Social Enterprise in the Circular Economy with Elaine Birks-Mitchell of the Bra Recyclers - Ep 33

This episode of the Social Enterprise Alliance Podcast aired on Tuesday, November 28th. This episode can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

0:00:00.0 David: Well, Elaine, we're just so excited to have you here on the podcast today. And as we get going, we're recording in late October. October is Bra Recycling Month, which I didn't know was a thing. So excited to learn about that. And also November, you are focusing on Men's Health Awareness Month. As we get started, I'm very curious to know how bras and men's health might come together. [laughter]

0:00:27.0 Elaine: That is a great question. [laughter] I haven't had it asked that way, but that's a great question. So October is something that we've always identified as a month we want to celebrate women who are have experienced or survivors of domestic violence 'cause it's Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but also it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I think most people know that.

0:00:50.0 David: Yeah, my mother-in-law and so many women in my life are definitely bringing that to the world's attention during this time.

0:00:58.0 Elaine: Absolutely. So we wanted to say, okay, what could we do during this time? And that's how we've tagged this bra recycling month, and we've been doing that for over 10 years. And really bringing awareness to these issues, honoring, being able to honor and celebrate our survivors of both breast cancer, but also domestic violence awareness. And so, we always get a great response from people like, okay, time to clean out those drawers and really let's support these ladies who need something as simple as a bra. And I think, particularly with breast cancer awareness, most people aren't aware that a lot of ladies don't have insurance. And so the mastectomy bras or the prosthesis that they need, many of them can't afford. So we really encourage people and also retailers to say, hey, if you have things in overstock or they're gently used or new, they're sitting in your drawers, we want you, during this month, well, all during the year, but particularly during this month, to recycle those. So that's kind of what October is about. And then we have the men. We got to give the men a chance. [laughter]

0:02:06.0 David: Give the men a chance, but also, obviously, I hear all that and I hear the time of year. I'm thinking about the holiday season. So speak to both of those things as well.

0:02:18.0 Elaine: Absolutely. So, it's been real interesting over the last, I say 10 plus years, we've always really focused on women and girls. But what we're finding is that we really needed to expand our outreach 'cause many of the women that we deal with, particularly ones in shelters or transitional programs, they have sons. They have a partner or a husband. And we're providing bras and underwear to them, but not to the men. And that we're like, we've got to do something about that 'cause we always get that request. And I think one of those aha moments that I had is when we did an event and we had taken underwear out to an event. It was on the street here in the Phoenix area. And we had men coming up to our table, I mean, looking for underwear, and they were willing to take the women's underwear. They just wanted something. I mean, they just wanted to have clean underwear.

0:03:16.0 Elaine: And we're like, oh my goodness. Of course, we let them have it, whatever. If you need this, we'll let you have that. So we're like, we really need to shift and open our focus to bring in those resources that men need too. So, November is National Men's Health Awareness Month, and so we want to bring light to the things that men are going through also. And since women, we tend to help you guys, we're your nurturers and we want to look out for you, we wanna make sure we're educating women too about the health needs for men, and the fact that, again, underwear is a big part of what men need to feel, to restore their dignity and their self-esteem as they're getting back into being more self-sufficient. So we're starting to bring light to that, and this will be an annual thing that we do too.

0:04:06.0 Lauren: That's so awesome. And I think like underwear, it's just like a basic need that you so easily take for granted. So it's just really, just to hear you talk about it and to talk about what a great need there is, it's really, yeah, it's really wild to hear 'cause it's, yeah, again, so easy to just take for granted as part of your day to day, yeah.

0:04:26.8 Elaine: Well, we don't think about it. We don't think about it. And it's so interesting because when I tell people what I do, first they're like, they do that, you know, "What?" What did you say? Spell that." I'm like, "B-R-A-S." They are like… And then I've had some people ask me, "You mean for the car, the front of the car?" I'm like, "No."

0:04:46.7 Lauren: What?

0:04:46.8 Elaine: What you wear. And it's just, I think, 'cause we're all so privileged, we'll say that, we're so privileged…

0:04:53.7 Lauren: Yeah, absolutely.

0:04:53.9 Elaine: We just, we take for granted that we have clean underwear every single day. And I think that's something we don't think about. And what's really… This past year here, we've also expanded to work with our schools. So this is another area that so many of us are not aware of. And again, as a social entrepreneur, we look for those issues or opportunities and we try to hopefully figure out how we can solve those using entrepreneurial principles. And so we were approached, I was approached by a teacher who had reached out to me to say, hey, I have this student who, she was sixth grade and she was in desperate need of a bra 'cause she was being bullied and teased. And it's like, oh my gosh, that's horrible. Mom, of course, couldn't afford anything, but she was very large for her size, like a 44G. And so, at the time, we weren't really working with schools. It's 'cause it's a whole nother thing to work with schools in terms of the privacy issues and a lot of things that go along with it.

0:06:00.8 Elaine: And of course, I was like, oh my God, well, yes, we're gonna help her, of course. And so we sent bras to her, but that was kind of another, again, one of those aha moments for me to say, okay, we need to start early on helping these, not just women and girls, but men and boys too as they're young, and get them those essential things that we know are gonna make them feel good about themselves and have good experiences, for example, like in schools. So we've partnered up with the School Nurses Association here in Phoenix, and right now we support about seven Title I schools, and our goal for '24 is to support about 12 schools, Title I schools. Because, again, it's something that I think we are not all talking about, and it's happening right in your backyard. There are probably people that, in your kids' schools or schools you went to, that are suffering. They don't have the underwear, and we're just, we're not talking about that.

0:07:00.0 Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's amazing to just hear about the different ways that you're meeting this very critical need in these different communities for these different age groups, and yeah, it's just really awesome. So I'd love to hear a little more about, what is your story? How did you first get involved in social enterprise in general, but then also this issue specifically?

0:07:21.0 Elaine: Absolutely. And I always love to share this because this whole social enterprise model for me, or so being a social entrepreneur, was something that I fell upon. I knew, for me with The Bra Recyclers when we started it, I knew that there was this need of women and girls in shelters and transitional programs that I wanted to help. I knew that bras was something that they weren't receiving on a regular basis or at all for many of these programs, and I knew this was a big need for girls and women. And so I'm like, okay, I know I… Again, I cleaned out my drawer and I'm like, I know other people have women have underwear in their drawer that they're just not using. Of course, we buy, we don't try it on, and then it just sits in our drawer. So I know you're… Not you though. I know not you.

0:08:11.2 Lauren: So true. No, no, not me. [laughter]

0:08:15.0 Elaine: Not you. Not you. So for me it was like that was again that kind of prompting to say, what can I do about that? 'Cause, again, as you know, you decide, you see a problem, either hope someone else does something about it or you do something about it. And so in this particular case, I wanted to. So I started, my background, just so you guys know, I came out of the corporate world. I came out of IT as a project manager, primarily in software development. So I'm always looking at systematically how I can do things or how to use systems to help me. So I said, okay, let me throw up a little webpage and let's see what reaction I get from women to say what are you doing with your old bras? And like I said, I was shocked at the reaction I got because they're like, well, they're just sitting in my drawer or I'm throwing them out. And I'm like, so I'm like, okay, there's something here. So that kind of, again, intrigued me, and I'm like, okay, we have this problem. I got to figure out how I'm going to solve it.

0:09:10.4 Elaine: And I'm just gonna be real honest, you guys. I didn't really want to do a nonprofit. There was just so much I knew that went into starting a nonprofit and I didn't want to go that route initially. So I started just researching and I came across information about being a social entrepreneur through the Skoll Foundation. And just I'm like, "Oh my God, my people, I found my people." So it was very cool to hear about others who were social entrepreneurs and doing something good for our communities and our environment and being for profit. And so that really intrigued me. So I went down that path, 'cause I completely believe in the social entrepreneur model. I really do. So I just needed to figure out, okay, how can I help more than just one or two shelters and how I can make this a business? And so that's where I started researching textile recycling. What is the life cycle of a bra and of clothes in general? So I really had to learn this new industry called textile recycling, which I, be honest with you, knew nothing about. It's a very, I would say more a non-transparent industry.

0:10:20.7 Elaine: I'd say initially a lot of people don't understand because you can't really, it's like let's Google to figure out how I start a textile recycling industry. So I just joined associations, tried to do a lot of networking. Got on the board of association just so I can learn and get up to speed on how to start a textile recycling company. And it's been interesting. It's a tough industry, I'm not going to lie. And when you think about where we kind of land on the supply chain, we're kind of at that end when retailers are getting rid of things, but they really don't kind of make that known or tell the public what's happening in terms of how they're disposing of things. So that's how it's been tough. I have to say, I think that's the most challenging part of what I do, is trying to convince retailers to not do landfill, burn and cut, but let's figure out a more responsible way to dispose of their overstock and returns and even having their customers recycle their old bras versus throwing them in the trash. That's been a big challenge. But I think for me, thinking about my why I do what I do, it was worth taking that challenge on.

0:11:36.6 Lauren: Amazing.

0:11:37.8 David: Yeah, and it's really fascinating, I think, to hear your story. And the more I keep personally diving into the ideas of social enterprise and why people do what they do, there's oftentimes where I get to see just my points of privilege. So I remember, so I'm getting ready to celebrate my 15 year wedding anniversary, and that was the first time I ever costed out what bras cost. Like why would I as a man do that?

0:12:03.2 Elaine: Absolutely.

0:12:03.3 David: And then you go to the store and you're like, "Whoa, this is really expensive." Again, that's a point of privilege that I just have had my whole life until all of a sudden life changes and my worldview expands.

0:12:16.0 Elaine: Absolutely.

0:12:16.0 David: So, what I love about what you are doing is you're tackling this from a corporate solution area. You're empowering people. You're entering into a space that's… Underwears could be potentially embarrassing to talk about. But then on top of all of that, like that alone is a social enterprise. But I really I'm also curious, you've added one more layer, you employ individuals with disabilities.

0:12:45.0 Elaine: Yes, yes.

0:12:46.0 David: Tell us more about that program and your partnerships with other nonprofits as you're working on growing your social enterprise.

0:12:53.0 Elaine: Yeah, I'm just gonna tell you, that is like, oh my God. The most exciting piece of what we do is kind of our operational piece. And start any company, as you probably know, it's tough finding good help. And particularly in our industry, it's very labor intensive, so it was really tough finding good help. So I'm like, what can we do to find a reliable source of people who can help us? So in terms of how we work, just to give you a background, so we'll get a truckload of things in from potentially a retailer. All of that a lot of times has to be sorted through. And again, very labor intensive. So it comes in big gaylords of things and we have to sort through it 'cause some of it can't be used, some of it can, and we need to sort it out, and I understand everything is by grade, what we call, or quality. So we found two organizations here in the Phoenix area that work with individuals who have various levels of disabilities. But again, they still can work. They still wanna be productive people in our communities and give back and make a living wage. So we partnered up with them and it's just been an unbelievable partnership. And I encourage many other people in business to look at using those types of resources, is because if there's simple things or repetitive things, or things that people can be trained on, they are an amazing resource to have in terms of a workforce.

0:14:30.0 Lauren: That's amazing. And just the way that you're able to layer the impact that you're having, not only are you meeting a need in the community, but you're also meeting another need by employing individuals with disabilities. That's just fantastic. I love…

0:14:43.0 Elaine: Yeah, it has been amazing. And again, I encourage other entrepreneurs, particularly social entrepreneurs to… 'Cause, again, that's that other layer that we're adding on in terms of giving people jobs that can't work in a normal work environment. And then I know, David, you asked about our partnerships with nonprofits. So key to us in terms of why we even started is that we were trying to support these other nonprofits out there who were trying to help others in terms of getting them the resources they need, the essentials like bras, underwear, soap, just the basics. So we have over… We've helped over 130 nonprofits over the years, and they're in, say about 29 states in eight countries. So they're all over and they vary from just very small little nonprofits to larger ones also. So that has been amazing. And what has been, one of the things we've done over this past year, we've had some pretty big changes that have gone on, is that we did start a nonprofit arm off of our company.

0:15:46.8 Elaine: And I think I remember when I started the conversation, I said, I did not wanna do that when we first started, just because of everything that went along with starting a nonprofit. So we started a nonprofit arm called the Undie Chest. And there are a couple of reasons why we did that. One of the reasons too, is we wanted to expand our outreach, again, to the whole family. So again, working with men. But one of the big reasons too, is we wanted to start working with schools. Now working with schools is not something… That is a huge initiative, you guys, and there's no way I can take that on myself. I mean, we literally, when we put the word out that we were gonna start working with schools, I mean, we literally had to cut off requests. It is that much demand in our school systems that I literally had to cut that request off. So we wanna partner with others to help us. I mean, it's just so… And I'm talking about the United States, just to get basic things like underwear to our kids so they don't have to focus on not having underwear in school and focus on studying. And we want to help our school nurses.

0:16:51.5 Elaine: So when we took… One of the reasons I wanted to start that is because I needed that help. There's no way I can do that myself. One of the other reasons we did start a nonprofit arm, and you might hear this from other social entrepreneurs too, is also is that when we are trying to partner with corporations, many of them, the social entrepreneur model, and I think you guys have probably come across this, is still pretty, I say new here in the United States. And so, when you try to explain what a social entrepreneur is to a corporation, they just don't get it. They're like, "Well, we only work with nonprofits." And my company is like, "So you're telling me that in order to start a recycling program, you don't throw things in the landfill, you gotta work with a nonprofit?" So, I'm like, okay, I need to take that argument off the table somehow. And I'm like, so here's what I'm going to do. We have the nonprofit arm. So now you have no excuse on not throwing those things in the landfill. You can work through us and do a more responsible, have more responsible solution for your overstock and returns.

0:17:54.0 Elaine: So, it's been interesting. We've only been up for about a year now, but we actually have attracted some of those companies that I had approached before who wouldn't work with me who will now work with me. So that is a big plus 'cause we want to get people to stop throwing things in the landfill as you probably know that are usable. I mean, they're brand new but they're going to landfill because they don't want anybody to have, whatever. There's so many different reasons. So that was one of the reasons that we did start that nonprofit arm. And again, I'm not going to say it's easy to have both a for-profit and nonprofit arm. I'm not going to say that. I am learning a lot. Here's what I'll say, you guys, about that whole nonprofit industry. It is very challenging. Here's something that I'll say, 'cause we're all friends here. I have found that it is more competitive on the non-profit side in terms of trying to find and work and have collaborations than it is on the for-profit side. And I think, I don't know, it's because of just it's the resources are so scarce, but trying to create, have collaboratives and say let's work together, that has been really tough on the non-profit side.

0:19:09.8 David: Yeah.

0:19:10.7 Lauren: Dang.

0:19:13.4 Elaine: So I don't know if you've heard that before, but I really have really experienced that.

0:19:17.4 Lauren: That's so bad.

0:19:17.5 Elaine: What you would think would be the opposite, but it's not.

0:19:17.5 Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and I just think it's so wild too that corporations are like, "Well, we'd rather just dump stuff in a landfill if you're not a non-profit." And I think that's definitely something at ICI that we're trying to workshop that answer to, is like, how do we get this movement to be wider spread? How do we get policy on the table so that people know what this is about and can trust that they're doing good by supporting these for-profit organizations and companies as well.

0:19:46.9 Elaine: Absolutely.

0:19:47.5 Lauren: So it's just, to hear your experience with it just really emphasizes the need for that forward motion and that movement building.

0:19:57.2 Elaine: Yes. Absolutely. It's the education about the model that we're still doing good. And many nonprofits, and you've probably heard this too, many of them are trying to… They start or have kind of that social entrepreneur tag on, 'cause they're trying to figure out how to make money because grants are just kind of being dried up. So they're trying to do both also.

0:20:18.2 Lauren: Totally.

0:20:19.2 Elaine: And I think it's interesting when people ask me, would you recommend a social enterprise versus a non-profit? I'm like, if you can, I would go social enterprise, just to be real honest. But some of them just are really diehard like we got to be a non-profit. So, yeah.

0:20:35.4 David: Yeah. So my next question was going to be, what do you wish you had known before you started? But really in the last moments of our conversation, again, I heard privilege as just an older person not thinking about youth struggling with underwear. So we talked about that. I heard there's this transition that you've made from and also now incorporating a non-profit arm to what you do. So I wanna maybe specify the question a little bit more around that. I think a number of for-profit social enterprises, we're all learning maybe a little bit more that perhaps a solution to some of the challenges we all face is to do it both end, to do this hybrid model where there's a for-profit entity and a non-profit entity. So, being that you've just walked through it and even some of the things that you just said, what do you wish you had known before you began the non-profit entity of your organization?

0:21:27.7 Elaine: Oh, good question. I think I would've… I really took time to think through, I took many years to think through about the non-profit entity. And one of the things that I think now, just a year into it, I think one of the things that I would probably have pulled back on is I put a lot of effort into we're like getting the website up. I think I would've thought about the non-profit a little bit more as a tool. And what I mean by that is that that's really… The Bra Recyclers is my baby. That's the main thing. And really what I need to use the non-profit for is that tool. Like if I'm talking to a corporation, that's really like, if they're like, "Nope, we can't work with you because you're a social entrepreneur or social enterprise," then that's just, "Here's the other tool that we have."

0:22:34.6 Elaine: So really I think more emphasizing that as a non-profit being the tool and positioning it more in that way. We do that now, but I think even more so I would've done that as I went out and started talking to people more that we have this arm of the non-profit, it's kind of more of a tool that if we can't work with you via our social enterprise, here's our non-profit arm. And that's just, again, just through learning and just talking and realizing how I should position the non-profit arm, because some people get confused that we have both. And it's still tricky, but it's working. I'm learning as I go. I think the other thing too that was really good is that because I had the social enterprise, it really allowed me to think about the non-profit model in terms of how we can make that self-sustaining.

0:23:21.3 Elaine: So I think that was great to be able to start with the social enterprise, because I was taking some of those principles, and then when we started the non-profit, like okay, we need to figure out how to make this more self-sustaining also. And that is I think what was… That came from just being a social entrepreneur all these years to be able to do that. I think also some great things I've learned from over the years is that data is king. So as we have grown as social entrepreneurs and we're working with corporations, one of the things they're looking for is data. So we've been around for a while, so we're able to now gather information, gather data around, for example, our recyclers and what they're saying and ask questions, and now be able to turn that into a revenue source. Instead of just giving the corporations data about what's going on and how much they've recycled, we're able to use that and say, if you want that data, then you'll need to pay us a fee. And so we're also taking that same model on the non-profit side too. Again, we're collecting that data. If you want that data, you're gonna have to pay us or make a donation for that data.

0:24:39.0 Lauren: That's awesome, 'cause I think there's a lot of instances of socially conscious businesses and social enterprises and nonprofits who don't know that they can charge for that information and that value that they provide, and so they just end up giving it away for free. So it's awesome that you've tapped into that as an additional revenue stream. That's really powerful.

0:25:00.3 Elaine: Yeah. And I think also too, what's helped is that, as I think, David, you even said this, that we have that social impact side, but we also have that environmental side. And as you know, many companies nowadays are trying to figure out how to be more sustainable and show that they're helping the environment and our earth. But we also know there's a lot of greenwashing out there too. So we're trying to be able to provide them with results that they can stand on. And so we have a scorecard that we give them. So when they recycle with us or have their customers recycle with us, we're able to play back that information in terms of, environmentally, what does that mean to them? So I think that that really helps. And I think also that kind of comes from my background of being in IT for so long, figuring out how to systematically collect data. So I think that was another good thing, when I started the non-profit, I started off with that right away. I'm like, "Ooh, we got to make sure we put the systems in place to collect that data." So right off from the beginning.

0:26:07.6 Lauren: Oh, that's smart. I'm sure, yeah, whoever is listening to that could definitely benefit from that tidbit. Yeah, don't wait.

0:26:13.2 Elaine: Absolutely. Don't wait.

0:26:14.1 Lauren: Start collecting your data right away.

0:26:15.7 Elaine: Absolutely. And you'll make that investment in technology early on. So I think that was a big learning for me too in terms of I started, though with The Bra Recyclers, we did have some systems, but I wasn't collecting the data like I should have initially. So now with the non-profit side, boom, we're starting that right away. So we start out with collecting that data right away. So that's key. Make an investment early on in your technology whatever you're gonna use.

0:26:38.7 Lauren: Amazing. Wow. Well, Elaine, this has been just an absolutely inspiring, powerful, insightful conversation with you. And we're just so grateful for you coming on and sharing your story and your expertise. And your all the trial and error parts of it too, all the things that you figured out, it's really amazing. You really have just pressed on forward and encountered obstacles and solved through them, and that's just, that perseverance too is amazing.

0:27:11.2 Elaine: And there's been a lot of challenges, but you're right. We're getting through them and there's been a lot of pivots. COVID was a big pivot, I think, for everybody, and it was a pivot for us too. So, but we worked through it and we're still here.

0:27:26.5 Lauren: It's amazing. It's incredible. So I would love to hear from you, for our listeners who want to get involved, how can we support the work that you're doing? How can we get involved?

0:27:35.1 Elaine: Oh, absolutely. So of course, for women, but now men too know, we definitely want you to really look at things you have in your drawer. Gently used bras, new bras, recycle those, don't keep them in drawers anymore. If you don't have things like that, we have purchasing. When you're out purchasing, buying underwear or at the store, if you see things that you know are on sale, purchase those too. And now the really great part is that we do, if you… 'Cause some people are like we just want, we need a tax deduction. We have that for you. We have that option. So, I really think also that, and this is something I say to people, is that if we really wanna make a change and push kind of more of that circular economy and getting our retailers to be more accountable, as consumers, we can help that. We can shop and spend our money where we know that the… Where they're taking care of our community and our planet.

0:28:31.6 Elaine: So we can do that. We can ask them what they're doing. They should be sharing that so we can choose where we spend our money. Because a lot of this stuff is going into landfills. As we know, with the whole fast fashion movement, we're producing way too much. So we can make some choices ourselves as consumers to kind of change that trajectory of moving to more of a circular economy. And you can also get involved. We absolutely need the support on the Undie Chest side in terms of funding for particularly our school program. It's called The Everyone Deserves Underwear Program, 'cause we'll be expanding our schools to 12 next year. And we always need, they are in such demand, like I said, we've had to cut that faucet off in terms of we can't take any more requests just 'cause we don't have enough inventory and resources to give everything that they need. So those are ways they can help. So go to our website, thebrarecyclers.com and you can fill out the form and do the recycle. And then the undiechest.org is our non-profit arm.

0:29:38.4 David: I love it.

0:29:38.5 Lauren: Amazing. Phenomenal.

0:29:41.9 Elaine: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I'm so excited to talk to you guys. We can talk forever.

0:29:44.3 Elaine: Yes.

0:29:45.5 David: Yeah.

0:29:48.2 Lauren: Honestly, I could. I have a million more questions.

0:29:51.6 David: Yeah. Well, part 2 we'll get on the books here soon, so.

0:29:51.9 Elaine: Oh, God. Well, thank you.

0:29:56.4 David: Alright. Well, thanks again, Elaine. And it's just such a pleasure and congratulations on your success and…

0:30:01.7 Elaine: Oh, thank you.

0:30:02.0 David: Continued efforts moving ahead. Just what an important need that's unspoken I think in many circles. So we appreciate your work.

0:30:10.1 Elaine: Absolutely. We're trying to unmute this conversation and just get everybody talking about it, is what we're trying to do.

0:30:15.0 David: Yeah. Perfect.

0:30:16.9 Lauren: Amazing. Thanks, Elaine.

0:30:18.8 Elaine: Thank you.