‘We turn chaos into order,’ says Jeff Denby, who co-founded The Renewal Workshop alongside his wife Nicole Bassett. Started from their Oregon HQ in 2016, the company basically acts as a behind-the-scenes caretaker for brands, taking their discarded apparel (be it unsellable, damaged or returned) and then repairing it, selling it for the brands online and providing data-driven feedback so that those brands can improve their product development.
So far, Jeff says, it has saved around 3,200 tons of apparel and textiles from waste. ‘The brands don’t think of it as a resource they’re going to use again, so they just dump it on us,’ he says. With clothing turning up by the envelope and the truckload, turning all that chaos into order requires some process.
How it works
1. The manual sorting process sees boxes opened and items split up (eg, coats, denim shirts, trousers).
2. Based on the seasonal needs of the brands, the clothing moves to a quality sort. Here, guidelines help staff assess the product and figure out if it can be renewed.
3. If it can be, items are cleaned by liquid CO2 cleaning technology, with no heat or water used.
4. Every item gets serialised with a unique barcode – the system then reconnects original product data from the brand with what the product is.
5. The item goes through quality control, where staff determine how it can be fixed, and then the repair area, where staff fix, label and finish it.
6. The item moves to the quality- assurance area to ensure it’s been fixed to the standards of the brand.
7. If going up online, the item is photographed. Someone then connects the physical product, photo and data all together and it’s moved to packaging and stocking.
8. The renewed item goes online, with the business handling all aspects of fulfillment to the customer.
In Amsterdam, there are 20 members of staff, 16 of whom work in the production space. The roles are split into the sort team, the quality team, the repair team and the merchandising team.
Contrary to how most manufacturing companies operate, there’s a flexible approach to hours of work. ‘We’re not the kind of company where we blow a whistle at the beginning of the day and blow a whistle at the end of the day,’ says Jeff.
Trained people work at every station, with several cross-trained across multiple stations. Many of the staff are trained on the job. ‘It’s kind of amazing to see folks come in who have not held jobs in manufacturing,’ says Jeff.
The quality control team are specialised in fabric and product construction; the repair team are trained ‘almost like tailors’, as they have to repair complex items like outdoor jackets to a completely new condition. There are six industrial-level sewing machines.
The company adheres to a Teal management system, meaning they operate largely without organisational charts, hierarchies or quarterly goals. ‘We provide all the necessary resources, but the whole team figures out how to do it – the most important skill set is to take on accountability,’ says Jeff.
The Amsterdam branch is currently partnered with four brands: Tommy Hilfiger, The North Face, COS and Swedish outdoor brand Haglöfs. In the US, a longer list of partners includes Carhartt, Pottery Barn and swimwear brand Mara Hoffman.
The amount of apparel and textiles that come into the workshop fluctuates from week to week: ‘We might receive a truck from Tommy Hilfiger, 33 pallets of products, then we may not receive anything for two months, because the distribution centre waits until they have amassed enough to send,’ explains Jeff.
The company manages the second-hand websites of their partner brands, including Tommy for Life and The North Face Renewed. It handles all the back-end stuff including information, photography, application programming interfaces and sales; the brands have control over the front-end operations. The Renewal Workshop even has a template that allows brands to put their own spin on messaging and marketing.
The company uses what Jeff refers to as ‘a chaotic storing system’ – all renewed items are put into different bins and inside each bin are randomised items. ‘It means that when we get an order for a red coat, it will say the coat is in bin C52. So, when the picker goes to bin C52, it’ll be the only red coat in there.’
There’s a designated area for photographing the renewed items with the appropriate lighting – everything’s hooked up to a computer that allows photos to be taken really quickly.