How FabMo Keeps 70 Tons of Designer Materials Out of Landfill Every Year

Bolts of various kinds of fabric in colorful patterns

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, in Sunnyvale, California, volunteer-run FabMo collects designer materials that would otherwise clog landfills and makes those materials available to the public for creative reuse. I recently interviewed Kathy Bonte, the organization’s current Board Chair.

(If you live outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, start your search for a creative reuse center in the US here.)

How did FabMo get started?

A true Silicon Valley startup, FabMo began over 20 years ago when founders Hannah and Jonathan Cranch visited the San Francisco Design Center and saw bags of beautiful samples and remnants being thrown away. Hannah, who was a teacher at the time, asked if she could take some of the bags home to share with her teacher friends. Soon, she was making regular pickups and holding informal giveaways in her living room. FabMo eventually outgrew the Cranch’s living room and then garage and now occupies a 3,000-plus square foot commercial space in Sunnyvale.

Squares of fabric samples on display at FabMo, a creative reuse center
Colorful squares of various designer samples

How big is the textile waste problem?

It’s huge and it’s growing exponentially. The average US citizen throws away 79 pounds of clothing and footwear annually.

  • Between 2000 and 2015, textile production doubled.
  • The average number of times a garment or accessory is worn decreased by 36 percent during that same period.
  • Less than 1 percent of material used to produce clothing or accessories is recycled into new clothing or accessories.
  • Of the total fiber used for clothing, 87 percent went to a landfill or incinerator in 2015.
  • In 2015, all greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production totaled the equivalent of 1.2 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than the carbon dioxide emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

(Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A New Textiles Economy)

How much material does FabMo rescue each year?

We divert about 70 tons of material from the landfill each year. (Not bad for an all-volunteer group!) 

What kind of materials does FabMo divert from landfill?

Fabrics of all types, including some high-end designer samples that would be very expensive were you to buy them by the yard, plus leather, ceramic and glass tile, wood trim, yarn, wallpaper, carpet remnants plus various notions like buttons, zippers, stuffing, interfacing, etc.

Bolts of various kinds of fabric in colorful patterns
Bolts of rescued fabric

What are a few memorable items you’ve given a second life to?

We were recently gifted a beautiful wooden floor loom which was valued at over $3,000 and was sold to a very happy weaver for a fraction of that price. We also once received a lovely antique sewing machine—we’re talking “Smithsonian-level” old here. It was a functioning machine and I suspect we sold it for a lot less than its value as a collectible.

We’ve been given hand-turned bedposts, huge crystal chandeliers, a designer’s entire fabric inventory of thousands of yards when she returned to India, “fake” Roman garden sculptures, an enormous hand painted nylon parachute and 2-inch wide by 9-foot long safety straps from trauma packs used in local EMT vehicles. They were no longer sterile but clean and perfectly dependable. FabMo accepted and re-homed around 20,000 of them!

How can people buy fabric and more? And do they donate what they feel or do items have a set price?

We have in-person shopping events twice a month, usually a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We also have an online store (with curbside pickup only) and an eBay store. Most of our items have a fixed price (which is always quite reasonable!) and we have an entire separate room of items that are FREE for the taking (although donations are always welcome).

Who reuses these materials?

FabMo draws fans from everywhere. We get artists and makers of all types, home sewists, parents with creative kids, theater groups, teachers, students, including fashion design students from local programs. We are also popular with other non-profits who use our well-priced or free materials to make things to support their own programs.

Off-white fabric from creative reuse center FabMo. The folded fabric is sitting on a wooden background.
Four yards of very nice fabric I bought from FabMo at the height of the pandemic, in 2021

How does FabMo build community?

By making FabMo a welcoming and fun place to shop, being out in the community at events and through our popular newsletter. We also go out of our way to help educators and other non-profits. A recent grant (our first!) enabled us to create Classroom Art Kits for K-5 classes, four separate lessons that each feature an art project based on the work of a noted artist and all the materials (from FabMo) and instructions necessary to complete it in the classroom.

What kinds of workshops and meetups do you host?

We are just getting back into workshops after Covid. One of our Board members hosts a regular Sew with FabMo workshop at the Mountain View library and we are looking into having a mending workshop this summer. We would like to expand our workshops in the future.

Multi-colored rag rug made of fabric scraps
Rag rug crocheted with rescued fabric I saw (and loved!) in the FabMo booth at the Love Earth Festival

Besides buying material, how else can people support FabMo’s mission?

FabMo spends over $100,000 a year on rent, plus utilities. I have this persistent and recurring dream of a large Bay Area company who supports out mission and has empty commercial real estate offering us a subsidized long term lease. With the money saved on rent, we could hire key staff to help us further advance our goals and take us to the next level.

What kind of volunteer jobs do you need to fill most?

All of them. We rely on volunteers to sort donations, measure and price yardage, work at our sale events, assist with the digital store and help with marketing and outreach. We would also welcome new applicants to our Board. (Go here for info on volunteering at FabMo.)

Do you know of any cities outside the Bay Area that have tried to copy your model? 

I don’t know if they have copied us but there are creative reuse non-profits in several states: Austin Creative Reuse, Remainders in Pasadena, FabScrap in New York and Philly and several others as well. Some concentrate mostly on fabric (like FabScrap) and others collect and offer a broader range of creative materials.

What does set us apart from most others I’ve looked at is that we are completely volunteer-run and until recently did not have a single paid employee. (We now employ a part-time driver who makes our SF pickups.) However, I think to continue to grow we will eventually need to hire more employees.

Skeins of yarn on display at FabMo, a creative reuse center, in various colors
FabMo rescues yarn too!

Besides creative reuse, what would help stop our society’s textile deluge?

On an individual level, consider the implications of your consumer behavior.

Think twice before buying something new—and when you do, buy fewer items but of a higher quality so they will last. Consider renting, borrowing or buying preowned when possible and fix, mend and alter what you can to prolong the life of what you already own.  If you sew, browse thrift shops and shop your linen closet for yardage that can be turned into other items. Think Maria von Trapp from The Sound of Music and turn those drapes into a set of play clothes! 

Support brands that truly promote sustainability but beware greenwashing. And support legislation that rewards sustainability and punishers polluters.

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2 Replies to “How FabMo Keeps 70 Tons of Designer Materials Out of Landfill Every Year”

  1. I love it!!! According the creative reuse center link at the top of this article, the closest creative reuse center to me is about an hour away. However, we do have 3 Habitat for Humanity (or similar) stores in my area that will sometimes have fabric and several nearby thrift stores routinely have fabric/crayons/etc.
    If you haven’t done a how-to post on that awesome rug you made, I know I’d appreciate it – I’ve often thought about using recycled fabric to make a rug, but haven’t known where to start (best types of fabric, width of fabric strips, size of crochet needles or should I braid it, etc.).

    1. That’s great you can get all those supplies to reuse. I can’t take credit for the rug. I saw that at a booth at an Earth Day event I participated in. But the woman who made it used 2-inch strips and did simple crochet with a giant hook. I wish I had asked her how big the hook was. It looked like 25mm. I would love to make one. If I do, I will definitely write a post about it.

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