Jessica Schreiber is fascinated by trash. And in New York City, where she runs a fashion recycling startup, there is plenty of it. 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.
AUDIO: (clapping at the end of a fashion show)
COLLEEN: Welcome to The Story Exchange. I'm Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: And I'm Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: New York City is the undisputed fashion capital of the U.S. -- you're listening to the end of a typical fashion show. There's beautiful models strutting by, people clapping...
SUE: And this is slightly less glamorous -- but New York City is also the trash capital of the U.S. Residents alone produce 12,000 tons of waste a day.
COLLEEN: 12,000 tons!
SUE: I know -- it's unbelievable.
COLLEEN: So today --
SUE: Today --
COLLEEN: We're talking to an entrepreneur who is actually working at the intersection of fashion and trash.
JESSICA SCHREIBER: Our goal is to re-use as much as possible.
COLLEEN: That's Jessica Schreiber.
SUE: A former sanitation department employee who saw the need to recycle waste from the fashion industry.
JESSICA: Fabscrap started in the very end of 2016. 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.
COLLEEN: We're talking about commercial textiles here -- all the leftover swatches and cutting room scraps that say, Marc Jacobs or Oscar De La Renta or Derek Lam might be throwing away.
SUE: Yards of cotton, strips of wool, pieces of luxurious silk, linen, leather...
COLLEEN: None of that is eligible for New York City's recycling program.
SUE: Right -- that's just for residents, not for businesses or fashion brands.
COLLEEN: And that's what really bothered Jessica.
JESSICA: Textile waste is growing so massively that we really should be thinking about it, the way we think about paper or plastic or metal.
COLLEEN: Jessica's vision was Fabscrap.
JESSICA: So we pick up bags of fabric, boxes of fabric, rolls of fabric. And it all comes to our warehouse in Brooklyn, where it gets weighed in.
COLLEEN: We stopped by the warehouse -- or should I say, our shooter Sam Shinn did.
SUE: At the height of the pandemic, actually.
JESSICA SOT: Cool. Just a heads up for everybody. The Story Exchange is here at the warehouse filming and they may be heading to the shop this afternoon...
COLLEEN: Inside this giant warehouse, wearing masks, are volunteers.
JESSICA SOT: And that might be people interested in waste, people interested in fashion, home sewers.
EMPLOYEE SOT: If you have any questions, my name is Nick. Thank you all for being here.
COLLEEN: And so this is the fun part --
SUE: Yes. Volunteers -- artists, FIT students...
COLLEEN: ...that's the Fashion Institute of Technology, here in New York.
SUE: ...craft people -- sift through all this fashion waste. And there are PILES of it, like 12 feet high piles of huge garbage bags that have to be sorted through.
EMPLOYEE SOT: If you come across any leather, lace, sequins, or fur, for the leather and the fur, it can be either real or fake, we just ask that the pieces be larger than one inch.
COLLEEN: There's no mechanized systems, so you need to have actual humans...
EMPLOYEE SOT: ...do a stretch test. A lot of denim has spandex in it, so that would go into spandex.
SUE: The sorted stuff either goes to Fabscrap's shop, where it's sold to consumers --
COLLEEN: -- or less ideally, it goes to a shredder.
JESSICA: So small pieces get shredded and become insulation, but our goal is really to reuse as much as possible.
COLLEEN: But back to the small army that's doing the sorting and categorizing, and removing hardware like zippers and buttons.
EMPLOYEE SOT: Just get into the flow. It's not too challenging, but every different box has a different adventure. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it.
JESSICA: And so volunteers get to take home fabric for free. We aim to give away as much fabric as we sell.
JESSICA SOT: Thanks for coming to volunteer today.
JESSICA SOT: How's it going?
VOLUNTEER: It's going good.
JESSICA: We've had girl scouts come through. We've had people do their birthday parties at Fabscrap.
EMPLOYEE SOT: We'll go until about noon and then you can do your shopping. Like I said, you have five pounds, but I'll go over everything when we do that.
JESSICA: So as of the beginning of this year, we had moved half a million pounds of fabric and trims and leathers.
EMPLOYEE SOT: Great. Let me put on some music and let everybody try to get to their zone.
JESSICA: Most of the fabric that we get, we find a way to reuse or redistribute. And so that was really encouraging.
COLLEEN: When we come back, we'll tell you how Jessica got Fabscrap off the ground...
SUE: ...with a little help from a reality TV show...
FASHION STARTUP: Tonight on Fashion Startup...
COLLEEN: Stick around.
COLLEEN: We've been sharing the story of Jessica Schreiber, a self-described trash nerd who started the fashion recycling startup Fabscrap.
SUE: Not many former New York City Sanitation Department employees have won attention from the fashion industry -- but she's one of them.
JESSICA: Coming from waste management, I was very intimidated by fashion. At sanitation, it's not that we had a really formal dress code, but at sanitation, fashion is not top of the agenda.
COLLEEN: Jessica studied climate science and communication at Columbia University.
JESSICA: I ended up at sanitation actually because of Columbia.
SUE: One of her professors worked in Sanitation and ran recycling programs there.
COLLEEN: Jessica was hired right as the city's refashionNYC program was launching, in 2011.
SUE: Here's local news channel NY1.
NY1: The agency brings collection bins to buildings with 10 or more apartments. You put the items you wish to donate in the bins and once it is full, Sanitation picks them up and the items are donated to Housing Works.
JESSICA: So I got to see how a city wide program of clothing collection was formed, was organized. It was honestly really formational for me, I think, to be part of seeing something at that scale get rolled out.
COLLEEN: Jessica, we should note, is absolutely fascinated by trash.
SUE: She told us she loved doing...
JESSICA: ...waste characterization studies; literally ripping open bags of New York city garbage and sorting it into 180 different categories.
COLLEEN: (laughter) I don't think you could pay me to do that!
SUE: Me either!
COLLEEN: Jessica found it fascinating that trash looks different based on the neighborhood it comes from -- and she loved finding things like birthday cake, and paper plates, and knowing there had been a party.
SUE: So while she's working at the Sanitation Department...
JESSICA: That was when I started to find some more niche waste issues that really made me passionate.
COLLEEN: For instance, it really struck her that the agency doesn't handle commercial waste.
JESSICA: 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.
SUE: While refashionNYC was hugely successful with residents...
JESSICA: Near the end of the fifth year, brands started to reach out and ask if their excess material was eligible.
SUE: But it wasn't.
JESSICA: And so 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.”
COLLEEN: The idea for Fabscrap began to percolate.
SUE: She talked to just a few people about it.
JESSICA: One of them knew a producer on a television show and pitched this idea.
FASHION STARTUP: Tonight on Fashion Startup, entrepreneurs get a once in a lifetime chance to have their businesses funded by a major fashion and beauty investor.
SUE: One of the judges was fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff.
REBECCA MINKOFF 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.
JESSICA: It was like being on Shark Tank and it was super intense.
COLLEEN: The judges were impressed.
SUE: She raised $65,000...
JESSICA: ...from three different investors. And they all actually encouraged me to move towards the nonprofit space. Which was interesting because as a nonprofit, there's no equity to give. So their investment really became seed donations for us to get started.
COLLEEN: Two weeks after that, Jessica quit the Sanitation Department.
JESSICA: So yeah, I don't know if that's how I had ever thought I would start a business, but it was a really millennial way to get started.
COLLEEN: And she quickly won her first fashion-industry clients.
JESSICA: 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.
SUE: Jessica was on her way.
COLLEEN: So, we need to talk briefly about the pandemic.
SUE: Because it impacts...everything, especially a startup business in New York City.
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!
COLLEEN: Fabscrap was forced to close its Manhattan storefront but turned its attention to its ecommerce business --
SUE: -- which actually was good timing, as the pandemic produced a resurgence in sewing.
JESSICA: It was sort of like all hands on deck to understand what needed to get done and how.
COLLEEN: And just when things got really tight...
JESSICA: We got a generous grant from Vogue, which was really helpful. So where we could, we were applying for everything possible just because we didn't know how long we would be down and what that would mean.
SUE SOT: Did you have to lay anybody off?
JESSICA SOT: We reduced hours, but we did not lay anyone off.
SUE SOT: Well, that's amazing
COLLEEN: We recently reached out to Jessica and her co-founder, Camille Tagle for an update -- and it's all good news.
SUE: The company is expanding into Philadelphia, thanks to a partnership with Urban Outfitters...
COLLEEN: ...which is based in Philly...
SUE: ...and Nordstrom's, which has committed $1 million dollars to support innovation in textile recycling throughout the fashion industry.
COLLEEN: And Fabscrap's New York City store is open again, but now instead of Manhattan -- where it was originally based --- it's inside the company's warehouse, at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.
CUSTOMER SOT: Yes, well, I like very much this one, but I don't know what to do.
EMPLOYEE SOT: Don't know how much of it, yes.
CUSTOMER SOT: Yes, exactly. I have made all my masks. I have a lot now. I mean, I can still make more.
COLLEEN: People are STILL sewing.
CUSTOMER SOT: You know? I think it will do.
EMPLOYEE SOT: It's pretty, though, yes.
CUSTOMER SOT: Yes, I love plaid pattern.
SUE: And of course, there will always be trash to sort.
JESSICA: I want to understand what it's like to open in a different city and how that might change the way that transportation happens or where we shred or what fabrics people buy, because it's a different climate. And so I think we'll learn a lot by that first expansion.
COLLEEN: Fabscrap has now worked with almost 600 fashion brands to save 850,000 pounds of fabric from going into landfills.
SUE: Not bad for a nonprofit that relies so much on volunteers!
COLLEEN: Speaking of, it has now worked with over 7,000 volunteers.
SUE: Amazing. Proof, as always, that one person can make such a difference.
COLLEEN: We thank Jessica for sharing our story with us.
SUE: And we thank you for listening.
OUTRO: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review wherever you listen. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for entrepreneurial women. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. I'm Colleen DeBaise. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Audio recorded by Sam Shinn. Production coordinator is Noël Flego. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang. Recorded at Cutting Room Studios in New York City.