Saving The Planet One Re-Used T-Shirt At A Time

TRASHY TREASURE: Rewilder founders Jennifer Silbert and Stephanie Choi have taken their passion for repurposing common trash into objets d’art and and applied it to used and unsold T-shirts, concert banners, and stage scrims to create fashion like the tote bags shown here. (Courtesy Rewilder)

Stephanie Choi, co-founder of upcycling company Rewilder, grew up in China and remembers playing in piles of discarded fabric when her parents were garment manufacturers.

“I grew up playing in piles of rags that were discarded, and that burned an image in my head of this mountain of stuff that would eventually disappear, and wondering where that would go?”

Choi, a first-generation Chinese American, turned that memory into a career in zero-waste design and advises some of the world’s biggest brands with her background in science, research, marketing and storytelling. Among her company’s clients are Cali Vibes, the roots and reggae festival at Marina Green Park in Long Beach, California, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Along with business partner Jennifer Silbert, a sustainable design entrepreneur who has a self-described “passion for Dumpster diving,” the pair founded Rewilder, a company whose mission is to “make upcycling scalable” by partnering with industrial companies and others to identify, divert and upcycle waste materials “worthy of a second life.”

“My favorite thing to do is to really get more out of what already exists, and that kind of permeates a lot of my daily life,” Silbert says. “I’ve been doing it since middle school and now I’m bringing that back to Rewilder because it’s trendy again. I love that. Stephanie and I often joke about how we have this passion for trash.”

It’s estimated that some 13 million tons of textiles are landfilled every year. And textiles aren’t the only materials to potentially go to waste in the merchandise lifecycle. According to Citizen-T, 1.4 trillion gallons of water go into the annual manufacture of T-shirts alone. Each year, more than 2 billion T-shirts are sold worldwide with a single tee using up to 700 gallons of water to produce.

Citizen-T, based in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is an artist-led, zero-waste initiative working with artists, organizations, music fans and others concerned for the planet.

It produces “slow fashion,” as opposed to the current mass production of “fast fashion,” defined by Citizen-T as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.” Producing clothes quickly and repetitively results in waste, pollution, the expenditure of valuable resources and contributes to the extensive damage to the planet, according to the company’s website.

“We fuse art with advocacy by taking previously loved or unsold clothes from landfills and transforming them into sustainable and wearable pieces of art,” the company’s mission statement reads, in part.

Citizen-T was founded in 2020 by artist and environmental advocate Stephanie Dillion, who says her art is based on three simple truths: “Old is still beautiful, what exists is enough, and art is everywhere.”

What Citizen-T does is create fashion, literally, from landfill waste. Each item of upcycled clothing is designed, processed and produced as a unique item of wearable art, eliminating the need for recycling, manufacturing and other wasteful processes. What Citizen-T creates is anything but your grandpa’s old tie-dye.

Citizen-T acquires high-quality clothing items, like T-shirts, that have been previously worn, used or returned unsold. Some shirts are blanks, some have graphics and may or may not have pockets or tags. They’re washed, sanitized and dyed or bleached, all with designs curated by Dillon – each piece is one of a kind. They come in graffiti designs, stencils, prints and other designs, and are dried, pressed and packaged in compostable bags.

“Our lives are finite, and we need to think about what we create, how we craft our lives,” Dillon says of her underlying philosophy behind Citizen-T. “It’s going to take all of us to save the planet,” she says, noting that 73% of clothing that is purchased winds up in landfills while 95% of it could be repurposed or recycled. “Isn’t that staggering to you? Do you know how much we throw away?”

Citizen-T and Rewilder have a common “passion for trash” – or at least breathing second life into what otherwise would be single-use materials, often found at concerts and festivals around the world.

“What we did with Goldenvoice and the Cali Vibes festival, was we used their banners from last year’s festival. And the thing that is important to note about how we view these materials is that where most people see these as single use and trash, we see this stuff as really valuable material that is long-lasting,” Silbert says. “They’re really high-value new materials that are deserving of high design and a second life.”

Rewilder returned to Cali Vibes’ Feb. 17-19 festival for another successful event and is hard at work preparing for 2024 – and taking orders for products made for next year’s event using design prototypes.

“It was really amazing to be able to do these prototypes from last year’s Cali Vibes,” Choi says. “We were able to take a photo of the current 2023 banners and tell people, ‘Hey, you can actually preorder a piece of this festival today.’ We’re continuing that partnership with Goldenvoice and Cali Vibes and hope to produce pieces for them where it kind of comes full circle.”