Nicole Bassett is on a mission to solve one of the retail industry’s most costly problems. In doing so, she’s not only helping those companies save money — she’s helping to save our planet, too.
The Renewal Workshop, an Oregon-based company she co-founded in 2016, seeks to “bridge gaps, connect systems, and mobilize leadership to make existing linear manufacturing practices circular.” They do so by “taking discarded apparel and textiles and turns them into renewed products, upcycled materials or recycling feedstock,” creating a “zero waste system that recovers the full value out of what has already been created as a way of serving customers, partners, and planet.”
I spoke to Bassett about her company’s bespoke system, her passion for operating within circularity, and what’s next for the Renewal Workshop. This is what she had to say.
NationSwell’s Anthony Smith: Tell me about how your professional journey led you to cofound the Renewal Workshop.
The Renewal Workshop’s Nicole Bassett: I used to work in sustainability and sourcing for apparel brands. When you’re working in that space, you’re always asking yourself, “How do I do it more sustainably? How do we do better?” You’re always trying to find the root cause, trying to find the levers that you can pull to start to make change. For so many of these big apparel companies, the only way they think they can grow their businesses is by making more stuff.
Our mission is to enable brands to think differently. The better the brands are at doing this, the more the brands become circular; and the more the brands become circular, the more our apparel industry can actually shift and change.
Circularity isn’t just about selling something again. Real circularity is about actually changing your entire business model from linear to circular. You can’t just have this side business that’s circular while the main business stays linear. You have to change everything.
NationSwell: How do you start to do that?
Bassett: When we get started with a brand, it’s typically because they’re paying us to renew their product. That’s how our business model works. Primarily, we enable them to resell their product because we have the technology and a storefront. The brand pays us for those services, and they get the revenue off the sales of their resold product. So it’s a whole new business channel for something they previously considered unsellable.
As we renew all their products, or as we’re cleaning and repairing things, we’re documenting everything, and we give our brand partners a report that says, “Here’s why your products are here.” Some of it could just be human use, like stains or dirt or something. And some of it’s construction issues, like if they used bad zippers, or buttons, or snaps, or something like that. So they get that feedback, and that feedback informs their design decisions.
We also work with designers and teach them how to do circular design. Not only does that benefit us as a company — because ultimately, we’ll have a better product that arrives at our door — but it also allows them to have a better sales channel down the road.
So in a nutshell, we get paid by brands, they become our client, and help our clients become more circular.
NationSwell: What’s the impact of your work so far?
Bassett: When we first started in 2015, we would knock on doors of brands and say, “Hey, we have this idea. You could recommerce your product, and we can give you the tools to do it.”
The brands would say, “That’s weird.” And they were very concerned that they would cannibalize their first price sales. They were very hesitant that their brand and their product would show up in the market in less than good condition.
And so we had to do a lot of convincing them that actually, this is really an additive thing. There is a consumer out there for these products.
And at the same time brands, third-party marketplaces started to just explode. All of a sudden, brands were like, “Oh my God, my product is getting sold somewhere else. And that’s a customer I don’t get. And they’re having an experience with my product that I don’t get to control.” So we use the example all the time of the car industry, where you have Joe’s Car Lot down the street, and you’re just buying a car and it’s whatever. Or you go to Toyota or Mazda or whoever, and say, “I like you as a brand, and I want to have a brand experience, and I want the confidence that I’m not buying a lemon.”
So the growth in interest has definitely changed. We started out with five brands; now we’ve got about 20 brands now that work with us. We have taken back over 400,000 pounds of textiles that otherwise would have gone into landfill. And we now are recirculating that into the economy for a brand.
The other thing that I think is really important is that we renew all this stuff in market. So we have a factory in the United States, and we have a factory in Amsterdam, and we’re renewing that product. So we’re not sending it overseas. We’re really focused on living wage jobs. We’ve got a very diverse employee team. There’s this opportunity to create new types of manufacturing jobs, and that’s what we’re doing here.
NationSwell: What would you say to people who might not understand why this is important?
Bassett: People are just at the precipice of understanding what the linear economy has done to our world. I just don’t think it’s a word people understand. People just think, “I go to the store, and I buy a toaster oven, and I take it home, and I throw it away.”
And so I think what’s really, really important is how much this is a system, which makes it harder. And that’s where I think that there’s a lot going on in this space, but I would say we’re still not at the place where systems change is happening. But a company who makes something has to decide they’re going to take accountability of that thing for its entire life cycle. And ultimately, if they’ve planned for that, they’ve planned the pricing of that, they’ve planned the disposal of that, they know where it’s going to go. If it needs to be repaired, it knows where it goes to get recycled. And they would never design anything that would be waste because then they are responsible for that waste.
Apparel is not designed for a system that exists. There are no recycling options for any blended material of textile. So if I create a shirt that’s acrylic nylon spandex, I am creating garbage. There’s no way around it. But if I created a cotton t-shirt, cotton can actually get shredded down and respun into new yarns — and there is a path for that.
Also: waste is being paid for by all of us. So we, as the consumer are now bearing the cost of dealing with waste, and then we as a society are bearing the cost because our municipalities have to deal with this waste. So our taxes go towards dealing with garbage pickup and having to do that. So the brands have offloaded all of the responsibility and all of the costs downstream.
NationSwell: What’s your call to action here?
Bassett: If you are a business or a designer, think about where your products come from, and where it will go next. Are you designing it with an end in mind? And does that end actually exist? So is this something that can get even recycled? Or if not, how do you enable its use again multiple times?
Brands will invest in circular if consumers reward it. I think individuals should look at companies and say, “Are you just doing this because it’s a trend? Or are you doing this because it’s a part of a bigger strategy where you’re trying to truly change your business?” And there are some companies who truly are trying to figure this out. And then there’s some where they’re just like, “Oh, I can sell more of my stuff.” So it does require a little bit of homework on the consumer side — but consumers are going to drive this change.
To learn more about why we need more investment in the circular economy, read our introduction to this series.