Hi everyone - Claire here. I toured the Renew Centre at the Eileen Fisher headquarters almost two years ago, and it was a game-changer for me. It was the most concrete illustration of sustainability values put into practice that I’d ever seen first-hand, and it was really validating to see a household-name company doing exactly the things people told me I shouldn’t bother with in my own, way smaller business. It helped me move designing for product circularity to the top of my priority list without making apologies or excuses for it.
The Eileen Fisher Renew program is an initiative designed to create a fashion future without waste. The brand takes back clothing from customers who no longer wear them and give them a second life. It’s been operating for 10 years (!) now and has seen 1.2 million garments come through the system, being reused or resold instead of being disposed of. Claire had the extreme honor of chatting about the program and circular design with Cynthia Power, director of Eileen Fisher Renew. Overseeing the business, operations and creative team at the Tiny Factory, she’s spearheading the movement for brands taking responsibility for what they put out into the world and reducing the end-of-life impact of their products.
Claire Theaker-Brown: Can we jump right into it? Can I ask what segment of EF’s overall revenue comes from the Renew Program?
Cynthia Power: Renew’s growing. In 2019, we surpassed $4.5 million (USD) in revenue, almost entirely from our online store. [Renew items are also available through Renew stores in Seattle and Irvington, and through several brick-and-mortar Eileen Fisher locations across America.] That’s about 1% of company revenue.
CTB: What are some of the challenges of growing and maintaining the program?
CP: We actually have to be careful about how we market the Renew Program’s buyback initiative so that we don’t overwhelm our operational capacity. The more we market, the more we get back - and we did a big campaign about five years ago that actually created a storage problem. We were sitting on items for over a year, and it was a great learning experience. We’re growing, it’s working, but we’re still figuring it all out.
CTB: Do you have a sense of who your typical Renew supplier is? In other words - what’s the customer profile of the person who sends their preloved Eileen Fisher garments back?
CP: Definitely the core Eileen Fisher customer who has a lot of pieces in her wardrobe. Really, we’re looking to our long-time clients to be our supply - and looking to acquire new customers with the Renew products we’re making. A younger customer who shares our environmental values, who cares about sustainability but can’t afford a new item with a high price tag - that’s who is buying Renew pieces.
CTB: Are there any logistical challenges that come with the Renew Program?
CP: Yes - you start to think about inventory very differently. It takes a lot of time to process individual pieces and triage them - an item may come back and be ready for resale, or it might be part of a different category altogether. [Editor's note: Clothing pieces for the Eileen Fisher Renew program are sent to one of their recycling centers where they are sorted into different categories. Items that are good as new are cleaned and resold, while the rest is transformed into one-of-a-kind pieces using a custom felting technique for the Resewn Collection]
We have a partner company called Yertle that runs our resale platform; they also run Patagonia’s Worn Wear and other companies’ circularity initiatives. It’s not inexpensive to sell individual garments - photograph them, upload them, fulfill them - so it’s sort of a trade-off - but we think it’s worth it.
It’s also always easiest to sell products through brick-and-mortar locations. It’s simpler to educate customers as to what the program is, and it turns into a treasure hunt for them.
CTB: We get a lot of people asking if designing for circularity and running a takeback program is “worth it.” You’re a way bigger company than we are - do you face the same questions?
CP: Well, to put it simply - yes, we make money on our resale business. We wouldn't run the Renew Program if it were draining resources all the time, because that’s not sustainable, either. If we were doing straight resale - if we were keeping only what was immediately resalable and discarding everything else - the program would be even more profitable… but that’s not in line with our values.
We like to find ways to make something new out of damaged pieces, which is costly - and we are constantly investing in research and development, which is always heavy on resources. But we believe it’s the right thing to do, and there are other benefits, too - it heightens our brand and shows that we’re living our values.
CTB: We get a lot of pressure to postpone environmental and social sustainability until we’re a bigger company with higher margins. When do you think is the right time to implement a circularity initiative into a business?
CP: If you believe in sustainability and you want it to be a part of your business - I’d say from the beginning. One of the challenges with introducing these programs at a larger scale is that people become worried about revenue cannibalization - and when you’re running a $400-500 million company, there’s a lot more at stake.
So my opinion is - start it now. Let it be tiny. See how it affects your business, your operations, your storytelling. And then see if you can play with it as you grow.-
I want to thank Cynthia so much for taking the time to chat with us about the Renew program. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit their site here, and read profiles on the initiative here, here and here. Photos included in this post are from Claire's visit in 2018.
This month we’ve taken the leap with our tiny Buyback experiment and have been delighted with the response. We’re taking back belts until February 29. Find out more here.