on all of those things.”

[Related: Cleaning Up Our E-Waste Mess]

Read Full Transcript

TEXT: In March 2020, Covid was ripping through New York City.

TEXT: The city went into lockdown.

Jessica: That was kind of like running full force into a brick wall. Is what that felt like. All of a sudden, overnight I had to learn about unemployment. I had to learn about small business loans and healthcare. And it was like, I just want to pick up trash.

TITLE: Jessica Schreiber – Founder + CEO – Fabscrap – New York City

Jessica: How I think about waste is different than most people who think of the trash bag or two they bring down to the curb every week. I'm thinking of hundreds of thousands of tons. For every pound we throw away as an individual, business created 40 pounds of waste. And we're not tracking it and we don't know what's in it or where it's going, and that to me was unacceptable.

Jessica: At Fabscrap we work with the fashion, interior and entertainment industries in the city to collect excess and unwanted materials and resell or redistribute or recycle them, so that they don't go to landfill. Our goal is really to reuse as much as possible.

Jessica: I grew up in New Mexico. It was my mom, my dad and my younger sister. We did a lot of backpacking and hiking and camping growing up. The whole not littering thing when you’re in national parks really weighed in on how I view the environment and my concern about climate change.

TEXT: In 2010, after graduating from Arizona State University, Jessica moved to New York.

TEXT: She began an MA in Climate and Society at Columbia University.

Jessica: I interned at the department of sanitation and then was hired there on the refashionNYC program that was just launching.

TEXT: The refashionNYC program puts clothing donation bins in New York City apartment buildings.

Jessica: 6% of New York City's waste is clothing, shoes and handbags. And the thought is that if it's more convenient to donate or recycle those things that maybe we can reduce the percentage of them in the waste stream.

TEXT: The program was hugely successful.

Jessica: Fashion brands started to ask if their excess materials were eligible for the refashion program. I was very intimidated by fashion. At sanitation, fashion is not top of the agenda.

Jessica: I was really excited thinking about these fashion brands in New York, partnered with the city to really reduce waste.

TEXT: But Jessica learned that the sanitation department only handles residential — not business — waste.

Jessica: When about 30 brands had reached out asking, “What can I do with all this excess material?” It was really heartbreaking to have to say, “I don't know where to send you.”

TEXT: Jessica set up a group for brands to share data on their waste fabric.

Jessica: That working group and that information basically led to Fabscrap.

TEXT: In 2016 Jessica set up Fabscrap as a not-for-profit.

TEXT: Jessica was invited to pitch investors on Project Runway Fashion Startup.

Woman Investor SOT: So how exactly does Fabscrap work?

Jessica SOT: Businesses that sign up receive Fabscrap bags. They fill the bags with textiles, then you just call or email me for pickup and that’s it. A one-time pick up would be $450 for up to 10 bags.

TEXT: Jessica raised $65,000 from the show’s investors.

TEXT: Within days, she quit her job at sanitation.

Jessica: From that working group, Mara Hoffman signed on, Eileen Fisher signed on really early, Marc Jacobs was one of the first brands to sign on. And each brand was really validating and gave us a lot of credit for other brands.

Jessica: I started doing pickups. It started with me just getting the bag and getting a cab and taking it home. It grew really fast. By the end of 2017, we had over a hundred brands signed on.

TEXT: Volunteers sort the fabrics and can take home five pounds for free.

Jessica: We aim to give away as much fabric as we sell. So we give away fabric to organizations, teachers, other nonprofits.

TEXT: In 2019 the Fabscrap store opened online and in Manhattan.

TEXT: Store revenues soon exceeded the collection fees from the brands.

Jessica: We actually only shred about 40-45%. Everything with no spandex, no leather gets shredded and becomes insulation, soundproofing, mattress stuffing, carpet padding.

TEXT: By the beginning of 2020 the company had collected over half a million pounds of fabric.

TEXT: The company had 6 employees and was set to hire more.

TEXT: Then came Covid.

Jessica: I don't think I will ever forget how that felt. I was very aware of, first, the team. For me the first step was, “I think we need to stagger schedules.” Then it quickly became apparent that New York was just closing. So we moved everyone to completely work from home, basically within a week.

TEXT: Jessica applied for government loans and received a $25,000 grant from Vogue.

Jessica: At first we were like, “Okay, well, we'll do a month at home.” And then actually the real question was, would we go back to in-person this year?

TEXT: Fabscrap re-opened in July.

Jessica: I think I'm cautiously optimistic.

TEXT: The company is operating at about 50% volume.

Jessica: I have started running a lot more, lots and lots of self-help reading and lots of quiet time. Everything looks so different now. So yeah. I would like to think that I'm holding it all together, but that's a day-by-day assessment.