Turning Fashion Into Recycling with Kathleen Kirkwood

November 5, 2020

Fashion entrepreneur at 22 years old… designing a clip-on shoulder pad in the 80’s… Sold Bloomies, Nordstroms, Neimans then was invited on Oprah… wow! Chosen after a QVC audition in 1992 and on for 28 years, designing bras and intimates. Decided to recycle bras and zero options, so reached out to brokers, the American chemistry council and received donations to test (1.2 tons of bras). Now our method is U.S. Patented and recycles bras into carpet padding.

KK pursues bra recycling as a sustainable CERTIFICATION for intimate brands and retailers.

She trained with Al Gore in 2018 with 2,000 others, and is licensed as a climate Leader to  present the Slides, Science and images from the CLIMATE REALITY PROJECT organizations. She presents in Schools, Community Town Halls and by invitation from Corporations.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by the Marketing Masters. The Marketing Masters is a boutique marketing agency offering website development and digital marketing services to small and medium businesses across America. For more information on how they can help you grow your business online, please visit the marketingmasters.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian and we are so honored to have with us today, Kathleen Kirkwood. She is the founder of B.R.A., the Bra Recycling Agency. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Kathleen.

Kathleen Kirkwood: Hey, thank you, John. Thank you so much for inviting me.

John: Oh, it is such a joy. You are in New York City today, my hometown. To have a fellow New Yorker on with me today, even though I am sitting in Fresno, California is just a delight and your work is so important. I want to get into all the important work you have been doing at the Bra Recycling Agency. For our listeners out there who want to find Kathleen, I am on her great website right now. It is brarecyclingagency.com. Before we get talking about that, I would love you first to share your backstory, how you even came up with this concept and what you were doing before 2010 and before you came up with this wonderful and important idea.

Kathleen: Yes. Well, we have to go back a couple decades for that story but quickly, I started as a model and I got hit by a car and the contract was canceled. I said, “What am I going to do?” I noticed in the 80s everyone was wearing shoulder pads when I was modeling, the designer. So I said “Why do I not make a shoulder pad for everybody?” and I made it with a clip-on piece of velcro and I went ahead and I sold it to Bloomingdales and it was the biggest thing in the 80s. In fact, Oprah called me.

John: Wow.

Kathleen: I got on the Oprah Winfrey Show so that changed quite a bit of things. Then a trajectory down to the early 90s, I auditioned for a television show called QVC. Nobody knew about it, but the name Joan Rivers was selling jewelry on it and I got on QVC. I have been on QVC twenty-eight years selling shoulder pads, where I managed to sell about 14 million pairs of shoulder pads for that period.

John: Whoa!

Kathleen: Then I started to work with the overseas factories of shoulder pads and bras and I designed a bra for QVC. I started selling bras. One day at my factory in China, I saw the trucks leaving the factory, which is really like a small city. It is bigger than a factory and it was truck after truck after truck after truck after truck. And I said “Well, well, well, what is going on here?” I get to see trucks in my life, but never from dawn till dusk, back-to-back going up the hill. They said “Oh, well, that is just one of our account. So yeah, we sell them about thirty million bras a month.” I said, “Thirty million a month?” and then it hit me. The numbers hit me. They hit me viscerally. So I was starting to go back and I said, “Well, I am going to recycle my bras.” I did the research, Google, whatever. It was 2009. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. There was nothing you could do. So I called the American Chemistry Council, that is French for the Plastics industry.

John: Right.

Kathleen: I called some recycling brokers and said, “Hey, I want to do that” and I got a lot of great support because let us face it, even the oil companies, the petroleum based companies, the polyurethane companies, they want to have a solution to recycle foam bras or textile bras or spandex bras into something, but nobody was willing to do it because why John, it costs money to do that. So I invested my own capital little by little and I have the support of brokers, American Chemistry Council and good people like Maidenform donating tons of bras for me to test. With the help of all those people I was able to and it is on the home page. You can see the original video from 2010. Thank you, Kamal Taylor, for being the camera person with me. We turned 1.2 tons of bras into commercial carpet padding by chopping, beating, taking out the plastic ring and slides, and shaking that through shakers, and that plastic went to bottle top companies. The polyurethane foam, the fabric, the textile, that went to Leggett and Platt and became carpet padding. The metal was extracted with magnets, high utility powered magnets and that we are going to collect and sell by the pounds eventually. We want to hit some nice minimums and eventually when we sell metal, because it is all steel by the way, underwire is steel.

John: Right.

Kathleen: We are going to use all that money to donate to breast cancer research, but we are not there yet. So it becomes a bottle top, a carpet padding and a potential donation for the metal.

John: That is incredible. Now I am on your website and again, for our listeners out there that want to find Kathleen’s very important and great website and also get involved, please go to www.brarecyclingagency.com. Now on their website is tons of important information, but I am going to read you what struck me, so important. It says right in the middle of the website. “Make an impact.” In New York today on the Impact Podcast, because you are making such a huge impact and it says here, “The average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing per year, 95% as worn textiles can become recycled, and only 15% of that gets donated or recycled.” What are we missing here in America? And this is 2020. This is the information explosion age. Where is the disconnect, Kathleen, and how can we help bridge that?

Kathleen: Well, I mean, you know the whole answer to this too. No one really cared about recycling before. My way of paying for all this, and that is critical because a lot of entrepreneurs, people even the past five years, they looked at me and said… You know, I will just be honest with you. I will make believe no one is listening, John. I will tell you some honest stuff.

John: I want to hear the honest stuff right now.

Kathleen: Okay, everybody now, close your ears.

John: Give me the insights please. Okay. Perfect.

Kathleen: They saw me, blond hair, blue eye, they are like, “Oh isn’t she cute?” We will do a little recycling and then when you go to the brand or the retailer and say, “Hey, you can use this as a marketing tool. We are going to charge you five cents a bra for you to offer recycling and we will do all the recycling or we will offer you this advertising vehicle to put your name on our permit or we will offer you a bin for your store, which is going to be 200 stores say, 80,000 dollars, something like that.” All of a sudden, nobody wanted to recycle because even back then the consumer was not ready. The consumer did not have the passion that the millennials, the Gen X’s has brought forward with caring and just basically putting their foot down and saying, “We are not going to buy from brands that do not have a sustainable message” or saying goodbye to single-use packaging or having some kind of recycling end-of-life solution.” So the shift of the public has changed the momentum of stores, retailers, brands and advertisers to say “Hey, let us join the party.” You need cultural change and that is what is happening and it is happening fast. I am very positive about it because even the naysayers that are still holding out like “I will think about it.” The train is moving.

John: Right.

Kathleen: I see it on my email every day. We are booked, we have calls.

John: Awesome.

Kathleen: We have people who were like “Hey, we are ready.” I cannot mention any names.

John: Right.

Kathleen: You could even say it like in my sleepy town where I live in Montauk, where people do not even know about the term “sustainability”, right? The biggest parking lot we have and believe me, this is a sleepy fisherman town, which is what makes it so great. They just installed all Tesla recharging stationary.

John: Wow.

Kathleen: Now, you can know that the town had to get almost 100% commitment from the town people to want to convert, because if they do not have enthusiastic support, the electoral board is not going to do that kind of change on a municipal level.

John: Right.

Kathleen: So you can see the train is moving. Brands want to recycle, consumers want to recycle, so it is very encouraging.

John: Yes. For our listeners out there that want to get part of now, get on the train and get moving in the right direction with all the great work that you are doing, again back to your website. Walk us through this. It says, and it is so simple how you laid it out, but I want you to share with our listeners how simple it is to actually now step into this world and get on the train. “Wash it, label it, send it.” Explain what that means so people know how they could get involved.

Kathleen: Okay. John, I want to make sure you were on the right website.

John: Yeah. Okay.

Kathleen: I got a sense you might be on our fabric website.

John: Oh, okay. Okay. Okay.

Kathleen: I am going to give you my website. It is brarecyclingagency.com

John: Okay, got it. Okay.

Kathleen: All right. Anyway, I did something special for you and for the audience today.

John: Oh, okay. I am with you.

Kathleen: What you want is to share with people how to do this.

John: Yes.

Kathleen: Now we have retailers signing up. You are going to be able to go to the retail.

John: Right, right.

Kathleen: We have brands signing up, you are going to be able to go to the brands. But today we worked with Quasi Technologies, which we have a partnership with in a way that you can, right now, text bra…

John: Oh my God. Okay.

Kathleen: Just the word “bra” to 79274 and you will get a downloadable free bra recycling label, because for consumers just to pay the bills, we charge five dollars and fifteen. But today, you can download it on your show Impact and you will get a free bra recycling label. You will get it on your phone. You can look at it because it is a text. You can look at it any time you want. If you are busy look at it later and you can mail in your bras and they will be recycled into carpet padding. I can repeat that one more time, John, if you do not mind.

John: Go ahead, please. Yeah, please.

Kathleen: Okay. You are going to text the message “bra” to the number 79274.

John: Got it.

Kathleen: And then you will get– everything is a link. It is tucked away in your text. When you get to it and you do not have to wait for anybody. You can do it on your own contactless.

[crosstalk]

John: Right, right. I know. I know. So I am on your site here and it is brarecyclingagency.com. I love this and there is a beautiful video with you on it. Do not burn your bra, recycle it. Now I see you talking to one of your colleagues in this facility. Where is this facility that shows this work being done? Can you share with us?

Kathleen: We have grown a lot since then.

John: Okay.

Kathleen: We have different facilities around the country based on location. That one is in Nashville, Tennessee.

John: Wonderful.

Kathleen: Which brings to mind, I just want to give a quick plug. I trained with Al Gore in 2018 to give his climate slides, thousands of people can do it anyway. So there is 24 hours where the whole world in 70 country gives the climate slides, which includes information about recycling and reducing in single packaging. It is October 10th, so you can just go to 24 hours reality. My presentation along with presentations in 70 countries will be accessible. You can see them live or you can see them on Zoom, but I am always saying that because you are looking at the video of my first recycling location, which is near Nashville, Tennessee where Al Gore is from. So it just brought that to my mind.

John: Oh, that is great. And this website is just wonderful, all the information is here. Now let us go into this. Back to what you were saying a little earlier and for those who are just joining us, we have got Kathleen Kirkwood with us today. She is the founder of the Bra Recycling Agency. You can find Kathleen and to get on the train and get involved by becoming part of the solution and no longer part of the problem, go to www.brarecyclingagency.com. Here it says “We pulverize, we magnetize, we red carpetize.” Now you explained a little earlier, but walk us through this. How much does it take? How many pounds of bronze does it take to make one yard of carpet padding for instance?

Kathleen: I am taking it, John. That is great. Because when I first started I was like, “How am I going to pay for all this? The idea of monetizing by the pounds was not an algorithm that I had at the ready. I had to really develop that over the years, many years. What I did first was charities. What I did with a company called Wacoal is I did the red carpet for the Oscar suites. They have the swag bags and all that.

John: Yes.

Kathleen: They sponsor everything. They have a big room in L.A. It is in Beverly Hills and all the celebrities come and they meet different vendors. It is expensive to sponsor. So, Wacoal sponsored the Bra Recycling Agency carpet and the padding to go to the Oscars suites and just tell the story and have Wacoal be the sponsor. That was so successful and we raised for that with Wacoal $4,000. I started to offer it to every charity. What happened is we still do a lot of it today. Charities use now where they can choose to sell, sponsorship on their red carpet using my recycled red carpet, which I work with a company and my padding underneath. Then they sponsor it, they say “Hey, at our charity event this month, you can sponsor a table or you can sponsor the journal or you can sponsor the recycled, sustainable red carpet.” We do this a lot in October for breast cancer awareness month and the charities in the events– well, obviously, before covid. You know, things have changed utterly and completely.

John: Yes.

Kathleen: But we have raised an average of 7,000 with a height of 20,000 for a sponsor, a company or corporation to put their name on the sustainable red carpet with the B.R.A. recycled carpet padding and it takes about a hundred and seventy-five pounds of bras to make a yard of the carpet padding. But that is nothing, I mean, that sounds like “Oh my God, that is a lot.” There are half a billion bras sold every year in the United States.

John: Wow.

Kathleen: That is 50,000 tons a month. So that is boys and girls going to the landfill, word is it is there for 40 to 50 years and instead, it is being converted to carpet padding, which are commercial version, typically sits in a building if it is integrated into the commercial carpet padding for 30 years. We estimate, we are stalling the ocean waste, and the landfill waste, and the incinerator waste for 30 years. But by then there will be something else going on. There will be new solution, but we are putting a whole pause on all that textile…

John: It is so amazing.

Kathleen: …spandex, lycra, whatever it is, steel. That is not going in the landfill anymore if we can get this up and running. I do not want to say we do not need help. I mean we definitely need help. Being on this show is a big deal for me.

John: For me, too.

Kathleen: Again, if you are listening to this, close your ears. Because even though the momentum is strong, the momentum against is also heavy.

John: Yes.

Kathleen: Why should we pay? Why should we do? [inaudible] we got covid, but I think for me, just to be positive because that is my nature, I think a lot of companies, retailers, they are coming out of the covid coma.

John: Yeah.

Kathleen: Because in March, April, May and June, it was like we do not know what is going on. We cannot do anything. So there was a complete blackout of progress for us at least in March, April, May and June. But now we are seeing people saying “Well, this is it. Maybe we can do…” You know, we offer now contactless through text and mobile. We offer contactless downloadable. So you can go to say a store like, let us keep our fingers crossed, Macy’s or something like that and you can tap or you can just text and they will transmit say a retailer’s form on your phone. We have a whole contactless selection now, which obviously is the priority for stores, retailers and brands.

John: That is just so awesome. How do we make a call to action today, Kathleen? Collaboration is really the best way forward. I know that is how it has worked for us in our recycling industry, in our sector, and I know you are doing the same thing. Who else do you want on board? When approaching our listeners, who else do you want to be able to contact you? Is it NGOs? Is it retailers? Is it nonprofits? Is it consumers themselves or all of the above? How can we continue to move the train forward for your B.R.A. Recycling Agency?

Kathleen: Well, thank you for that. There are three ways. The brands, the big brands, there are a lot of them. There is growing brands, there is big brands, even celebrity brands, which we are speaking to a few. They can pay our fee of about in the average of a nickel a bra and put on our certified tag, and then all the consumers that buy their bra can get their bra on a loop. So that tag will go to their phone. You click on it, tap or use the QR code or you could sign up online and that tag will get them a branded recycling label for the brand. So, brand is number one. Yeah, because instead of the brand selling one bra and keeping their fingers crossed that it will come back for another, just do what [inaudible] is doing with the loop. Bras on a loop. You get bra one and then you get another one. So, it is increasing sales, it is increasing loyalty and it is reducing any waste. We have a certification for brands. For stores, we have contactless downloads, we have” tap to recycle” and we have bins, and we have mailing envelopes. Then consumers, we have on our website a choice where consumers can say “I am doing this now. I am not waiting.” They can go right to that consumer page and they can do that or they can text “bra” to 79274 and get it right to their phone. They could also help us nudge the brands and retailers. They could be annoying.

John: Right, right.

Kathleen: Believe me, the brands especially, the retailers too, but the brands care. So if you love a brands, I am not going to mention any names, and you can just tag them on Instagram or Facebook and say “Hey, why are you not doing bra cycling with B.R.A. Recycling Agency?” I do not know. Just a little, “Why not are you doing this?” I think that helps a lot.

John: It does. It really does.

Kathleen: It does. Just say “Hey, what is up?” We heard this on LinkedIn or on Impact Let us get that going. Believe me, my phone will be ringing.

John: I love it. I love it. I am going to give you the last word for our listeners out there. Again, to find Kathleen, please go to www.brarecyclingagency.com. You give the last word. Tell our listeners what they need to know before we go and you are always, by the way Kathleen, invited back here to continue to share your great message and mission because you are making a huge impact. Please go ahead. You have the last word here.

Kathleen: Okay. On brarecyclingagency.com, there is a tab on the right, it says “consumers”. You can go there and pick whatever permit you want: The Free, the $5 or the Deluxe for $15. There is also on the right hand corner a form. You just fill out your name and your email and we will send you a free label. You can do one bra for free or for your show today Impact, which I am so grateful to be on. John, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

John: Of course.

Kathleen: Thanks to Quasi too. You can text bra, just bra, to 79274 and we will text you a link to a label. You could try it for free and then you will have the information that you can bug those brands and retailers on Instagram. Let us get going.

John: I love it. She is Kathleen Kirkwood, the Bra Recycling Agency founder. Kathleen, you are both an inspiration and you are making a huge impact and making the world a better and greener place. Thank you from all my heart. I am so grateful for you in what you are doing and you are always invited back here on the Impact Podcast.

Kathleen: Thank you, Mr. Shegerian.