The best solution to sustainable fashion lies in using what we already have.
Online shopping, paired with free shipping and returns, has had a more profound effect on the fashion industry than you may realize. When you order a cute style in multiple sizes to get the right fit and send back the rest, a shocking 30 to 50 percent of those returned items never gets restocked. Instead, they are sent to warehouses, eventually shredded, and thrown in landfill or incinerated. An estimated 30 million units meet this fate each year in the United States, at a value of $1 billion.
Jeff Denby is on a mission to change this unsustainable model. He is the co-founder of The Renewal Workshop, an Oregon-based company that offers solutions to clothing brands to help develop a more circular approach to garment collection. Denby spoke at the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable in Toronto this week, which is where TreeHugger met him.
The Renewal Workshop is a factory where brands can send their non-sellable merchandise for 'renewal.' Items are sorted and cleaned, problems are identified, and teams of seamstresses, a.k.a. sew techs, repair the products so they're as good as new. The brand can then advertise its renewed clothing at a discount (usually around 30% off) and it ships directly from the Renewal Workshop's warehouse to the buyer.
Before you assume there's any ickiness about buying second-hand goods (although in truth these are often still brand new), Denby described the workshop's state-of-the-art Tersus cleaning machine. It uses liquid CO2 pressured to 800 psi, along with a bit of detergent, to scour the clothing, inside and out. The CO2 pulls out everything from body oils to hair to mold, and because it is not a dye-transfer agent, white and red fabrics can be washed together without risk of staining. No heat and no water are used in the process, and 98 percent of the CO2 is recaptured after each cycle.
Two-thirds of items received by the workshop can be renewed, and one-third of these has nothing wrong except missing tags. The renewal potential is higher for lifestyle and fashion brands, and a bit lower for technical outdoor brands, but the workshop does have the ability to reapply DWR coatings. From the website:
"All repairs respect the original design and quality standards of the garment. When we replace snaps, buttons and zippers, we often don’t have exact matches but we choose replacements that easily blend in. We also make repairs to tears, holes or snags on the inside of garments or in linings. Renewed Apparel won't have external fabric repairs such as visible patches. "
Brands may resist the idea of selling their own renewed apparel, but as Denby pointed out, it's enormously beneficial for them.
First, re-commerce of used merchandise is happening regardless, so it makes sense for companies to have a part in it. Instead of having a single profit margin on a product, the company gets two chances to make money off the same item. (The North Face is one example of a mainstream brand that has partnered with The Renewal Workshop to sell refurbished products.)
Second, it's a great way to attract new clients. Many brands are reluctant to break away from the traditional model of making money by making new things, but there's no reason why new and used products cannot co-exist. The car industry and Apple are both examples of thriving markets for refurbished goods.
"Brands erroneously assume that they can only access customers through existing product," Denby said. Outdoor brands, in particular, have struggled to connect with young women, but these are often the ones who scoop up renewed apparel at the fastest rate, leading brands to realize that they're growing their business by embracing this more sustainable model.
Everyone benefits by repairing, reusing, and reducing fashion consumption. It saves cities money. (New York City's annual cost for collecting, recycling, and disposing of textiles is $100 million, paid by taxpayers.) It keeps clothes out of landfill, methane out of the air, and fossil fuels in the ground. Denby's work is a glimmer of hope in an industry that's notoriously damaging to the environment. As long as he can continue finding sew techs -- an ongoing challenge, he admitted, as it's a dying art -- there is great potential for brands to embrace more sustainable business practices.
The next time you're in the market for new clothing, check out The Renewal Workshop's online store.