|Amanda Beare

Interview with Constanza Gomez of Sortile

For today’s journal post, I had the pleasure of interviewing Constanta Gomez, the co-founder of Sortile, a company whose innovative technology enables the identification, sortation, and traceability of textiles to enhance material circularity.
interview with constanza gomez of sortile

For today’s journal post, I had the pleasure of interviewing Constanta Gomez, the co-founder of Sortile, a company whose innovative technology enables the identification, sortation, and traceability of textiles to enhance material circularity. I originally met Constanza at the ‘Entrepreneurship, Sustainability, and the Fashion Industry’ panel at Columbia Business School in 2022 and was amazed by Sortile’s impact since she launched the company while getting her MBA at Columbia. Constanza is originally from Santiago, Chile but currently living in New York City. I was lucky to chat with her while she was bouncing from meeting to meeting in Chile, where her tech team is based.

Amanda: Hi Constanza! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you share a bit about your background and what led you to co-found Sortile? In your own words, what is Sortile’s core mission?

Constanza: I'm an industrial engineer and computer science major. My first full time job out of college was doing research on retail supply chains in Latin America, which is how I originally became interested in the amount of textile waste that's produced in the entire supply chain. I was mostly doing just research at that point – but it became somewhat of an obsession. When I started my MBA at Columbia, I took a class called Think Bigger with Sheena Iyengar, where you have to talk about a problem that you're deeply passionate about. So, I spent like three hours talking about the textile waste issue. When the class ended, one of my classmates, Agustina Mir, approached me and said, “Hey, I want to work with you on this.” And I'm like, “Are you insane?? I just do research and it's my personal hobby.” Agustina and I started Sortile only with this joint obsession with the problem. The first time somebody wanted to buy a product from us, we didn't even know we had a product. We were just doing research.

So what does Sortile do now? We provide technology for the identification, sortation, and traceability of post-consumer textile waste. In other words, we start with identifying what the garment is made out of (e.g. cotton, polyester blend, etc.). Next, we identify where it should be recycled and then we track that those volumes actually end up at those given recyclers. We currently have a working hardware that is significantly faster than the current process, which is manually reading clothing tags. We've increased productivity rates over five times for textile collectors and we’re one the very few people that can actually trace post-consumer material flows.

Amanda: Thank you for that overview. The issue of textile waste has gained a lot of global attention over the last couple of years, and it seems that consumers are finally grasping the magnitude of the problem. I know you’re from Chile (just like my grandmother) – I was shocked and overwhelmed when I saw the satellite images of textile mountains specifically in the Atacama Desert in Chile. How can we expedite customer awareness and actively contribute to building a more circular and sustainable textile industry?

Above: Textile waste in Chile's Atacama Desert

Constanza: Unfortunately, that's hard for many reasons. Of course, making the problem more visible through different media channels is always a good thing. However, I do think regulation needs to play an important part. There are so many misconceptions today of what is recyclable, what's not recyclable, what is sustainable, what's not sustainable, what the definition of biodegradable is versus not biodegradable. When a consumer goes to buy a garment today, they're just bombarded by all of these buzzwords, and no one has any idea what they actually mean. Thus, it creates this hesitancy: “Are any brands actually doing anything?” If it's too difficult to navigate, then consumers won’t put the effort in. Therefore, greater regulation around labeling, greenwashing, and extended producer responsibility is really important to not only move the industry forward, but also for consumer education.

Amanda: Agreed, and speaking of consumer education – recycling textiles is a far more complicated process than people would expect. Do you mind sharing a few of these challenges and how Sortile navigates them?

Constanza: Recycling textiles is really difficult and there are a lot of misconceptions out there. For example, a lot of people think recycled fabrics should be cheaper than virgin materials because they're getting the raw materials free. However, the process is so complex that recycled fibers are actually more expensive than virgin fibers. Therefore, how do we get brands to switch from their current supply chains and operations to a product that's actually more expensive? Further, while most people say they want to shop sustainably, they aren't really willing to pay a significant premium for more sustainable products.

Next, recycling technologies are material-specific, e.g. cotton gets recycled in a completely different way than polyester. And it's not just different processes. They're recycled by different companies in completely different geographic locations. However, prior to any recycling process, you first need to separate by material, which is hard because it's not necessarily something that you can see. For example, is a shirt 100% cotton or is it 95% or 90%? These subtleties are really important because they can literally break recycling machines. Further, clothing uses other materials (think beads, buttons, etc.) that need to be deconstructed from the garment before putting it in any recycling process. Given that every garment is different, automating that deconstruction is really difficult because each garment needs to be treated a different way. Finally, you have the issue that not many companies have the capabilities to do all of this. And the ones that exist are sprinkled all over the world.

Amanda: Despite these challenges and complexities with the process, Sortile has made significant strides since you launched the company. Can you share any success stories or positive outcomes that the company has experienced so far in its journey?

Constanza: It's so funny – usually people ask me about horror stories but I love that you asked about the positives. It's been an incredible journey. One of our marquee moments was when we did test trials with a company during our hardware development phase. During these trials, we discovered that we were three times faster than the traditional way of sortation and had more accurate results. That was a moment where we realized that this technology was not necessarily nice to have, but something that companies will need to implement if they actually want to decrease the number of textiles sent to landfills. This success allowed us to expand across the network of subsidiaries of that company.

Amanda: That’s amazing that you've already seen such a tangible impact. Looking ahead, what would you like Sortile to accomplish over the next 5 to 10 years?

Constanza: I want us to become the technology layer of material flows in this industry, i.e. being able to track and certify all materials that go to recycling from a post-consumer source. This will significantly reduce the amounts of textiles that end up in landfills since we can more efficiently assign the correct feedstock to the correct recycler.

Amanda: My last question is related to the New Year. What are your ‘Ins’ and ‘Outs’ for 2024?

Constanza: My answer is easy. Buying secondhand is my ‘in’ for 2024. I've seen significant growth in what we can access in terms of secondhand, so one of my personal goals is to significantly reduce the amount of new clothing that I purchase. Expecting perfection is my ‘out’ for 2024. Many people expect that you need to have a perfect solution, especially for issues related to sustainability. But the reality is that it’s really difficult to jump to that perfect solution on day zero. Instead, we should take baby steps and continuously strive for a better solution, as opposed to expecting all of the right answers upfront and pointing fingers when we don’t have them. If the only bar is perfection, then nobody is going to do anything to change.