When I looked at the label of my new blue camouflage puffer coat from Zara, I was a bit startled. Usually, a coat like this is made of goose down feathers and nylon. This one was composed of recycled water bottles! As explained by Zara, “This plastic is collected within 50 kilometers of waterways and coastal areas without a formal collection infrastructure in Rivera Maya coast. The collected plastic is sorted by quality so it can be recycled correctly. PET, the material used in water bottles, is recovered and transformed into upcycled polyester.” My repurposed purchase was indeed right on trend for the new millennium starting January 1, 2020.
“Trash fashion” is the latest focus of the industry, utilizing all kinds of used, discarded and excess items to be born again into a brand-new piece to be worn. According to Vogue, “An estimated 50 million tons of clothing is discarded every year, and most of it will not biodegrade in a landfill. (Synthetic materials like polyester or nylon can also leach chemicals into the earth, and if they’re incinerated, they may become carcinogenic). The amount of time, energy, and resources that go into those trashed items is usually disproportionate to their quick turnaround; a single cotton T-shirt may require up to 700 gallons of water and may travel across several countries during production. But even if it’s stained or damaged at the end of its life, it could likely be recycled into something else, like housing insulation or even another T-shirt.”
The New York Times Style Section featured the newest trash fashion designer from Brooklyn. His collaboration with the New York Sanitation Department has become as important as any luxury brand. The term “trashion” (a portmanteau of “trash” and “fashion”) is a title for art, jewelry, fashion and objects for the home created from used, thrown-out, found and repurposed elements. One person’s trash is someone else’s treasure. In this case it might be an oversized puffer coat from Zara.
As always, the question I ask is, does the newest craze in the fashion industry have a basis in Judaism? The Torah addressed this issue a very long time ago with the commandment of bal tashchis, that it is a sin to waste or destroy. “Waste not” has long been a basic Jewish ethic involving the physical and spiritual worlds. Forbidding wasteful acts has a direct effect on our lives and our planet which are G-d’s creations. The terrible sin of waste all starts with G-d’s specific instructions on destroying trees during wartime occupation. When laying siege to a city, we are commanded not to destroy fruit-bearing trees. “You must not destroy its trees… You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. For is the tree of (belonging to) man to be besieged by thee? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” (Devarim 20:19-20). The general prohibition against needless destruction, derived from the verse in Rambam, explains that a Jew is forbidden to “smash household goods, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a spring, or destroy articles of food.” (Mishnah Torah Law of Kings 6:10). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains in very strong language that lo tashchis, “do not destroy,” is “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which G-d has given them as masters of the world and its matter through capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.”
I also explored a beautiful example of recycling from the Beis HaMikdash. In the Mishnah (Sukkah 5:3) there is a description of Simchas Beis HaShoeva, a celebration in which tall menoros were lit that illuminated every courtyard in Jerusalem to the degree that a woman would have been able to see well enough by this light to sort her wheat grains. The wicks for these flames were made from the worn-out garments of the cohanim, who served in the Holy Temple.
A similar account is found in the Ten Plagues. The plagues of blood and lice were given over to Aharon only. For Moshe to have issued the plagues over the water and dust would have been highly disrespectful, since the water protected him as an infant in the basket, and the dust helped him when he killed and buried the Egyptian slave master. Moshe had a debt of gratitude and was beholden toward the dust and the water for their effect on his life.
The sensitive approach of the Torah’s handling of waste serves to teach us how holy everything really is. From a fruit tree to a scrap of linen belonging to the kohen, all aspects of respecting an object are clear. Although it might be too much to ask us to behave like Moshe, it is certainly within our abilities to pay homage to the great earth that nourishes us, and to understand that each act of repurposing, recycling or reimagining is really a sign of gratitude to Hashem for creating and sustaining us. So, the next time you toss your old shoes or finish your water bottle at the gym, remember to recycle it correctly - because you might just be wearing it next season!
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.