The Renewal Workshop: Making fashion more sustainable
Over the last few years, many of the fashion industry’s dirty little secrets have been revealed. The massive environmental footprint attached to most shirts, shoes and pairs of jeans is horrifying consumers and responsible brands alike, motivating them to do better. It’s also inspiring people like Jeff Denby, co-founder of The Renewal Workshop.
From its European headquarters in Amsterdam, the company restores clothes, making them all but new again so they can be resold instead of discarded – a long-time dream of Jeff. “I have been in the fashion industry for about 13 years now,” he says. “I did my master's in business at the University of California Berkeley and focused on sustainability. With apparel being one of the most complex, convoluted and socially and environmentally damaging supply chains, I was really interested in making that better.”
Jeff started out by creating an organic, fair trade label called Pact Apparel. When it was sold in 2015, his passion for sustainability still burned brightly. He teamed up with Nicole Bassett, who had previously served as Patagonia’s social responsibility manager, and together the pair began to develop a new business model for the apparel industry.
Jeff Denby and Nicole Bassett, the founders of The Renewal Workshop
“When you start looking behind the scenes of the apparel industry, you see so much waste,” explains Denby. “And there was literally no solution for brands. To this day, many of them shred or burn items that cannot be sold as first quality, and in some cases, they even shred or burn first quality products that are unsold.”
Making the retail experience green
Determined to help end the wasteful culture of the industry, Denby and Bassett decided to create a fashion company based on a circular business model that eliminates waste and continually uses resources, and so The Renewal Workshop was born.
At first glance, the company’s website feels like that of any other retailer, with pictures of flowing dresses, sleek backpacks and colourful bikinis. In reality, it couldn’t be more different, as everything on sale has been saved from the scrap heap. Sometimes, only a loose button has been fixed. Other items require more intensive repairs, like replacing an entire zipper or removing a stain. Whatever the case, The Renewal Workshop lovingly restores a piece of clothing that would otherwise be headed to the tip.
Getting to this point – a site full of desirable products – wasn’t easy, though. “When we started talking about the circular economy and apparel industry, barely any brands had understood that at all, so we were very early in the discussion about this issue. And from a sustainability standpoint, the waste problem - and the need for a solution - was obvious.”
The Renewal Workshop launders all apparel before it's sold
Keeping good clothes out of the trash pile
Developing The Renewal Workshop’s model took time, but from the start Jeff knew it would centre on keeping clothing from being discarded. “All of this stuff gets made, but where does it go when we’re done with it? Even if we are making things better, like organic and fair trade, it still has to go somewhere when we are finished with it,” he says.
All too often, that ‘somewhere’ is in the rubbish pile. Studies show that the average person throws away around 19 kilos of textiles every year, and clothing sent to landfills releases greenhouse gases for decades as it decomposes. There’s also considerable industry waste pollution to consider too, but these problems gave Jeff the motivation to try and change things for the better.
Employees of The Renewal Workshop repair clothing, making it like new
Getting big brands on board
One of The Renewal Workshops’ biggest challenges was helping companies understand the importance and benefits of reducing waste. “But changing this required a couple of bold, impact-focused brands to actually engage,” says Jeff. “We had some key brands join us back in the US. Then in 2017, we launched the North Face Renewed, and to this today, it's still the largest renewal programme in the world from a brand.”
Selling nothing but refurbished apparel and accessories, the North Face Renewed website proved that The Renewal Workshop was onto something big. “They are a $3-billion-dollar public company that has engaged in this concept. It is commercially successful, and it has an incredible impact for the brand as well,” says Jeff. “I think once we started to demonstrate that we were able to create and manage these large-scale circular economy programmes for brands, we started to really grow.”
Finding a second home in Amsterdam’s sustainable fashion scene
Currently, The Renewal Workshop has about 25 partners in the US, where it operates out of a facility in Portland, Oregon. As the company’s profile grew, Denby started receiving considerable interest from abroad, leading him to open in Amsterdam.
He considered several cities in Europe when looking for a new site, but Amsterdam was a near-perfect fit for a sustainability-centred clothing company. “From a fashion industry standpoint, a lot of the distribution centres are in the Netherlands…so being close to the product minimises transportation. And there's a really strong community here around circular economy thinking.”
This community made it easier for The Renewal Workshop to hit the ground running. “It's been nice to be in a place where ideas about circularity are really progressive, so as opposed to educating business and city leaders on what the circular economy is, we're having great discussions about implementation, ideas and innovation,” he says.
Amsterdam’s unique business climate also made the city an attractive choice. “Something that was helpful for us was the really high level of English proficiency,” adds Jeff. “Even our production workforce speaks English, which makes it easier as an American company to move in and do business right away.”
Now the business is booming. In December 2019, The Renewal Workshop secured $5.5 million in funding just as it was opening its new Amsterdam office. It’s also taking on new partners and helping the brands it works with to become greener, spurring change across the industry while putting the Dutch capital’s sustainable fashion scene in the spotlight.