Renew Merchandise manufactures licensed T-shirts, polo shirts, performance T’s and hats, all made from recycled materials, including bottles. GreenSportsBlog was intrigued about this business at the intersection of Green and Sports and so we talked with J.T. Marburger, the company’s President, about where Renew Merchandise is going.
GreenSportsBlog: J.T., Renew Merchandise sounds like the archetypical Green Business. Congratulations! How did you come to start the company?
J.T. Marburger: I’ve been in the logoed apparel merchandise business, with my partner Dr. Harvey Schiller, for years. Our first company, Insignia Promotions, has worked with Coca-Cola and many other companies to provide apparel–t-shirts, polo shirts, etc.–with the their logo emblazoned on them. So we knew the market very well.
GSB: So where did making logoed apparel from bottles come from?
JT: Actually Coca-Cola suggested it to us back in 2008. At first, the feel wasn’t as good as product made from virgin polyester but now, the quality is terrific. And the cost of the raw material was cheaper than virgin but the finished product was much more.
GSB: And now?
JT: Well, based on us working directly with waste collectors and processing plants, our finished product is now same price as virgin product.
JT Marburger, President, Renew Merchandise (Photo credit: JT Marburger)
GSB: Got it! OK, back to 2008. How did you go from a suggestion from Coke to start a company making apparel from bottles?
JT: Over a couple of years, we tested the business plan by costing out raw materials, finding producers and partners. Finally, we were ready to launch in 2012. We bought our raw materials–the bottles–in the US and then transformed that into yarn in Guatemala. Coca-Cola was our first customer.
GSB: How big was the first order?
JT: It was somewhere between 250-500,000 pieces. We made t-shirts, polo shirts, performance t’s, and hats for Coke. All from bottles.
GSB: That is so COOL! So where did this apparel go?
JT: Renew Merchandise was sold in Coca-Cola stores and used for promotions. Also at the London 2012 Olympics where Coke was a sponsor…
GSB:…And which, on most metrics, was arguably the greenest Olympics to date…
JT: …Yes, and also in Brazil at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
GSB: What about US pro sports teams?
JT: The Atlanta Braves have gone big–their staff uniforms are made from Renew Merchandise–it’s a great way to differentiate the club from other attractions in Atlanta.
Ad in the Atlanta Braves game program featuring Coca-Cola and Renew Merchandise (Photo credit: Atlanta Braves and Coca-Cola, Inc.)
GSB: So how does the public find out that the merchandise is made from recycled bottles?
JT: Great question. First of all, the number of post consumer recycled bottles used in the garment is listed on the label. We work with our partner pro teams and brands on creative activations. And we also work with college campuses on green marketing programs as well.
GSB: This sounds great but do fans really care about this? I have seen research strongly supporting the notion that they do, indeed, care. But I wonder how deep and broad that concern is. What do you think?
JT: I think fans do care, but that it’s a slow build. What is clear is that, as a society, we don’t recycle enough…
GSB: …US recycling rates are, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 34%. So you’re very right…
JT: …I believe one reason the rates are low is that consumers want to know where the stuff goes and, in most cases, they don’t know. So we’re making it obvious. And it has to be obvious–and simple.
GSB: I would bet that college campuses would be ripe for Renew Merchandise.
JT: YES! In fact, we want this to be a student-led movement. So we look to engage a wide range of students who have business, merchandising, sustainability majors to help tell the Renew story. Bookstores are excited by Renew as they us as a source of new customers not just focused solely on athletics. For example, they can run a promotion in which shoppers who bring bottles for recycling get a discount on one of our shirts.
GSB: Athletics Departments, often in need of positive news, must love this. What colleges have bought in?
JT: Oregon, South Carolina and Georgia Southern were our first four schools in 2014.
GSB: That’s a great group—especially with Oregon’s cool, trend-setting image. How does 2015 look?
JT: The year’s not over but we’re up to 30 schools. For 2016? 100 schools is not out of the question.
GSB: WOW! That’s great. How big is the business now?
JT: We’re in early growth stage right now–under $10 million in sales for this year, we expect to be $50 million in 2017, $100 million by 2020.
GSB: Given that you’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of colleges and universities, as well as with pro sports teams, those predictions seem conservative. Good luck!
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