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Renew by Eileen Fisher Aims for 100 Percent Garment Recycling

Renew by Eileen Fisher might just be the gold standard in recycling and upcycling of apparel.

The line’s designer, Carmen Gama, told a Smart Talks audience at Premiere Vision on Wednesday that the regenerative Renew by Eileen Fisher brand has taken back over 1 million garments and done over $10 million in sales since it began in 2009.

“Our goal is to be a zero waste company,” Gama said. “From the inception of the company, we wanted to answer the question ‘what happens to all the product people throw out?’ That’s when Eileen Fisher decided to start the customer take-back program.”

Renew’s mantra is to recycle, repair, remanufacture and resell. Several years ago, the company began the marketing of Renew with signage and ads that said, “We’d like our clothes back now thank you very much.”

The company has two recycling centers, in Irvington, N.Y., and Seattle, where it collects 3,000 to 4,000 garments per week. Customers are given a $5 coupon when they return a garment.

“They profit from the resale and contribute to the environment,” Gama said.

At the centers, the company sorts garments to determine whether they can be resold as “gently worn garments’ by either repairing them or remanufacturing them. If they can’t, the materials are upcycled into new textiles. Overdyeing is done with plant-based ingredients to give the garments a freshness.

A portion of the clothes taken back are damaged beyond repair. So the company deconstructs many of the pieces and resews the remaining fabric to create patchwork designs. Gama noted that the remanufacturing system takes into account elements like fiber, style, color and size range availability because “our inventory informs design, instead of the other way around. After deconstructing, we allocate what we can remanufacture.”

“Let’s just say the customer has responded very well,” Gama said about the line’s success.

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In addition, the Renew line has also helped boost the signature Eileen Fisher business because “it helps tell our story and builds customer loyalty,” Gama said.

Gama said the number one challenge is “there’s no book written about what we are doing. So we had to invent the system and create new rules, and it took us a long time to break the rules of how the company operated. But the good thing was that Eileen was behind us 100 percent.”

The other challenge is making clothes out of garments to fit the Eileen Fisher style and aesthetic, which is very simple using high quality materials. Renew by its nature uses more seems than the regular Eileen Fisher collection, for example.

Now, Gama and her team are trying to figure out the next step in sourcing materials because of the limitations of remanufacturing.

“Ideally, we want to take back 100 percent of what’s being out in the world,” Gama added. “About 20 percent of what we have in inventory we don’t know what do to with. For example, spandex is very difficult to restore, so we’re looking into that.”