Fargoan saves landfill space by selling recycled clothes worldwide
What do you do when your daughter outgrows her dance-recital outfit or your living room drapes no longer match your new color scheme? Enter Elendu Textiles, LLC, which specializes in buying old, unwanted or overstocked textiles and giving them a second life.
FARGO — Madonna was right: We are living in a material world.
But what happens to all that material once we're done with it? What do you do when your daughter outgrows her dance-recital outfit, your living room drapes no longer match your new color scheme and you want to get rid of the appliqued atrocity that helped you win the Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest?
Enter Rolland Elendu of Elendu Textiles, LLC, in Fargo. Rolland and his family specialize in taking old, unwanted or overstocked textiles —
one of the most overlooked categories of recyclables — and giving them a second life.
Elendu Textiles operates out of a cavernous, 15,000-square-foot warehouse at 1401 5th Ave. N.
The interior is dominated by a veritable mountain of clothing, maybe 14-feet high, which contains everything from couch pillows and children's Halloween costumes to discarded quilting fabric, parkas and baby clothes. Off to the side, a pile of garbage bags contains shoes of every style, size, color and brand imaginable.
Vividly colored bales of compacted sweaters, shirts, pants and dresses line one wall. These 1,200-pound bales will be stacked inside even larger white bags for shipping. Once Elendu has amassed 44,000 pounds of clothing —
which happens about four times a month —
Rolland and his crew will load them in a semi and send them all over the world.
The vast majority of these garments, accessories, blankets and linens will be purchased by "textile sorters" worldwide, who will sell them to market buyers from Poland to Auckland. They then can be bought, sometimes just for pennies, by consumers in other countries.
Whatever is too stained or damaged to resell will be shipped to a German company, where it will be shredded, cleaned and repurposed into carpets, rugs and insulation.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 95% of post-consumer textile waste (PCTW) could be recycled, even though we currently throw away about 85% of PCTW — the equivalent of 21 billion pounds per year. The US alone is responsible for generating about 11 million tons of textile waste per year, according to Elendu's website.
Unfortunately, the textile-recycling business has hit several major snags in recent years, ranging from soaring shipping costs and labor shortages to an overall reduction in recycling amid COVID.
“I don’t know if it’s just people are so overwhelmed by COVID and everything that they’re not, but they’re not thinking as much of recycling,” he says.
So Rolland hopes to spread the word on this under-the-radar form of recycling. “I believe that the change we want to see starts with education. If we educate the masses on the issue, they will most likely become a part of the solution because they understand that it affects everybody, including them,” says the 30-year-old businessman.
Once people learn about textile-recycling, most are happy and relieved to learn it’s an option. “Whenever people find us, the first thing they say is they wish they knew this whole time that we existed because they always felt bad when they had to throw their clothes in the garbage, knowing how bad that is for our environment,” he says.
Recycling clothes a family affair
Although the Elendu family has made their living by repurposing clothes for nearly half a century, they still find surprisingly few people who realize that textiles can have a second life.
The story behind their venture started 45 years ago, when Rolland’s father, Sylvester Elendu Sr., was living in Holland. After noticing the volume of clothing donated to charities, he wondered what happened to items that didn’t sell. Did it simply wind up in landfills?
Before long, Sylvester settled on an idea: He could help provide clothing to underserved families for pennies, while saving perfectly good textiles from being tossed into landfills.
He began buying the used textiles and exporting them overseas, selling a portion to wholesale buyers who then sold the lots of clothing for ultra-cheap at local street markets.
He also would split the other portion into smaller bales, which he gave to poor and struggling families on credit to enable them to create a cash flow and raise capital to get them back on their feet.
Today, Sylvester continues his work, traveling between Africa and Europe, while his four sons have made Elendu an international venture.
The four boys all attended American schools in their native Nigeria. Early on, Rolland, the middle son, showed the most interest in his dad's business and always envisioned someday being an entrepreneur.
He came to the US to attend college, graduating from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2016 with a computer science degree. However, he always knew in the back of his mind that he would walk in his dad's footsteps.
Rolland remains the sibling most closely tied to Elendu Textiles, while his brothers serve either in advisory roles or as silent partners.
They launched their Fargo base in 2017 in a 6,000-square-foot space and almost immediately outgrew that facility.
Textile recycling requires learning curve
Rolland moved operations to their current building and began working hard to educate local organizations and businesses on a recycling concept that was still largely unfamiliar to most.
Some of his first partnerships were formed with stores run by organizations like the Salvation Army, The Arc, Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Many thrift stores will only keep garments on their racks for 21 days because such a relentless volume of clothing constantly moves through their doors. Some even had to resort to pay waste-management companies to dispose of it, Rolland says.
But these types of partnerships are a win-win, he says. Rolland pays these entities anywhere from 3 cents to 5 cents per pound for their unsold items, so instead of paying to get rid of unwanted items, they're receiving money to help fund important community programs.
The volume of clothing they bring in helps him create more shipments so he can stay in business.
And the overall arrangement reduces solid waste. Since the Fargo center was established in 2017, Rolland says they have saved 9.6 million pounds of clothing and textiles from loading up local landfills.
Even so, he says the first years for Elendu's Fargo operation were rocky. "It's been harder getting people to understand this even existed," he says. “Our first three years we operated at a loss, but we were determined to keep going for the sake of recycling. I never took home a paycheck for three years, but our persistence paid off by year four.”
By then, Rolland said he better understood the area, had established partnerships with local thrift stores and had been able to convey the advantages to partners of recycling textiles.
In fact, the business was really taking off when it was hit by yet another wallop: COVID-19. Rolland says the pandemic years have been hard, especially in terms of retaining workers. Lately, he's relied on hiring day labor.
But like a polyester leisure suit that refuses to wear out, this tenacious entrepreneur isn't giving up either. He's already set a couple of ambitious goals for 2022, including a plan to hire long-term employees in March and a push to bump up the company's four truckloads per month to 10 truckloads.
"I woke up one morning and said, 'We can't give up on this. We have to figure this out, so we'd better get our butts into the warehouse and crank it out. So here we are."
Those interested in getting rid of a bulk shipment of clothing or textiles can contact Elendu Textiles by calling (218) 790-7502 or by visiting https://www.elendutextile.com/.