Member Spotlight: SEW Nebraska

SEW Nebraska logos stamped on pieces of denim
Published May 25, 2021
This is part of a series of interviews with NRC members. The purpose is to provide insights into materials management programs and best practices of member municipalities, businesses, and service providers.

SEW Nebraska, which stands for “sustainable, eco-friendly work,” is the sister company to the Black Market Clothing Exchange that launders and repairs items for resale. The BMCE is a resale company that buys, sells, and trades clothing. The BMCE started in 2004 in downtown Lincoln and is currently at 5740 Old Cheney in a smaller boutique called the Glamhouse. The SEW recovers textile waste from the BMCE by repurposing the material into new products such as dog beds and covers, household goods such as hot pads, and other fashion accessories such as scrunchies. The SEW also sells B quantity items to the public through a brick-and-mortar 91 Cent Sale.

We spoke with Jennifer Murrell of SEW Nebraska to get an inside look at the SEW’s history and practices.

NRC: What steps has SEW Nebraska taken to reduce waste and incorporate more sustainable materials and practices? Can you describe what you have done and what your initial goals were?  

SEW: Our initial goal was to recover all textile waste that comes into our parent company. For the first 13 years of the BMCE, we would donate the textile waste to local charities that recycle material in large quantities, but we realized we could repurpose this material into new products rather than export the waste to third world countries. The textile waste could be processed into reclaimed fabric to incorporate into products. We created a value system in all clothing that comes through our facilities whether it be cut into smaller fabric, repaired, or laundered or shredded. Our sorting methods have made it easier to recover textile waste.

NRC: How and when did the idea for making these changes arise in the first place?

SEW: It was in 2017 that we realized to make the changes and start buying textile waste by the pound. We contacted a recycling company out of Florida that purchased textiles by the pound but shipped the textile waste to India, and we did not feel that was part of our mission to simply ship our waste overseas. It was not part of our circular mission to keep our waste local. The investigation of the overseas textile recycling industry led our company toward the push for textile recovery in the form of new products by reusing the material.

NRC: What are the most difficult aspects of maintaining the program and how do you handle them?

SEW: The most difficult aspect is the amount of textile waste that we accumulate and how fast we can collect the waste. We do not have the means/equipment to shred and process the textile waste quick enough to get to the production step for the recovered material to be made into the new products. We have slowed down our collection of textile waste to help with this, but this is not our goal. 

NRC: Were there any unexpected barriers?  

SEW: One of the unexpected barriers, which we saw when we started offering textile recycling by the pound, was the sheer amount of textile waste that we were collecting. We soon ran out of space and had to relocate to a larger facility. 

NRC: Were there any unanticipated benefits?   

SEW: One of the unanticipated benefits is the outreach that we have seen in the educational sector of the community, where teachers and professional are coming to us to provide demonstrations to students and other businesses. We have visited schools and given presentations, and we are working with two local thrift stores that recycle their textile waste with us. 

NRC: Has the program led to other sustainability initiatives or overall awareness of renewable energy, water conservation, greenhouse gas reduction, employee benefits, etc.? 

SEW: We need to work on marketing our message of sustainability better by enhancing our customers’ knowledge and awareness of how secondhand clothing and textile recovery leads to water conservation and greenhouse gas reduction.

NRC: Are you tracking recycling, landfilling, reduction, and reuse (zero waste) metrics? 

SEW: We are tracking the amount, in pounds, of how much textile waste we collect. We do not track the byproducts that get recycled such as cardboard. We still need to develop these metrics.

NRC: What have you done to engage the community?  

SEW: We engage our community mainly at our brick-and-mortar store. Our employees teach the public about clothing resale and textile recycling. We have participated in Earth Day events and the LES Sustainable Living Festival to bring awareness to textile waste. We have also provided presentations or hands on experiences at the Children’s Museum, Lincoln Public Schools, and UNL. 

NRC: What are your goals or aspirations going forward?

SEW: Our goal is to continue our mission to recover textile waste by reusing the material rather than recycling. We want to have our business be zero-waste. We can scale our business to a large textile recovery facility that offers curbside pick-up and drop off locations. We want to be more accessible to the community.

NRC: How do you think you can reach those goals?  

SEW: We can reach these goals by continuing our process, partnering with other local recycle companies that do not recycle textiles, and engaging more on a city level.

NRC: What are your biggest concerns going forward?

SEW: Our biggest concern going forward is not having the capital to maintain the scalability of our business.

NRC: Do you have any advice for others trying to improve their programs?

SEW: Keep at it; it is not an overnight solution, and keep thinking about the greater good of your community and world. 

NRC: What do you think is the single most important thing to do or the most important place to start when implementing the types of changes you have made?

SEW: It starts with changing consumer behavior and giving them the education to implement their own personal change within their households.

NRC: If you had the power to change anything in the overall system of materials management outside your business, what would it be?

SEW: If we have the power to change anything in the overall system of textile material management, it would be to change the way fabric is produced. The fast fashion model should be reconsidered from a manufacturing standpoint and consumers should know about the responsibility of product disposability before they make their purchases. 

NRC: How has COVID-19 affected your operations?

SEW: COVID-19 did affect our operations substantially. Consumers stopped coming. Our capital shrank and we lost the ability to hire to maintain production. COVID-19 set us back at least by a year.

NRC: How has NRC played a role in your sustainability program and goals? 

SEW: Everyone knows about recycling cardboard and cans, but textiles are not the first or fifth on the recycling list. It is good to know we are part of an organization of like-minded people. We feel we just began with our partnership with NRC, and we now have a list of NRC members that we can reach out to possibly help accelerate our textile shredding process. 

Jennifer Murrell stands under a Sew Nebraska tent with products made from reused textiles at the Lincoln Farmer's Market

The SEW Nebraska tent at the Lincoln Farmers’ Market