New Life for Returned, Damaged Clothing

The Renewal Workshop's Niclole Bassett points out company's waterless washing system

When damaged or defective clothing is returned to manufacturers, it is usually sent to a landfill, incinerated, or occasionally donated to a cause. If a zipper or snap doesn't function, a seam is blown out, or a button's missing, the article often winds up as part of the 14 million tons of apparel Americans throw out annually.

According to the EPA, keeping this clothing out of landfills would be the equivalent of taking 7.5 million cars and their carbon emissions off the road.

Now, thanks to Oregon-grown cleantech support from Oregon BEST and manufacturing expertise from the Oregon Manufacturers Extension Partnership (OMEP), The Renewal Workshop, a new startup in Cascade Locks, Oregon, is transforming returned clothing into re-sellable items – a process that not only benefits the planet and employs people, but also helps manufacturers hit sustainability goals.

Oregon BEST and OMEP partnered with the company to design and set up a super-efficient 7,500 sq.-ft. lean manufacturing facility in the Columbia River Gorge, with the $22,500 project cost shared equally by the three partners.

"Both Oregon BEST and OMEP contributed expertise, insights, and key support that were critical in helping us design and build out our facility in a way that functions perfectly," said Nicole Bassett, Co-CEO of The Renewal Workshop. "Small, collaborative investments like this are a huge help to Oregon startups like ours as we work to build a more sustainable world."

The company partners with apparel companies committed to sustainability, including the brands prAna, Ibex, Toad&Co, Mountain Khakis, and Indigenous. Partner brands pay a membership fee, and The Renewal Workshop supplies them with feedback about product defects so manufacturing can be adjusted to improve sustainability.

The startup receives returned apparel in bulk, then inspects, grades, repairs, cleans (using a state-of-the-art waterless system), co-labels, and resells clothing articles online at 30 percent off the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

Using renewed clothing saves water, carbon, and waste, said Bassett. "For every nine months that a renewed article of clothing is used, instead of buying it new, the amount of carbon used to manufacture a new product is reduced by 27 percent, water by 33 percent, and waste by 22 percent," she said.

Because manufacturing plays a significantly larger role in the clean technology sector that other sectors, offering cleantech startups access to manufacturing expertise is key.

 "Studies have shown that cleantech is almost three times as active in manufacturing as the broader economy, so manufacturing expertise is a critical skill set to have on hand when cleantech startups are ready to go to scale," said Johanna Brickman, Director of Collaborative Innovation at Oregon BEST.

OMEP developed a comprehensive facility and material flow study, then used a detailed CAD layout to address all the aspects of preparing the facility for efficient and lean manufacturing.

"By carefully thinking through operations and process flow, and with the assistance from Oregon BEST, we were able to set up The Renewal Workshop for success and get it off ground very quickly," said Jim Wehrs, Managing Consultant at OMEP. "In just nine months, the company went from idea to a producing factory!"