Thrift shopping and buying secondhand clothes have become all the rage as vintage fashion has come back in style. Going to a thrift store is always a sort of treasure hunt, as you never know what new pieces you’ll find. Some more creative types might even alter or upcycle their newfound fashion items to give them new life. More and more of today’s youth understand that by not buying brand new clothing and instead choosing secondhand items, they can keep items out of the landfill, and avoid supporting fast fashion businesses that mass-produce clothing that often utilize unfair labor practices. Additionally, these fast fashion pieces also often end up in the trash after a year or two due to cheap fabrics and construction as well as quickly-changing fashion trends.
While this method of refreshing your wardrobe through buying secondhand is certainly sustainable, it is not foolproof. Sometimes, you like a specific brand, need a certain size, or just don’t like the thought of wearing someone else’s pre-worn clothing. Luckily, there are other options to purchase never-worn clothing sustainably.
Nicole Bassett has identified this need and met it through her growing business: The Renewal Workshop. With locations in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Cascade Locks, Oregon, The Renewal Workshop partners with major clothing and textile brands to repair items that cannot be sold and would otherwise go straight to the landfill. They take items with minor flaws or faults, such as a broken zipper on a jacket or a torn seam on a shirt, and Renewal Workshop team members will fix those items by hand so that they are as good as new, saving them from being thrown away. Any items that cannot be fixed will be turned out as upcycled materials or recycling feedstock. After the fixable items have been repaired, The Renewal Workshop helps brands to set up new sales channel websites to sell the items at markdown prices as well as offering the items to be sold directly through The Renewal Workshop’s own website and even in some select stores. This way, customers can shop sustainably and help to keep clothing out of the landfill while still receiving never-worn clothing.
Revenue from Reuse
Bassett came up with the idea for The Renewal Workshop while working as a sustainability director for brands such as Patagonia and prAna. She noticed that there is a notion among large brands, especially in the fashion industry, that the brand can only grow by making more products, by creating more stuff. This mindset simply isn’t sustainable. Therefore, Bassett began to think of a way that companies could recycle existing unsellable clothing to make it not only usable, but also marketable and profitable. There needed to be a way for brands to be more confident about generating revenue through resale, and thus, the idea for The Renewal Workshop was born.
Bassett decided to strike while the iron was hot. She began by reaching out to friends and connections she had at different clothing and textile companies. She shared her thoughts and plans for a sustainable and circular-economy business model, and she engaged others in her vision that there was a niche in corporate America for this model. Clothing brands could be making money on items that would have simply been discarded for a whopping profit of $0, and without much investment or risk, they could also easily jump on board to this sustainable business practice. Additionally, many consumers nowadays take the sustainability of a product into account when they make a purchase, so any company that is able to boast its green creds is often seen as more attractive to potential consumers. The idea of The Renewal Workshop is truly a win-win for brands and the future of our earth.
By 2015, Bassett and her co-founder, Jeff Denby, had launched The Renewal Workshop and had 5 brands on board, which was enough to start building a factory to give her growing team plenty of space in which to work on textiles. The first factory was built in Oregon in 2016, and just one year later, The Renewal Workshop had diverted over 20,000 lbs. of textile waste from landfills. Pretty soon, Bassett received inquiries from European brands who wanted to get involved with the business practice, and in October 2019 The Renewal Workshop opened a second factory in Amsterdam. This location was chosen based on its proximity to many leading European brands’ headquarters and has been thriving ever since.
Today, The Renewal Workshop is partnered with over 20 brands, including well-known names such as The North Face, Patagonia, and Pottery Barn. By renewing previously unsellable products, Bassett’s company has diverted over 285,000 lbs. of textile “waste” from the landfill, and about 284,000 kg of CO2 from the air.
In addition to doing good for the earth, The Renewal Workshop also strives to be a positive, safe, and healthy work environment for their employees and reduce the global number of employees working under harsh conditions. They not only pay fair wages to their over 65 employees (between their two different locations), but also go above and beyond to value and respect their staff. Bassett mentions her team’s adherence to The Renewal Workshop’s Core Values: Love + Light, Presence, Self-Determination, Sensibility, Service, and Systems Thinking, and how they are not simply words, but values that they incorporate into their daily lives and decisions at work.
Reflecting on Progress
Bassett earned a Masters of Environmental Studies, Sustainability, and Business from York University, but describes how her training in business itself was not as extensive as she would have preferred. Therefore, it was especially important in the early stages of The Renewal Workshop to talk to business advisors, learn how to raise money, and seek help from small business development centers. In launching the company, there were so many “little things that you never think about” according to Basset, and crowdsourcing ideas and advice was critical.
Looking back, Bassett exhibits great pride in what she has built, remarking how as little as 5 years ago, her business model was uncharted territory for the garment industry. But now, brands can be rewarded for choosing more sustainable methods, and if consumers also want to buy from brands using such methods, the brands will continue to make sustainable decisions to meet demand based off of consumer behavior. Bassett has watched While there will always be thrift stores to scour for treasures and secondhand clothes to buy, perhaps there is a future where shoppers can purchase good-as-new brand name renewed clothing and textile items in stores across the globe. The Renewal Workshop’s sustainable business model and practices are paving the way to a world where clothes do not have to be brand new to be trendy, and where fashion can be sustainable.
The Renewal Workshop is still in its early stages, but it has already begun to have a major influence on circular business models in the United States as well as in Europe. Bassett hopes to grow, continuing to offer consumers more sustainable choices, and she believes an increasing number of consumers will begin to opt for renewed products.
As a result of increased sales, more businesses will begin to see Bassett’s circular business model of renewal as a secure revenue option, leading to more waste being diverted and less CO2 in the atmosphere. To bolster this trend, Bassett hopes to see incentive policy programs emerge to encourage more brands to engage in sustainable clothing renewal and resale.
While there will always be thrift stores to scour for treasures and secondhand clothes to buy, perhaps there is a future where shoppers can purchase good-as-new brand name renewed clothing and textile items in stores across the globe. The Renewal Workshop’s sustainable business model and practices are paving the way to a world where clothes do not have to be brand new to be trendy, and where fashion can be sustainable.