Design & Sustainability on

Nau x The Renewal Workshop: Partnering for a Circular Economy

— By: The Team at Nau

The Renewal Workshop, based near Hood River, OR and just 30 miles from Nau’s own HQ, collects damaged and defective clothing from 11 partner apparel/textile manufacturers, who are otherwise left with unsellable and post-warranty inventory, one of the greatest waste problems for the apparel industry. Clothes otherwise bound for the landfill are inspected, repaired, cleaned and restored to their original high quality. The Renewal Workshop then resells the restored items in their web shop. The result? A completely circular and sustainable solution for apparel manufacturers, and a way for customers to become zero waste consumers.

To celebrate the natural partnership of Nau and The Renewal Workshop, and the launch of “Renewed” Nau inventory in the Renewal Workshop’s web shop, Nau’s Materials and Sustainability manager, Courtney Samulik, and Brand Marketing Director, Vicki Vasil, visited The Renewal Workshop to drop off some product and tour the facility. They the sat and talked with Nicole Bassett and Jeff Denby, Renewal Workshop co-founders, to better tell their story. 

Courtney and Vicki of Nau celebrate with TRW’s Nicole and Jeff at Renewal Workshop’s HQ.

Nau: So, first of all, how did you two meet?

Nicole Bassett: Jeff and I met while I was working the Director of Sustainability at PrAna. Jeff is the founder of Pact apparel and we worked on bringing Fair Trade Certification to the apparel together. At that time, I was really interested in manufacturing and the idea of creating a circular economy for the apparel industry. Clothing brands were starting to deal with products reaching their end-of-life stage. I could see there was a perfect storm converging around the need for reducing waste and the benefits of renewing products.

I started interviewing people, researching companies and putting together a business model. But I was thinking, “I have no idea how to start a business.” At the same time, Jeff was leaving Pact with the plan of becoming a business consultant. I said to him: “Wait a minute, you know how to start businesses! What are you doing now?”

Jeff Denby: My first thought: “Uh oh, not another business startup.”

Nicole: In the beginning, we considered self-funding. We started outlining the costs. For a brand to go do business with somebody, you have to be legitimate and be able to deliver to a certain level. You have to have a factory you can audit, real machinery and expertise. We started doing the budget and it was like, “cha-ching, cha-ching.” We quickly decided we needed to raise money.

That sounds intimidating.

Nicole: We got really lucky. We raised the money we needed to set up this factory, bring in the first brand partners, and launch an eCommerce presence.

Jeff: We developed a good business model, too. The Renewal Workshop is solving an actual problem. We were able to get traction really quickly. Five brands joined us on an idea, which was amazing. It was helpful that Nicole, in particular, had been in the Outdoor apparel industry for a long time. We had also both worked inside brands and had experience dealing with new vendors and partners.

Nicole: We raised money for five months. We put our names on our building and hired our founding team in May of (2016). We planned to launch in that fall.

Renewal Workshop founders Jeff Denby and Nicole Bassett met while working together for two separate brands on a mission of sustainability.

Jeff, you live in Oakland. Nicole you are in Hood River, OR, what made you decide to establish your company in Cascade Locks, Oregon?

Nicole: Oregon offered a ton of incentives. It made sense from a cost-of-living standpoint to set up this kind of business here. We would have been really tiny fish in a giant sea in California. I love being a part of a small community, because we really matter here. We also like to think we’re helping empower a community that relies heavily on tourism with a new industry.

Jeff: The local port authority and town council have been so supportive. That’s awesome when you’re starting a new business in a community. In return, we hire a diversified workforce of people who can do packing and shipping, have skills in high-tech, and can handle marketing and management.

You guys are celebrities at the local gas station. People recognize you and say, “Hey, you’re famous!”

Nicole: Well, it’s a small town and we only eat at two restaurants, so there’s that.

The Renewal Workshop’s headquarters is situated in the picturesque Columbia Gorge in Cascade Locks, Oregon.

You are actually a very evolved company for a startup.

Nicole: We’ve been around. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy eliminating the stuff we hate about business and building up the good things.

Jeff: It’s about staying focused, too. We’re working hard on what we’re trying to accomplish right now. Our goal is getting this facility up and running, getting our brand partners on board, producing products and getting them onto our website. We worked hard and pushed fast for our vision to become a real plan.

The Renewal Workshop is obviously built around the idea of sustainability. Exactly how do you explain it?

Jeff: We talk a lot about the circular economy. A couple of years ago, that was a new concept. We created a system that enables brands to think about their products differently–that a product has multiple lives and that they can go on to multiple consumers. That creates a circular system for every product.

Does it take a lot of education to understand ”circular economy” and how it relates to sustainability?

Jeff: At a conference a few weeks ago, somebody from a major brand showed examples of their products and referred to them as “fully sustainable.” That’s actually not a thing. Those products are still high impact because they were produced using water, materials, etc. That’s not enough. Our company takes in high-quality damaged clothing and repairs it so it can be used again. We make our profit by reselling these items on our web site at a lower than retail cost. We are actually demonstrating the circular economy, sustainability in action.

One of the first steps of Renewal is a wash in “the Tersus,” a state-of-the-art, waterless CO2 cleaning machine.

Can there sometimes be a conflict between concepts that help gain exposure for brands versus product claims that are genuinely good for the environment?

Nicole: Yes. I think there’s a disconnect between companies that truly practice sustainability and ones that have figured out really great marketing messages. For example, one major shoe company had a very successful “do good” concept, yet their product was made in China. The shoes were made from conventional cotton and there was very little worker oversight in their factories. The company could have done so much more for workers and the environment. However, consumers just thought, “Oh, I did a good thing—I bought those shoes from such an ethical company.”

Is it a challenge to tell The Renewal Workshop’s full story?

Nicole: Yes! When we talk to people about what we’re doing, Jeff and I go on a stage and talk about the circular economy and this significant thing we’re doing. However, our marketing team simply uses the tag line: “We’re saving clothes from landfills.” That‘s because at a quick glance, the consumer doesn‘t want to hear a 20-minute sustainability talk. They want to hear a two-second sound bite. It’s always been a challenge to talk about sustainability in a short amount of time.

Jeff: We‘re still figuring it out. Our team is working hard to find a balance. For example, if you look at our Instagram feed, it mixes educational messages with fun. There is definitely a focus on facts, but it still is entertaining.

Your message isn‘t preachy. You celebrate what your brand does well, because it‘s better for the environment and the world.

Nicole: If I’m going to commit myself to something, it better be worthwhile. I only have one life. I think that’s where Jeff and I share values. We both believe in good in the world and want to manifest it.

Jeff: For some reason, I ended up in the apparel business. I have expertise and an understanding of the business. And now I‘m driven to help overcome the industry‘s challenges. I think when you have a natural set of values that connects you to the environment and to other people, as I do, you want to dedicate your life to trying to solve important problems.

This company seems like a natural fit for you both. Do you ever imagine doing anything else?

Nicole: My husband and I talk about this almost weekly, he also has his own company. He‘ll say, “What if we had regular jobs and made a lot of money?” And I‘ll respond: “Really… you want to work for someone else?” He just looks at me every time and says “Nope.”

Do you see any positive changes in the apparel industry since you started The Renewal Workshop?

Nicole: I’ve seen factories change. There were zero Fair-Trade factories five years ago and now I think are maybe 15 of them. If you go into any factory in Asia, their managers will say: “The only way we’ll change is if the brands that buy from us want change.” That means that it really comes down to changing customers’ attitudes first. We must convince consumers that factory workers deserve living wages. We must educate customers to not accept the use of harmful chemicals or poor labor rights in their products.

Can The Renewal Workshop make a difference in the clothing industry without getting caught up in politics?

Jeff: When the public sector fails, the private sector often sees opportunities. A lot of social entrepreneurs are looking for ways to create businesses related to making people’s lives better or solving environmental problems. Turning these efforts into self-sustaining businesses is really healthy in the long term. I believe that less public funding in businesses is a good thing.

Nicole: It’s interesting to see young Millennials, and even folks in their 30s, stepping up and saying, “I‘m going to help solve this problem.” Making this problem-solving effort a for-profit business is important, too, because that‘s what the world responds to.

Jeff: If solving key problems can also create successful businesses, that‘s good for all of us. It‘s interesting when you can look at current politics and think, “Ugh, we’re doomed.” But then you actually look at the private sector and say, “Oh wait, there are a lot of really bright people who are actually picking up the slack and making things better.“ That’s amazingly encouraging.

To learn more about The Renewal Workshop, visit their website.

Browse Renewed Nau products here.