New socks made from strangers’ old socks are now officially a thing. Outdoor gear label Smartwool released the Second Cut hiking sock this month made from reused wool collected in a sock take-back program.
While circular business models definitely took a hit in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the apparel maker is aiming to offer a product that “goes beyond recycling,” said John Ramsey, the brand's director of product development. Of course, truly closing the loop will ultimately depend on consumer demand and participation.
Smartwool’s Second Cut program accepts used socks of all types and brands. Consumers who are interested in donating can request a return bag with paid postage when they order online, or they can drop their old socks off at a participating retailer.
To date, the company claims to have prevented over 725,000 pairs of old socks from ending up landfills. That’s over 54,000 pounds worth of textiles — a substantial amount of resources that would have otherwise gone to waste. Smartwool’s Second Cut hiking sock is made from the brand’s repurposed wool fibers, while off-brand sock donations were used for the Second Cut K9 Camp Cushion.
Since the Second Cut hiking sock is made exclusively from the brand’s own recycled material, combined with a percentage of new Merino wool, it provides an excellent example of how retailers can begin to take responsibility for a larger share of their products’ environmental impact. While the program does not yet reach the level of full extended producer responsibility — where the maker is on the line for what becomes of the product when it reaches the end of its use — systems like these are a step in the right direction.
"We were able to accomplish this through new and innovative technology, team collaboration, and consumer participation,” Ramsey said in a statement. “Investing in this process has enabled Smartwool to take leaps forward toward our goal of shifting toward a more circular business model."
Smartwool is working with Material Return, a manufacturer based in North Carolina that's focused on circular textiles, to make the business model work. Material Return has partnerships with a variety of other producers, including other sock manufacturers like the Wilson Brown Sock Co. and custom cycling sock maker DeFeet. Additional clients include Basset, the Sustainable Furniture Council and many more.
In order for programs like Smartwool’s Second Cut to be successful, it will be up to consumers to choose to participate — both at the donation point and the point of sale system.
So far, the level of donations is impressive. Of course, while the three-quarters of a million pairs of socks that have been collected since Second Cut’s inception in 2021 sounds like a lot, it is ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to the total amount of textiles that end up in landfills. After all, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 17 million tons of the stuff ended up as solid waste in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. And there’s no reason to think that amount has gone down in recent years, especially considering the growth of Shein hauls and fast fashion. Scaling up is, after all, the name of the game.
And it’s not just about donating used socks either: Closing the loop will depend on how enthusiastic consumers are about wearing socks that were once on someone else's feet. Will they be into it, or is it a step too far?
Image credit: Smartwool via PRNewsire
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.
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