Fresno recycler thrives on finding new life in old clothes
Eco World President Jené D’Ambrosio at the company’s 20,000 square foot facility in Fresno. Eco World is a zero-waste, reusable and reusable clothing company that works with affiliates such as schools and churches to keep clothing out of landfills. Photo by Frank Lopez
Written by Frank Lopez
Just like in their industry, married couple Jené and Daren D’Ambrosio took what they had and created something new.
Jené and Daren are the owners of Eco World, a zero-waste, upcycled, and upcycled clothing recycling company in Fresno.
From its main downtown facility, Eco World diverts used clothing, shoes and other textiles from landfills, collecting them through donation bins and collection services.
The Fresno location serves much of central California, and the company also operates in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nevada.
After 10 years in business and thriving during the pandemic, Eco World has seen steady growth of 30% over the past five years.
Both Central Valley natives, the D’Ambrosios want to keep their family business where it is.
“Keeping things local and helping local communities is what we wanted to instill in this company, to separate ourselves from other people in this industry,” Jené said. “Textile recycling is a very foreign industry and people don’t even realize it exists half the time.”
“That’s where we try to pass that knowledge on to the community,” she added.
The wider business world is starting to take notice of crucial niche companies such as Eco World fill. Kiplinger’s Letter — a paid forecast newsletter for executives and investors — said last month that new federal research is exploring better ways to recycle clothes. Currently, only 15% of discarded textiles are recycled or reused. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is leading an initiative to change that.
Cheaper clothes, synthetic materials and modern fashion trends of short-lived styles are responsible for the rise in waste, which cost US$5 billion to manage in 2020, according to Kiplinger.
Eco World is at the ground floor of this effort, working with 198 affiliates to collect clothing donations, including schools, churches, nonprofits and charities.
Donation bins will be placed at affiliate sites, from where they will be collected and the affiliate partner paid for the product. The best clothes are curated and sold by affiliates. Torn, stained and unusable clothes will be turned into underpad and insulation, Eco World’s main source of income.
Unlike recycling metals or electronics, Darren said there isn’t as much demand for textile recycling due to its limited uses.
About 15 years ago, Daren said the clothing recycling market was very small – mainly Goodwill and Salvation Army diverting leftover product overseas, which eventually became known as “dumping”, a said Darren.
For years, Africa allowed second-hand clothes to enter the country, but it was eventually restricted. Mexico does not allow any products.
“Cans and plastic can be turned into almost anything,” Daren said. “It’s cheaper to throw it away [clothing] in a landfill than to recycle it.
Jené said the clothing recycling industry is much more established on the East Coast. It’s surprising to her that a state like California hasn’t taken more initiative.
The pair say a marketing campaign is needed to educate and convince consumers not to throw their clothes in the trash.
D’Ambrosios’ path in recycling clothes was unlikely. In 2010, the end of one cycle triggered another.
At the time, Darren had a large concession business, Duggan’s Concessions, which was unincorporated. When one of his salespeople fell behind, it led to litigation that ultimately caused the D’Ambrosios to lose their business and even their home.
They were left with only one corn stand which they took to swap meetings and farmer’s markets. Jené was a bartender and waitress to earn money to run the stand.
In 2012, a friend from Africa in the textile industry asked them to collect clothes and shoes from local exchanges and farmers’ markets to send to him.
After building a container for clothes and sorting out their garage, they decided to see if they could make a business out of it.
“It was slow at first because we didn’t have a bank for a loan; we didn’t have grants or any of that. There were times when we thought about closing or finding jobs somewhere, but we never stopped,” Jené said.
They would pick up clothes, rent a U-Haul truck, drive to ports, fill a shipping container and ship it.
To keep businesses viable, Daren knew they would have to do a lot of volume.
In 2015, they found a woman selling clothing donation bins like you’d see in store parking lots. She worked with the D’Ambrosios on payments.
The next step was to go around the valley asking to put bins on the properties. Many owners were afraid to take them, fearing graffiti, litter and vandalism.
Jené would assure them that they were going to be a different type of business – a business that would collect donations once a week or earlier if needed. Bins would be kept clean and properly maintained.
Their first sorting and storage store was 1,500 square feet. Three years ago they moved to their fourth and current location, which covers 20,000 square feet.
At first, it took the company six months to fill a shipping container. Today, Eco World processes 1.5 million pounds of clothing and textiles per month.
To look forward
In 2020, Eco World created Just Porch It, a free pickup service where people can schedule a contactless pickup of their unwanted clothes, shoes, and other textile items.
Just Porch It launched just before the pandemic hit, and the company allowed them to continue donating, maintaining revenue streams for their business and affiliates.
In addition to their bins in various states, Eco World has a warehouse in Portland that serves Oregon and Washington, as well as a warehouse in Reno and Idaho.
There are plans to add another warehouse to the rear of the South Fresno property, and work has recently begun on a satellite facility in Stockton to extend commercial coverage further north.
This is the company’s first foray into a satellite facility, but if it works, Jené said they will open more and continue to grow.
“Slowing down is not an option,” she said.