A Not-For-Profit Reimagines Recycling and Supply Chains to Profound Effect
With the climate crisis a chief concern of worldly citizens, Fortune 500 corporations, the United Nations, and even the U.S. Department of Defense alike, a “made from recycled water bottles” origin story has practically become ubiquitous. Now more than ever shoppers in particular strive to pat themselves on the back for their “more responsible” consumer choices, and it’s easy to say that supply-chain transparency is “so hot” right now. Greenwashing is rampant. The not-for-profit organization First Mile, though, doesn’t see recycled bottles as a marketing ploy; they see them as a tool for empowering consumers to demand more from brands, just as these brands are trying to meet the demands for exactly these kinds of products. But with that urgency, it’s also necessary to ensure the coveted recycled materials are ethically sourced.
First Mile is set up as a partnership between Thread International, a post-consumer recycling textile supplier founded in 2010 by Ian Rosenberger (who was also a contestant on the reality show Survivor) and Work, a job-focused group that lifts individuals out of poverty in Haiti. Its hybrid consultancy model provides post-consumer recycled supply-chain solutions, using the vetted supply chains of heavy hitters in the fashion space, including Patagonia, Puma, Ralph Lauren, and Timberland. First Mile’s mission is just as much figuring out what to do with water bottles washed ashore as it is with the livelihoods of those who physically collect them out of waterways.
“To be there in that very first mile of supply chains, to better the lives of the individuals who make up the collection communities of those materials in question” is more or less the basic principle of First Mile, says Nick Brown, the company’s new business development lead. The “first mile” refers to the first steps of a recycled material becoming a finished project: from plastic collector to collection center to recycling center. After First Mile pushes it through, the materials then move outside of the organization's hands to external textile processing facilities, where they’re spun, woven, cut, and assembled to get closer to a finished product.
The “collection communities” that Brown references are the human-powered heart of the supply chains that the company helps regulate. First Mile’s three supply chains where it has year-round project teams are in Haiti, Honduras, and Taiwan. They ensure the safety and standards of working conditions for the collectors and prevent child labor. The group is currently assessing the specific needs of others in various continents, including Indigenous communities in the U.S. To date, more than six million pounds of plastic waste have been diverted from oceans and landfills through First Mile supply chains, and roughly $770,000 has been generated by collectors.
With First Mile, the beginning of onboarding any company starts with what Brown describes as “firing a huge amount of questions at the brand.” This leads to determining the “who, what, where” for the quality and quantity of materials a brand will need for their products, and which First Mile supply chain will be the best fit for where the business can do the most good. Ideally, these corporate partnerships will be able to both support these communities and eradicate local waste buildup.
The systems First Mile puts in place assure that their process is not only talking the talk. “Such a huge part of the landscape today is proving that you’re doing the work that you say you are through your own channels,” Brown says. “A lot of brands today start with certification, which is an important and necessary part of the jigsaw, but it only goes so far.” He uses the analogy of a certificate on the wall of a swimming pool versus a lifeguard to explain the value of having a year-round project team working on the ground with these supply chains to understand what the living and working conditions of them really are. Aiming for transparency is essential, but also a point of pride. First Mile wants its brand partners to take pride in helping uplift these communities and aiding them in restoring their environments with dignity and respect through their work. (One would hope trickles into the rest of the brand’s supply-chain needs, though that’s not guaranteed.)
Beyond post-consumer plastics, First Mile has also started to dabble in incorporating recycled cotton, aluminum, rare earth minerals, and agricultural commodities such as strawberries into their supply chains. It’s also getting into the circular-economy space with a line of backpacks called Day Owl, which use a mix of upcycled materials and a proprietary waxed canvas made from recycled plastics. Expanding its offerings of solutions only helps diminish the need for more virgin materials used in producing new products—something that, in the face of the climate crisis, is extremely urgent. “It’s what we’re constantly thinking about,” Brown says. “How can we really put a match under this work and turbocharge it as quickly as is necessary?”