Cleantech support, manufacturing expertise, and a unique entrepreneurial vision team up to repair, resell, and up-cycle returned brand-name clothing
When damaged or defective clothing is returned to manufacturers, it is usually sent to a landfill, incinerated or occasionally donated to a cause. If a zipper or snap doesn't function, a seam is blown out or a button's missing, the article often winds up as part of the 14 million tons of apparel Americans throw out annually (80 pounds per person).
The EPA estimates that keeping this clothing out of landfills would be the equivalent of taking 7.5 million cars and their carbon emissions off the road.
Now, thanks for a unique three-way collaboration that includes cleantech support, manufacturing expertise and an entrepreneurial vision, a new startup called The Renewal Workshop in Cascade Locks, Ore., is transforming returned clothing into resellable items — a process that not only benefits the planet and employs people, but also helps manufacturers hit sustainability goals.
The new collaborative project between The Renewal Workshop, Oregon BEST and the Oregon Manufacturers Extension Partnership (OMEP) helped the company design and set up an efficient 7,500 sq.-ft. lean manufacturing facility at an industrial park in the Columbia River Gorge. The total cost of the project was $22,500, shared in equal parts across the three partners.
"Both Oregon BEST and OMEP contributed expertise, insights and key support that were critical in helping us design and build out our facility in a way that functions perfectly," said Nicole Bassett, Co-CEO of The Renewal Workshop. "Small, collaborative investments like this are a huge help to Oregon startups like ours as we work to build a more sustainable world."
The 10-month-old startup already employs nine people and plans to grow to 25 employees in two years. It has already raised $1 million, and an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised another $57,000 and resulted in more than 400 initial customers. The company will launch online sales in about two weeks, said Bassett.
"Studies have shown that cleantech is almost three times as active in manufacturing as the broader economy, so manufacturing expertise is a critical skill set to have on hand when cleantech startups are ready to go to scale," said Johanna Brickman, Director of Collaborative Innovation at Oregon BEST. "Oregon BEST is proud to be partnering with the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership to leverage that expertise to help this circular-economy startup succeed. This is another example of the breadth of cleantech here in Oregon, and how it impacts everything from apparel and agriculture to manufacturing and energy savings."
Using renewed clothing saves the apparel industry water, carbon and waste, said Bassett who formerly worked at Patagonia.
"For every nine months that a renewed article of clothing is used, instead of buying it new, the amount of carbon used to manufacture a new product is reduced by 27 percent, water by 33 percent, and waste by 22 percent," she said.
The Renewal Workshop renews outdoor garments like raincoats and jackets, as well casual shirts, pants and dresses. Returned apparel is received in bulk from the company's brand partners, and workers then inspect, grade, repair (if necessary), clean (using a waterless system), co-label the clothing and ship with minimal packaging. Resold online at 30 percent off the manufacturer's suggested retail price, each piece is certified to the quality standards of the original brand, Bassett said.
The company partners with apparel companies committed to sustainability, including the brands prAna, Ibex, Toad&Co, Mountain Khakis, and Indigenous, and another 15 manufacturers are interested in the concept. Partner brands pay a membership fee, and The Renewal Workshop supplies them with feedback about product defects so manufacturing can be adjusted to improve sustainability.
"I've always been very interested in the vision of a circular economy and cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, and what that might look like for the apparel industry," Bassett said. "So our big goal is to help apparel brands participate in a more circular economy, instead of a linear one, where broken products go into the garbage. And I strongly believe that we will be very successful."
The company looks at each piece from a hierarchy of highest value, with repairing and reselling at the top, followed by up-cycling (using pieces in other products), down-cycling (last use), and recycling (using the fiber in other products).
OMEP developed a comprehensive facility and material flow study, then used a detailed CAD layout to address all the aspects of preparing the facility for efficient and lean manufacturing. OMEP modeled specific equipment location and placement, which required unique consideration due to The Renewal Workshop's cleaning process that utilizes environmentally friendly cleaning equipment that eliminates the use of water and drying time.
"By carefully thinking through operations and process flow, and with the assistance from Oregon BEST, we were able to set up The Renewal Workshop for success and get it off ground very quickly," said Jim Wehrs, Managing Consultant at OMEP. "In just nine months, the company went from idea to a producing factory!"