Meet Helpsy, The Textile Collection Company That’s Changing the Way We Shop
From overfilled dumpsters in the back of fast fashion stores to overstuffed bags inspired by the Marie Kondo method, excess clothing is, for many of us, a reality. Having grown up reading magazines or blogs, Instagram posts or the Style section, many of us have been taught to believe that we need more—clothes, shoes, accessories. With the advent of fast fashion to feed our consumer appetites, excess clothing can now be worn just a handful of times before being thrown in the trash or, at best, being donated.
But what happens to clothes that are discarded, even with the best intentions? Thanks to the efforts of Helpsy co-founder Rachel Kibbe, unwanted clothes are now being upcycled, donated to those who actually need them and recycled in an environmentally friendly way. Armed with a passion for saving the environment and incredible vision, Rachel tells us about Helpsy’s mission, and why #clothesarenttrash.
Tell us about Helpsy, and what inspired you to launch it.
Helpsy is the largest textile collection company in the Northeast. We’re fairly new—we’ve been in operation for a little over a year—and up until late January/early February, we were operating without a name or any marketing initiatives. My former company, an online boutique that sold handmade, vintage and upcycled items, was called Helpsy, so when it merged with another company, we used that same name. We called it Helpsy because we wanted to speak to buying less, upcycling and recycling clothes.
In a little over a year, we’ve become the largest clothing collector in the Northeast—we collected 20 million pounds in a year! Currently, we have 2,000 collection containers, with 700 in NYC, and the rest in Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Combined with our three warehouses, we have a pretty big footprint.
I launched Helpsy in the model it is today because after running my online boutique—which was, for me, a sustainable fashion activism project— I came to the conclusion that it didn’t work. People are not willing to spend more money on sustainable fashion unless it’s in the luxury realm (think Stella McCartney). People aren’t willing to pay the 20-30 percent more that it costs to manufacture sustainable clothing in the United States—they just aren’t putting their money where their mouth is.
I actually don’t think we need more clothes anyway; I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to sell people more “stuff.” The same month I came to this realization—literally, the same month!—I got a call from this company who discovered mine and wanted to merge. They were a textile recycling company—it was insane. A perfect fit. So, I’m now off in a new direction but it’s the direction I’ve always been headed.
How big is our textile waste problem, and how does Helpsy help address it?
On average, 80 pounds of clothing per person is thrown out annually. That adds up to 26 billion pounds of textiles and clothing in landfills, every year—in the United States alone! In New York City, approximately 6 percent of all waste is textile waste; that number hovers around 10 percent globally. We’re only capturing about 15 percent of the clothes that people our throwing away, which means our greatest competition is the landfills. That’s revolting.
This is a massive waste management problem, and Helpsy is trying to attack it in a sophisticated way. We’re working with some fashion companies to address it, with municipalities, working with the idea of chemical recycling. We’ve just launched at-home pickup in Westchester, and soon we’ll launch it in NYC. We want to make it as easy as possible to not throw out your used clothing. In addition, we also work with local charities to ensure those who need clothes get them—we’ve donated 13,000 coats to New York Cares to keep people warm during the winter months. We’re growing rapidly, which is so exciting, and even though it’s a tough business, I believe in it.
What do you want us to know about the fashion (in particular, fast fashion) industry and its effect on the planet?
We’re all conditioned to want immediate satisfaction from consumerism. Fast fashion has preyed on that and it supplies our addiction. I would like to encourage people to not buy more than they need; when they do purchase something, I encourage them to use it as much as they can. When they can no longer use it, I encourage them to recycle it. A lot of fast fashion companies are trying to change their supply chains, but it takes time. Chemical recycling is the future and it will be a huge help in dealing with textile waste management, but the onus is on us to change how we consume fashion.
Personally, I don’t buy fast fashion anymore. I only buy used clothing and clothing that will last longer now. It’s a tall ask, asking people to change their consumption and addiction to fast fashion, but the fashion industry at large is killing the planet.
We can make other choices: Buy used clothing a lot more. Used is the future of consumerism. The truth is, even with chemical recycling, we need to be mindful, because that’s the last step. Not every single piece of clothing should be recycled this way because it would be an incredible waste of energy. The best way is to re-use.
How should we start reading labels when we shop? (i.e., Should we avoid polyester or non-organic cotton when possible, etc.?)
The good news is, if you’re buying used, you don’t have to stress about your labels. If it’s new, it depends on your preferences. Organic cotton is great, but it’s incredibly water intensive. Polyester is made from oil and has microfibers that are destroying oceans. There is really no great way to buy new—it requires intense virgin resources.
We’re very disconnected from the process of actually making clothes, but being mindful and buying second-hand will help. I actually don’t think looking at tags is a scalable solution; it goes deeper than that. If you really want to understand why quality costs more money, and what goes into making a single item of clothing, I’d encourage everyone to take a sewing class. You’ll be much more aware of good design and quality that will last.
For those of our readers who don’t know, Helpsy is now a B Corp. What does that mean, exactly?
B Corp is a certification that is the answer to companies who are for-profit but are in the realm of social good. There’s a point system, and you have to be legally measured yearly in environmental and social justice categories in order to qualify. You work with someone every year to get re-certified. It’s not easy, but it keeps us in check and keeps our eyes on the prize: to use our business for social good.
Your tagline is #clothesarenttrash. For years, Americans have been shipping our cast-offs to the African continent without much thought. What do you want readers to know about this practice?
Again, this comes down to the waste management issue. There aren’t enough people to wear all of these clothes, because we consume too much. There are too many clothes for the amount of people on earth. The issue with us donating clothes to other continents is nuanced; whether we should handle our own trash is a moral question. If people abroad didn’t buy second-hand, fast fashion would sweep in to fill the void, and that wouldn’t be an environmentally friendly solution. Countries in Africa spend a lot of money importing second-hand clothes; they want them. It’s actually a better option than fast fashion.
What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to being a conscious consumer?
My struggle is that I know too much, and that can be paralyzing. I used to struggle with thinking of being a zero-waster or a minimalist, but I’ve found that perfection is the enemy of good. I don’t want to spend my life worrying about not creating any waste, because then if I do, I can become paralyzed into complete stasis. So now, I try to be conscious and have a bird’s eye view of the solutions. That helps propel me forward.
Lastly, where can we find a Helpsy container near us?
Contact us to find the nearest container near you, or to find out when our free home pick-up launches in your area. We can’t wait to partner with you!
Interested in more mindful fashion? Discover the capsule wardrobe that’s grown into a woman-owned clothing company.