Interview with Nicole Bassett, The Renewal Workshop

Introductory slide to Nicole Bassett of The Renewal Workshop

Can you tell us a little bit about your background/history that led you to this point? 

I started my second career (first one was in film & TV as an editor) in sustainability in the apparel industry. Having gone back to school for environmental studies and business, I was inspired by the idea that businesses and the capitalist model could be a tool for benefiting people and the planet instead of destroying them. After school, I was fortunate to get an internship which then turned into a full time job at Patagonia - the leading apparel brand at the time in sustainability. From then on, I was locked into transforming the apparel industry from an extractive industry to a regenerative one. 

Women working at The Renewal Workshop

Tell us about your product/brand and the inspiration behind it? 

I am now the Co-Founder of The Renewal Workshop. Having worked in the apparel industry for a decade, it was very apparent that even if we could make all the clothes in the world from organic or recycled materials and in Fair Trade factories, at the end of the day, the business model, the way brands make money was broken. In order for brands to create financial wealth, they needed to make more products, year over year and this had limits.

The Renewal Workshop is the leading provider of circular solutions for apparel and textile brands. We see circular business models as the solution for the industry, to generate revenue from products they have already created. 

How does sustainability play a role in your brand/product development? How important has this been to consumers?

Sustainability is at the heart of our company, not only in the design of the business. Our company diverts apparel and textile waste from landfill to our factory where we have living wage jobs to clean, repair and certify each garment and then get it back out for resale. This means that every time we “Renew” and resell an item, we are directly helping the planet. Additionally, we bring the ethos of circular into our daily operations, reducing our own manufacturing waste and incorporating buying reused for our operations. 

Someone sewing and renewing a piece at The Renewal Workshop

What are your thoughts on the future role sustainability plays both professionally in business and in our everyday lifestyle choices, in regards to the future health of our planet?

I started my career as a sustainability professional in 2005. At that time, there were very few companies who understood why taking care of people and the planet would help their businesses. Today, most companies are incorporating some kind of sustainability practices. My experience is that this is being driven not only from customer demand, but from employee demand. Most people want to contribute to something good and not harm others or the planet and they are asking their employers to step up and start doing the right thing. So, I see sustainability becoming even more ingrained in the way we live our lives as individuals as well as companies continually evolving to lower their negative impact and improve their positive one. 

How does technology and innovation play a role in your business?

Technology is an important tool to our business and at the same time we rely on the high skills of our employees to be the leadership company we are. Technology is a tool and can serve people to make their jobs easier or more efficient, but one has to be careful that technology isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems. For instance, we use software and data to help tell stories about the products we are processing which then helps our business become more efficient, as well as help our brand partners design better products for the future. But we also know that human problem solving - and especially in our case where we are touching products and repairing them - cannot be replaced by technology and so we leverage that information to also serve innovation.  

Two finished pieces from The Renewal Workshop

What does wilderness mean to you?

I grew up in Northern British Columbia, so wilderness is deeply ingrained in who I am as a person and how I recharge my internal clock. Wilderness is when you are out in nature and you realize there is nothing manmade around you and that this is what the world would be like without humans. I find that really special because humans have impacted the planet more than any other species and I am so curious what it is like when humans are not part of the equation.  I believe that wilderness and nature is where we should be looking for inspiration on how to live with balance. My favorite moments in life are definitely in the wilderness. 

Do you have a favorite item, it may be an heirloom handed down from a grandparent, friend or relative of some kind, that has great meaning to you?

My KitchenAid – it was a gift from my aunt for my first wedding. It was also the only thing I took after my divorce when I left. I love to cook and it gets used weekly. Cooking is something that is really special to me because it is a gift that I can give to others, to feed them and make them feel special. And because it gets used so often a bolt has come loose and I have duct taped it together, so it looks repaired - using things as long as possible is something that I feel strongly about. 

A woman holding up the business model for The Renewal Workshop

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you where would it be and what would you take with you apart from the obvious survival gear?

I love camping and would choose somewhere in the mountains with a lake nearby. And I would bring my watercolors with me. One, I get bored easily, so I want a hobby, beyond keeping myself alive, and two, to capture the beauty around me. 

Imagine that 25 years from now you are looking back on your life, what would be the legacy that you would hope for your brand to leave behind?

I hope that the way business is done is different because of me. I have dedicated most of my career to trying out new business models that help the planet - things like Fair Trade apparel, or more sustainable products or circular business models. I have been inspired by others who have tried ideas and have learned from successes and failures, and that is how humans evolve.  We learn and we grow and I would like my work to have influenced how businesses can be positive contributions to the planet and human life. We are only on this planet for a short time, I hope that my time was meaningful and gave back. 

The process and the completed product

What message do you have for those starting their own business in regards to sustainability and innovation?

I recognize that this sounds arrogant, but I feel that no one should start a business unless they are considering its impact on people and the planet. A business should consider where its products come from and who was impacted, then it should consider what the sale or service of the business does to the planet and finally where the product created will go when it is at the end of its use. By considering these questions, the future of business will be sustainable and that is what our planet needs right now. 

Do you have a quote, saying or poem you find inspirational and what is it?

My favorite quote is “the only way out is through” by Robert Frost. There have been a lot of times while running The Renewal Workshop where I wish I could quit or want to avoid doing something, but the reality is, the only way is by doing the work. Life is filled with everything from joy to sadness, pain, struggle, peace and everything in between. It isn’t going to be easy, but being present with what is and taking each moment at a time will get you through it and it is good to be reminded of that. 

The Renewal Workshop encourages the recycling and repurposing of old clothing

What brands do you admire? 

I admire the home goods company Coyuchi. Their products use the most sustainable practices with Fair Trade and organic cotton and they are always looking at further ways to make their products sustainable. In addition, I admire their business plan as they are exploring new ways to serve their customers through leasing business models, take back programs and recycling of their products. They are truly embracing circularity and sustainability. 

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers?

I think transparency is critical, because it gives customers the ability to make their own decisions and not be swayed by marketing. If brands can tell customers what is in their products and where they are made, then the customer can choose if those practices align with their values or not. Transparency should be what every brand should strive to achieve. 

The Renewal Workshop promise and their process

Can you tell us something about your product/brand/personal journey that might surprise us to know? 

I started my career as a film and TV editor. I wanted to make movies when I was a kid and eventually took my education and career there. I learned a lot of skills that I still use today. The first is about editing my work. I don’t see work as one and done, but rather a series of edits that are slowly over time crafting the perfect piece of work. I also learned the importance of storytelling and how to craft a story such that it is heard, engaging and compelling. While I stopped that part of my career over 15 years ago, it still influences how I work today. 

What is your favorite animal and why? 

Don’t tell my Australian Shepherds, but I love Pikas. I think they are such cute and mysterious little animals. They are hard to find in the wilderness, so seeing one is pretty special. And their round little ears make them look like cartoons, which I find very sweet. 

Many scenes from The Renewal Workshop's workshop

What is one thing you would be willing to or have already given up with the health of the planet in mind?

The one thing I have not given up and I wish I could find a way to is to stop flying. My work requires a lot of travel and it always pains me to book an airline ticket these days when we know the impact of air travel on our climate crisis. 

However, I did buy a used electric car last year and that has been great to drive around without having to use carbon to do so.