When Evrnu CEO Stacy Flynn completed her undergrad studies at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 1998, the U.S. apparel industry was losing about 100,000 jobs per month. A growing percentage of garment and textile manufacturing was moving overseas, mostly to China, and outsourcing was fast becoming the name of the game. “It was a pretty scary time,” Flynn recalls, “but I put my head down and focused on my career.”
After graduation, she landed a job as the North American fabric sourcing and testing manager for DuPont. She moved on to Target three years later, where she helped the billion-dollar retailer start a raw materials team and begin designing and developing garments in-house. In 2007, she joined Eddie Bauer’s denim development team and found a home in Seattle, where she lived on a houseboat and travelled the world with her denim designers. “I had so much fun,” Flynn remembers, but she soon grew restless and craved a greater purpose in her work.
In 2010, a chance assignment brought her up-close and personal with the Chinese garment manufacturing regions that rocked the industry while she was in college. The horrendous air quality and poor working conditions shocked her, and she began to think about her role in the insatiable cycle of fashion design, production, and disposal. Then a 15-year veteran of the textile industry, she left her career behind in pursuit of a new idea that would turn the system on its head.
That idea ultimately became Evrnu, a startup technology company that breaks garment waste down to the molecular level and turns it into new raw materials. We sat down with Flynn to learn more about her story, why she decided to go into business for herself, and her vision for a fashion industry that doesn’t hurt. Read on for the details.
• Location: Seattle, WA
• Founded: 2014
• Employees: Six employees, seven contractors
• Impact: Evrnu uses textile waste to create raw materials that can replace the world’s highest-demand fibers. Its process uses 98 percent less water than virgin cotton and generates 90 percent fewer GHG emissions at factory gate than virgin polyester. Its technology also has the potential to divert up to 33 percent of garment waste from landfill or incineration.
• Key Recognition: Evrnu is a 2018 Fast Company World Changing Ideas Awards finalist. Stella McCartney and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation recognized CEO Stacy Flynn as a Woman in Innovation at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where Evrnu was also a Circulars Awards finalist.
• Structure: Social purpose corporation (SPC)
• Memberships: Canopy Planet, Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circular Economy 100 (CE100)
• Mission statement: “We transform textile waste into high-quality new raw materials.”
You focused on fabric sourcing and development for over 15 years and worked with brands like Target and Eddie Bauer. What made you begin to think differently about the textile industry you’d grown to love?
Stacy Flynn: I came to a point in my career where I wanted to do something more meaningful. In 2010, I connected with a startup called Rethink Fabrics, where I became more focused on the materials we use in textiles.
They sent me to China to look for manufacturing sources. Although I’d been to China many times before, this was my first visit to a textile manufacturing region powered mostly by subcontracting. When my colleague and I got out of the car, we stood side-by-side, but we couldn’t see each other clearly because the air was so thick with pollution. Inside the meeting room, a cloud hung over the heads of the company’s corporate team as we discussed ways to do business together.
It shocked me. I travelled through manufacturing regions in China for a month after that, and I began adding up how many billions of yards of fabric I personally created in my career. I was linked to the cause of the problem, and I wondered: If one person can do so much damage unintentionally, what can the same person do to turn it around? That’s when I decided to go back to grad school to get my MBA in sustainable systems.
How did your decision to pursue a sustainable MBA influence Evrnu? What problem were you trying to solve?
SF: That’s where it all started. When I entered the MBA program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute (now Presidio Graduate School), I was looking to figure out my next move. I started researching the systems implications of how we make textiles and apparel — and I discovered two major things. First, 90 percent of all clothing is made from either polyester or cotton. Both of these sources require tremendous amounts of natural resources. A T-shirt, for example, requires about 700 gallons of water to produce.
Subject matter experts — people like me — take those fibers and spin them into yarn. We knit, weave, dye, print, finish, and cut them, and we ship the garments all around the world. In the end, global consumers throw away about 15 million tons of clothing every year.
The bookends are the problem — the resources needed for fiber and the waste in the form of a garment. The design challenge was clear. The lynchpin of impact for the textile and fashion system is making new, high-quality fiber from old garments. I thought, “If we can figure that out, we can offer a wide-sweeping, systemic benefit.”
How did people respond to your idea for Evrnu?
SF: I ran the research by everybody I knew, and everyone called me crazy. “No one’s ever done it.” “It’s going to be really hard.” “It can’t be done.” “If it could be done, someone would be doing it by now.”
Then I called my business partner, Christo Stanev. He knew the risks, but in the end he said, “We have to try.” In 2014, we took a T-shirt from a solid to a liquid and back to a solid using a syringe. That was our first prototype. Christo joined me full-time that year, and when we got our first funding in 2015, we were off.
How would you describe Evrnu’s business model today?
SF: Christo and I have been working in the textile industry for 2o to 25 years, and we want to be as helpful as possible for the 20 to 25 years we have left in our careers. We committed ourselves to developing sustainable solutions that are powerful enough to render destructive methods of manufacturing obsolete. As we bring these large systems down with a great deal of empathy, we’re looking to sell fashion and textile companies on new ways of working that are safer, cleaner, and more effective.
With that in mind, we started with the process of developing products for brands and retailers that outperform what virgin materials can do naturally. We take cotton garment waste, turn it into a liquid, and create a new fiber. As we use this new textile in garments for a brand, we’re constantly looking for new ways to outperform virgin materials.
Levi’s, for example, gave us their 511 jean and asked us to duplicate it exactly. They wanted it to look like cotton, feel like cotton, and perform like cotton. We were able to do that, along with some additional performance attributes. That’s our goal. The consumer will gravitate toward a product that looks good, feels good, and performs well. The fact that we’re cutting water by 98 percent compared to cotton or cutting C02 by 90 percent compared to polyester is in the background. That’s not how we lead. We lead with innovation.
What does an apparel brand get by partnering with Evrnu? If you’re not selling textiles, what are you selling?
SF: Brands pay us non-recurring engineering fees to develop garment programs. Once we have the concept built for a brand, we take the R&D from our development lines and transfer it to a scaling partner that can produce on behalf of the brand.
We see ourselves as working on the demand side and the supply side. Although we own the technology to break down this garment waste, we don’t actually produce the product. We are being helpful to existing producers so that they can work with safer, cleaner, and more effective technologies. Some of our brands are hoping to get to retail by the end of next year, so we’re moving as quickly as we can to meet those deadlines.
You managed to find a key pressure point on a problem within the textile and fashion industry. How did you develop a business concept that pushes on it?
SF: At Evrnu, we’re all about targeted innovation — which is working on systems innovation from within a system. When I was in China, I could have resigned to a problem so much bigger than myself or shrugged it off as “just the way the world works,” but I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with living that. Though I thought about switching industries, I couldn’t imagine finding another job I loved as much as what I had. The only option was to try to fix the system from within.
Christo and I had so much expertise, and we also influenced the problems we saw in the industry. When we looked at targeted innovation, it came down to addressing the problems that we as industry professionals helped to create. We wanted to take responsibility for the work we did, and we wanted to give our industry peers more options to create better products for consumers. No designer I’ve ever met intentionally creates harm. The fashion and textile industry is unfortunately a poorly-designed business model, and we wanted to change that.
Many people may hear an idea like this and echo your colleagues in saying, “If this could be done, someone would be doing it already.” What motivated you to keep going?
SF: Christo moved forward incrementally with the technology. We started with a syringe. Then we ramped up to a few grams, then a few pounds. Today, three years after we started, we make about 50 pounds of fiber per week. We’re moving very quickly compared to the normal pace of innovation or invention.
But still, it’s tough. You’re faced with a lot of rejection from everybody, really. It’s uncomfortable for people to watch others do things that haven’t been done before. Even my dad wasn’t convinced about this technology, and he was not happy when I liquidated my personal retirement fund and turned it into what he said looked like dental floss. I had to say, “Dad, if you saw what I saw, you’d do the same damn thing. You’ve got to support me on this.”
Overall, our path is riddled with challenges, but we would have it no other way. Christo and I, along with our team, are a challenge-based organization. We issue big, bold challenges, and then we get the right people who want to take those challenges on. It’s pretty incredible what you can do if you’ve got the right team and the right intention. That’s where we are today.
How do you go about tackling these big, bold challenges, and what have you learned along the way?
SF: While attending FIT, I discovered I was an extreme kinesthetic learner — I learn best by doing. At Evrnu, we put this into practice with what we call challenge-based learning: We, or one of our partner brands, issues a challenge, and then we take it on. We get people who are not only qualified, but who also have the ability to move quickly, accept failure, and keep going. When you’re building something new, failure is part of the game. We always say that if we try 20 new things in a day and one thing works out, it’s a great day.
It’s different from working in a large corporation where the concept of human resources is, in my opinion, an extractive methodology of working with people. We’re experimenting with how things work — and how the work we ask of our team can energize them and give them life. Christo and I are in the trenches every day with our team, and we’re all on the same page and pursuing the same mission.
How do you rally your team behind your shared vision, even when times are tough?
SF: There’s a lot of rejection in this process, but the key is to just keep going — no matter what. Our team knows that if we’re aligned on the vision, our work will scale to the benefit of humanity.
The alternative for us is not an option, and that’s really what we hold onto. The sooner this technology scales, the sooner we’ll start to see the impact on global air, water, soil, and ecosystems. That’s the endgame goal, and we recalibrate the vision daily with our team in order to keep people moving on the work.
We’ve got this precious, new material, but if we put it into the supply chain as it exists today, the system is going to trash it. That reality requires us to not only innovate, but also change our entire supply chain. It sounds like boiling the ocean, but we work in a very formulaic way. We have a formula, and we cycle off that — getting crisper and crisper with each trial. Then, all of a sudden, we have an entirely new system we can demonstrate to the industry.
What is your office like? Do work on laptops or wear lab coats?
SF: All of it! Most of our team works remotely. I’m in Seattle, and we have a lab here. Christo has his own lab in New Jersey. We also have a mini production line in the Carolinas, which is an end-to-end demo plant where we build and pull fiber for our partner brands.
So you’re not only building something new and creating a company from scratch, but you’re also coordinating a remote team. How do you make it work?
SF: Our entire team spends a week in Seattle once per quarter for what we call our cannonball meetings. They’re modeled off the Cannonball road race, an illegal road race that runs from Los Angeles to New York. The driver with the fastest time from city to city wins. Our quarterly meetings are the same way: We ask the team what they need, get in, think about it, set a budget, and let them keep their foot on the gas for 90 days. We invite subject matter experts, investors, or whoever can help us think about the problems we want to tackle.
It started out as an experiment, and it turned into an incredibly powerful tool to get shit done. For two years in a row, my team finished our annual objectives by about mid-year. Every year I write a 24-month plan, and they blow it out of the water. They move so fast, faster than I could have ever predicted. Allowing people to be in charge of the company’s destiny is really the secret sauce. It is very effective in getting us from where we are to where we need to go. We’re doing hard work, but we’re also having a really good time.
What has been the biggest key to your success so far?
SF: By far, I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve been able to cultivate — not only with my business partner, but also with my team. I’ve worked with some of our team members for over 20 years, and I leaned heavily on my network in terms of building the team and making key connections for the business.
When it comes down to it, if you’re aligned around your intention as a group, you create meaningful relationships, and those relationships are solid, you can move the world. Heart and soul will get us from where we are to where we need to go — not money, power, fear, or greed. The only way it gets done is if people are deeply committed to seeing the changes that we intend to create.
How do you show up as a leader in pursuit of your vision?
SF: There is a direct relationship between my ability to grow myself and my ability to grow my company. Some days, I’m not so graceful, but I spend a lot of time taking care of myself. I’m diligent about making sure I get enough sleep, eat healthy food, exercise, have down time, and find the right inspiration. I go out to my cabin on the Olympic Peninsula at least once a month, and I hang out with the trees and the water to remind myself why I’m doing this work.
I also work with a coach every week, who holds me accountable for getting things done for myself and my company. Sometimes that means working through things I don’t exactly want to do, so it helps to have someone who can keep me on track. I’ve got to constantly focus on evolving myself so I can create the kind of company and the kind of technology the world needs to see.
What gives you hope?
SF: Every day, in some small way, I prove to myself that change is possible — and I hope it will inspire the next generation. If even one child is inspired to use his or her talents for good in the world, I hope I can provide an example that it can be done. It is possible.
We need to align our business practices with the natural world, and I hope that future generations are inspired by watching strong leaders take on these challenges and achieve them.
What advice would you offer other business leaders, founders, and CEOs?
SF: Be bold. Don’t be afraid to say and do things you know are right. There’s so much negativity around what can or cannot be done. A lot of people can’t see what you see, and we’ve got so much work to do in the world, this is no time to be timid or afraid. As business leaders, we need to have the collective confidence to do the work that the world needs.
It takes a lot of diligence and a lot of practice. It also takes a community of people who come together to support each other, because generally there’s not a lot of support for CEOs. Very few people can understand what a CEO is up against, because CEOs see everything. They see the fragility of it all, and they also know that if they don’t come across as confident, they can’t inspire confidence from their team or from external sources.
Doing good work in the world is a tough game, but it’s a noble pursuit. I hope more CEOs will begin to pick up the mission of doing better.
Mary Mazzoni is an environmental journalist and editor based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in print and online, including TriplePundit, AlterNet, Yahoo Travel and multiple Philadelphia publications including the Philadelphia Daily News. She is available for freelance and you can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.
Rachel is Conscious Company’s former editor-in-chief. Before joining the CCM team, she worked at Backpacker and Wired magazines.