Building a Circular Economy with Nellie Cohen
As a highly-respected thought leader on circular economy initiatives—and a guiding light in helping us build our new resale program, Hand Me Dôen—Nellie Cohen’s path to finding her calling was an unconventional one. When her graduate concentration in oceanography proved too niche to find a job at the outset of the Great Recession, Nellie applied to work in retail at Patagonia’s Ventura store—which happened to be at the brand’s headquarters. Eventually, with a touch of luck and a healthy dose of grit, she transitioned into a role in Patagonia’s Enviro Department, where she began the invaluable work she does today.
Nellie has been a key figure in building and implementing a number of beloved brands’ sustainability initiatives—most notably, Patagonia’s iconic resale program, Worn Wear. After working for years with clients at her own environmental sustainability consulting firm, Baleen (named after the whales she spent years studying!), Nellie now serves as Director of Circular Business Models at Anthesis—and lives in Ojai, a place she loves for its breathtaking natural beauty and strong sense of community. We sat down with Nellie to talk about the importance of circular business models, balancing motherhood with work life, and the steps we can take right away to lessen our environmental impact.
What first brought you to Ojai? What do you love most about living there?
In 2008, my husband and I were living in Solana Beach. We were backpacking a ton in those days. One day I read an article in Backpacker magazine about hiking the Sespe Wilderness, just north of Ojai. We figured it would be a great weekend trip. It was spring, and I remember driving up through Meiners Oaks and smelling the orange blossoms; the scent seemed to fill the whole valley. I couldn’t believe that people could live somewhere so beautiful with access to land as magical as the Los Padres National Forest. Fortunately, we were in a place in our lives where we were ready to make a big move geographically. We hadn’t been able to decide where our next home would be, but Ojai answered that question for us. We’ve been here now for 13 years, and I am still astonished at the beauty Ojai presents daily. I love raising my boys here, where there is such a cohesive community. It truly feels like we have a village of parents who are all helping one another.
What part of the Worn Wear Program are you most proud of?
Worn Wear broke the trail for what a circular economy could look like for an apparel company, and consequently its customers: buying fewer things of higher quality and keeping them in use through repair, resale and responsible recycling. But what I feel might have been the most innovative part of the program is the messaging and language of Worn Wear. We flipped the marketing paradigm upside down. While most brands will tell you that you’ll be happier/feel better about yourself/have more friends/etc. if you buy their stuff, Worn Wear didn’t. We told people that they’d be happier keeping the stuff they already own, perhaps even with a big patch on it—we truly celebrated the stories people wear. We focused on creating community and self-worth, which helps people feel empowered to do big things— like save the planet.
What inspired you to start your own corporate environmental sustainability consulting company, Baleen?
Like many women, I had a tough transition to motherhood for a variety of reasons, including challenges with nursing and the feeling that I had lost my own identity amidst the complete life takeover that infants deliver. I realized that I needed more flexibility and space in my life for my new son and myself. I saw that there were communications and branding agencies as well as corporate environmental sustainability consultancies, but the two didn’t mix very often in really deep ways. I also saw a lot of greenwashing out in the world. The opportunity I recognized for myself was to help brands filter out the noise, the greenwashing and the complexity of developing an approach to doing well by doing good that is real and authentic to both the brand and the planet.
What were some of the key goals and intentions you focused on while working with us on the development of our new resale program, Hand Me Dôen?
DÔEN follows its own path in every way, and this program got to leverage that outlook to build Hand Me Dôen. With such timeless design and high-quality garments, it’s the perfect blend for a circular business model. One of the key differences between Hand Me Dôen and other resale programs is that it is designed with the intention of being part of the brand’s growth, as opposed to a sustainability initiative that might be more focused on marketing the brand.
DÔEN invested in staffing, warehouse space, website functionality, and more to ensure that Hand Me Dôen is a part of the brand and customer’s experience; it’s truly committed. The financial structure of the program accounts for the existing secondary market for DÔEN, while balancing the need for the program to make economic sense. It splits the sale of the used item 50/50 with the customer, but pays the customer up front–before the item actually sells. And it acknowledges that DÔEN is a relatively young brand, so there’s a limit to how much inventory is out in the world that could come back to the brand, so it consolidates inventory and holds periodic sales so that people come in and have a great experience buying used. HMD also allows people who sell items back in the months leading up to the sale to access it first, which encourages people to think differently about the utilization of their clothing.
What challenges have you encountered when implementing circular business models, and why is it important for brands to prioritize a shift away from a linear business model as we look ahead?
While brands have gotten very good at making more sustainable products, they’re making more products—which means we’ve yet to truly save resources or reduce pollution. This is why it’s so critical to shift away from linear business models that take resources, make stuff, sell it and don’t think about where it ends up when someone is done with it. Circular business models such as resale, renting, leasing, etc. encourage the least material use for the most utility through monetizing products that already exist. And they allow business to largely disconnect the use of natural resources and the production of waste and emissions from revenue generation. There are few things with a greater overall environmental benefit than reducing material use, and circular business models are an incredibly powerful way to do this.
“Circular business models such as resale, renting, leasing, etc. encourage the least material use for the most utility through monetizing products that already exist.”
There are several challenges to getting a circular business model right. First, circular business models must be user-centric and appealing so that people will use them and they can scale. The intention is that a circular business model will grow and enable the brand to replace the production of new things with the sales revenue from used things. It’s this beautiful symbiotic relationship between building a viable business and saving the planet. Secondly, as much as we’d like circular businesses to be self-sustaining, they are not. They need the same level of strategy, marketing, operational, and digital support as any product line.
Lastly, the environmental impacts and potential negative externalities have to be monitored. For example, if the incentives of a resale program only encourage the consumption of new things, it might not be delivering the desired sustainability goals. Or if the transportation impacts of a rental program incur a huge footprint that outweighs the environmental impact savings, it’s not going to work for the planet. We have to think through it all — the customers, the economics, the impacts.
“While brands have gotten very good at making more sustainable products, they’re making more products – which means we’ve yet to truly save resources or reduce pollution. This is why it’s so critical to shift away from linear business models that take resources, make stuff, sell it and don’t think about where it ends up when someone is done with it.”
As consumers, what are some of the most important things we can do right away to lessen our environmental impact?
The best thing we can do for the planet is to consume less of everything. Start with defining your own style so that you only purchase things you love and will wear for many years, as opposed to trying to stay on trend. Don’t be afraid to hire a professional to help you—in the end, you will save money by avoiding buying things you don’t really love or that don’t work for you. The focus should be on having a closet in which you love every piece and feel both excited and satiated every time you pick something to wear. Also, find a couple people who are good with sewing machines – tailoring and repairing your clothing instead of replacing it are some of the very best things you can do for the planet. And inevitably, bodies and taste change. If you can’t tailor an item or dye it a new color, find responsible ways to pass along things you no longer wear. This could include hosting a clothing swap with friends, selling items back through a resale program, selling items at a local consignment store, and lastly using a clean-out bag or donation.
These last two come last because there is no way to know if your items are getting downcycled domestically into products such as insulation or if they’re being exported overseas to become someone else’s problem – but we do know that globally, less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new garments.
“The focus should be on having a closet in which you love every piece and feel both excited and satiated every time you pick something to wear.”
How do you balance work life with motherhood? What are some of the biggest challenges and joys?
Balance is something that doesn’t come naturally to me, and it has been one of my hardest and most important lessons of motherhood. You have to get very honest with yourself about what matters to you, and prioritize that. As women, we tend to put others’ needs before our own—and although it seems like a simple question to answer what matters to us, the answer can be quite complex and layered.
For me, the complexity came from the struggle to be okay with missing out on things and letting people down now and then in order to preserve balance and sanity. My oldest will be five in January, and I think I am finally getting the hang of the balance. My day flows in order of priority – I start with my workout because I know that will put me in a place of positivity, satisfaction, gratitude, and awareness that sets me up for success for the rest of the day. Also, sacrificing workouts is incredibly easy to do once the day begins. Then, I get in a quick hangout over breakfast with my family before I plunge into my workday -- because it’s important to me to connect with and be present for my kids, even if it’s for a short time. I then flow into my workday, after-school hang time with my boys, and the dinner-bath-bed routine. It’s packed—but it’s packed with what I love. Creating a balance is challenging, but it brings so much joy because it allows everyone’s needs to be met, including my own, which makes the entire working-mother situation feel like it's possible, perhaps even successful on some days!