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Outback's innovative clothing recycling program

Arguably the single funniest classic television clip is a scene from the “Carol Burnett Show” parody of “Gone with the Wind.” Burnett, in character as Scarlett, descends a staircase clad in designer Bob Mackie’s interpretation of a gown refashioned from the hall curtains. Burnett responds to Rhett Butler’s compliment with the iconic: “I saw this in the window and simply had to have it.”

While the television version may be tongue-in-cheek, in the novel the construction of a dress from the only viable fabric available in Civil War-torn Atlanta speaks both to the historical value of woven cloth as well as one of our country’s biggest recycling problems.

Until the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the ready-to-wear fashion industry, clothes were handmade, cut from lengths of cotton, linen, canvas, silk or wool. With cloth so precious, every last scrap became utilized, whether in the construction of patchwork quilts or some other practical household item. Faded dresses were turned inside out to extend their lives. Only when the fabric was fully exhausted was it tossed out to biodegrade amidst other garbage.

The concepts of repair and reuse were still very much a part of American social practice when a Methodist minister Edgar Helms founded Goodwill Industries in 1902.

“Helms collected used household goods and clothing in wealthier areas of the city, then trained and hired those who were poor to mend and repair the used goods and the Goodwill philosophy of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’ was born.”

If Goodwill’s initial intent was to assist people in financial need, secondhand stores became a handy place for increasingly over-consuming Americans to dispose of closet clutter.

Despite a preponderance of vintage clothing stores, as well as resale websites, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, “the average U.S. citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. The U.S. EPA estimates that textile waste occupies nearly 5% of all landfill space.”

To make things worse, because many fabrics are now made from synthetic fibers, they do not readily break down into organic components, but just sit intact in landfill piles.

The Nov. 9 installment of Act Locally featured an Ashland business, Yala, purveying clothing constructed from eco-friendly bamboo.

Another innovative Ashland merchant, Outback in the Temple of Venus, 275 E. Main St., is approaching the textile waste issue from a different angle by “taking responsibility that the clothing we sell doesn’t go into landfill or dead space in your closet.”

Devi Jacobs’ store offers whimsical, designer clothing at discounted prices. She has instituted a buy-back program for some of its higher-end items. Customers who return pieces (cleaned, in season, and in good condition) will receive store credit — $8 to $20 for separates and up to $40 for coats — to be applied toward new purchases. A rack of previously worn clothes will be on display, so other shoppers can have an opportunity to take home designer pieces at reduced prices. (Devi requests that people do not bring in returns during busy times, like weekends, holidays or special sales.)

While Devi’s idea may not solve every recycling problem, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Perhaps other Ashland businesses might consider instituting similar buy-back programs for some of their products as well, so that, bit by bit, we can move toward a zero-waste society.