Big brands launching sustainability goals and sustainable collections have become commonplace. From Zara to H&M, companies are navigating how to cut back on the amount of textile waste their brands produce. On a smaller scale, 10-year-old Marine Layer has been busy finding ways to take apparel pieces already in people’s wardrobes (whether from Marine Layer or not) and give them new life.
In November 2018, Marine Layer launched its Re-Spun program centered on collecting used T-shirts and making them into new products. The brand has collected a total of 100,000 shirts to date, using those to make soft, brand-new tees without using any added dyes, water or new materials in the process. Now, the brand has its sights set on collecting an additional 100,000 T-shirts from customers by the start of 2020, with plans to make Re-Spun collection 50% of the brand’s total assortment by the end of 2020. In 2017, the brand’s revenue reached $26.8 million, per Inc.
The brand has promoted the collection, and its recycling program through its social media accounts, as well as some experiential activations. This summer, the brand took a branded van on a tour of the East Coast to promote the collection and show off some of the latest styles. It also served as an official merchandise partner at Pitchfork’s music festival, selling a Re-Spun tee with a Pitchfork logo on it and collecting old tees.
With that comes some challenges. Mainly, the process of collecting T-shirts and sorting them has largely fallen on the shoulders of the customer service team at Marine Layer’s San Francisco headquarters. There, roughly four employees go through each envelope sent in and help sort tees based on color — that way they can then be broken down into different color yarns, with some recycled plastic bottles added to that yarn, and woven into new shirts.
While 45% of shirts collected are coming in through the brand’s retail locations (where it has drop-off mailboxes) and being sent straight to an external sourcing facility, managing the influx of tees coming in by mail is a big task for the small team. The shirts are stored in a back room at the company’s headquarters.
“We were definitely initially unprepared for the volume of response we received. We’re doing our best to keep it temperature-controlled and make sure it stays nice and fresh back there, even though it’s a room filled with old, stinky shirts. As we continue to expand the program, we will want to always maintain this super hands-on approach, but we’re definitely going to need more space and more folks dedicated to processing shirts,” said Renee Halvorsen, vp of marketing and commerce at Marine Layer.
Marine Layer waits until it has a shipping container’s worth of shirts, about 35,000, before sending them off to a partner factory in Spain to be broken down and remade. So far, the brand has sent three shipping containers worth of shirts, each time opening up space at the brand’s headquarters for this next batch of 100,000 tees.
As the program grows, the brand hopes to make some improvements to the collection process. Marine Layer’s team is currently looking to find a partner to help “build a CRM solution” to track the different steps in the customer’s Re-Spun journey, said Halvorsen. “The same way you would track a customer making an order on our website, and we would send them a shipping confirmation email and order confirmation email, we want that for Re-Spun.” That could potentially also allow the brand to check in with customers who have received their envelopes but haven’t yet sent them back.
In the fall, the brand will debut Re-Spun fleece. After that, it hopes to add wovens to the collection.
“From there, we will have to think through all of our collection points and make sure they can handle the new pieces. Right now, the bags we work with and the set postage are all assuming customers are sending back about five shirts, so we will have to rework them for all these different pieces, which may be complicated,” Halvorsen said.
While logistical challenges are top-of-mind for Marine Layer, Shannon Lohr, CEO of the online accelerator program for sustainable brands, Factory45, said another challenge it should consider is competition around price.
“If you don’t have a big differentiator in your product, and you are just [making clothes] sustainably and your price is a lot higher, it’s hard to compete,” said Lohr.
Marine Layer’s Re-Spun tees run from $52 to $72. For every shirt a customer sends in, the brand sends back a $5 store credit, up to five shirts.