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From Scraps to Treasure: Group Turns Textile Waste into Sellable Items to Help the Needy

a photo of members of the socially responsible sweatshop of Kent
Courtesy of Mary Ann Kasper
Members of the Socially Responsible Sweatshop of Kent at the Haymaker Farmer's Market.

A local organization is working to decrease textile waste in an effort that not only helps the environment, but also raises money for those in need.

At the Haymaker Farmer’s Market in Kent, volunteers hand out tokens to people on food assistance. Mary Ann Kasper was one of the volunteers. The tokens allowed people to purchase fresh food, but Kasper felt like it was not enough.

“It just seemed horrible,” Kasper said. “At that time, I was talking to people who worked in social services and they were kind of going over just the breakdown of how much people who were in poverty would get, and it was some very low amount, like under $10 a month for fruits and vegetables… it was low.”

Kasper wanted to do something to help those in need get more fresh food. She had an idea. She went to a thrift store and bought an old Singer sewing machine. She noticed yoga was becoming popular in the area, so she started sewing and selling bags to carry yoga mats. The money she raised went to food insecurity programs. And the Socially Responsible Sweatshop of Kent was born.

mary ann kasper
Jeff St. Clair
Mary Ann Kasper started the Socially Responsible Sweatshop of Kent after seeing how little fresh produce people in need were able to purchase at the Haymaker Farmer's Market in Kent.

“What we do is we get people (to) donate textile waste to us… all kinds of things that normally would go into a dumpster I would say, and then a landfill,” Kasper said. “And we take these things, and we turn them into beautiful, useful items and we sell them.”

Besides the yoga mat bags, the operation has grown, adding meditation pillows. Called a zafu, each one uses 10 to 13 pounds of textile waste.

“We stuff all this textile waste into a liner, and then we put the most beautiful covers over them,” Kasper said. “We put the mediation pillows in the (T-shirt) bags when people purchase them so they have a way to carry them, and they can reuse the bag for other purposes.”

Recently, the group started using burlap sacks from Bent Tree Coffee. It’s turning them into growler carrier bags for microbreweries in the area.

The group gets the bulk of its textile donations from the Kent State University School of Fashion. The university’s Sustainability Manager Melanie Knowles says it’s a great partnership.

“The university has worked with them in that we have a program through the fashion school to divert fabric scraps away from the landfill,” Knowles said.

The average person throws away about 70 pounds of clothing and other textile waste each year. The U.S. EPA estimates textile waste make up five percent of all landfill waste.

Knowles says the group’s efforts to produce work sustainably, while also working towards funding food insecurity programs and raising awareness of social justice issues, make the organization unique.

“They have an impact locally, clearly, but I think another value of organizations like that is that it’s inspiring to others to see where there are opportunities to improve sustainability,” Knowles said.

Since it started in 2013, the Socially Responsible Sweatshop of Kent has donated around $18,000 to the Kent Haymaker Farmers Market for the produce match program. Instead of $10 a month, those on food assistance are now able to get $20 a week for fresh produce from the market.

The success of that work has led the Sweatshop to focus its efforts on other organizations in the community that need help. It’s already donated another $15,000 to Kent Social Services, which offers daily hot meals to those in need.

People can purchase items from their website sociallyresponsiblesweatshopohio.org.