For Women’s History Month, MendIt is hosting a blog series titled Women in Sustainability. Learn about a few amazing, passionate, and sustainability-focused female founders and the legacy they are creating to make our world a better place.
The MendIt team had the pleasure of sitting down with Elaine Birks-Mitchell, founder of The Bra Recyclers, headquartered in Arizona.
“I'm Elaine Birks-Mitchell, Founder and CEO of The Bra Recyclers. We're a social enterprise dedicated to recycling and reusing preloved bras and other lingerie. After spending over 25 years in the corporate world, I felt my true calling was to make a living through giving.
At first, I wasn't sure exactly how I was going to do that, but I knew I wanted to support women and girls in need while also helping to preserve our planet for future generations. That's why I came up with the idea of providing preloved lingerie to women and girls in need, predominantly those living in poverty, to support them on their journey back to self-sufficiency. This meant that I could also prevent underwear that's in good, wearable condition from ending up in landfills or being burned.
Since 2008, The Bra Recyclers have been giving people who are concerned about the future of the planet and the people who live on it the opportunity to take action and make change happen.” -Elaine Birks-Mitchell
How did you decide this is what you wanted to do? When did you decide it could be profitable?
Elaine came from a family of givers. Her mother was a school administrator, and when Elaine was a little girl, she recalls watching her mother extend love and care to her special needs students in a way that left a positive impression on young Elaine.
Her father was a chemical engineer by day, but also started a karate program in Milwaukee that helped teach young kids respect, and was also a valued member of his fraternity where he created a scholarship program for young black men.
Elaine was surrounded by role models who were constantly giving back in one way, or another, to their community.
As a young adult, Elaine attended Purdue University for her undergraduate degree and St. Catherine University for her masters in Organizational Leadership. She knew that it was important to find a good job after graduation, but also still found ways to volunteer and give back to her community.
Elaine launched a career in the corporate world where she gained great experiences and met amazing people. The more she worked, the more she knew deep inside that this was not going to be enough for her. Corporate life kept throwing roadblocks in her path, and she knew there was a better option for her to use her talents in order to continue to give back and help our planet.
What is the story behind bra recycling?
Like many social entrepreneurs, Elaine came up with the idea of bra recycling by first identifying a problem, or opportunity rather, that needed to be addressed.
In Phoenix, and all over the country, there are women and girls entering into homeless shelters and programs with absolutely nothing. One day she was looking through her dresser and realized that she had a lot of bras that she did not know what to do with. Elaine immediately thought of the women and girls in the shelters and wondered if there could be a connection she could make.
She created a simple website to see what kind of response she would get about the idea of recycling bras to help women and girls in need, and the response was amazing! Over and over women stated that they did not know what to do with their bras, and they didn’t want to just throw them away.
Elaine did not want to start a nonprofit organization, and instead wanted to leverage the social enterprise model. Social enterprises seek to maximize profits while maximizing benefits to society and the environment, and the profits are principally used to fund social programs. Elaine needed to figure out how she could help fulfill this need while also making a profitable business.
Elaine chose the route of textile recycling for her business focus. She studied and learned as much as she could about the industry, which admittedly, she knew little about prior to this epiphany. She started by joining local and national recycling associations and reading as many articles on textile recycling and the sustainability industry as she could get her hands on.
What are the goals of The Bra Recyclers?
TBR has aligned their goals with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and TBR contributes to the following SDGs:
What are some of the biggest barriers you had to overcome when launching your business?
Upon diving deeper into research, Elaine realized that the textile recycling and sustainability industries are very non-transparent. There is not a lot of sharing information about how it works. She knew very little about these industries and found it difficult to find information on. Additionally, Elaine received a lot of push-back when she first started her business because she was trying to be as transparent as possible and educate the consumer about the industry.
She found that consumers typically do not understand that it costs money to be sustainable. Recycling, reusing, repurposing items is not free- people who do this work, are doing work, and deserve to be paid for it. Consumers also typically do not consider the quality of the items they are donating. Non-Profit organizations that accept donations, want like-new items. Many donations end up trashed due to consumer and nonprofit push-back from wanting to “give” items to a social enterprise or textile recycling company.
As a female founder in the sustainability market, do you think about your legacy and future generations?
“One of the reasons I started The Bra Recyclers (TBR), was to follow my calling and inspire others to do so. I wanted to be a role model for making a living from my giving and make a difference in communities around the world.” Elaine says. “My goal for TBR was to create awareness around the need for bras for women and girls in need, while also partnering with retailers and distributors on implementing simple, scalable, recycling programs that could help them reduce their carbon footprint, which many consumers are, or will be, looking for as we move into the future.”
Watch the interview clip here:
How has the pandemic affected your business? How have you had to adapt?
The pandemic forced The Bra Recyclers to make a pivot, but in a good way. Like most businesses, they had to think creatively on how to attract and motivate people to continue to use their services.
The reality for TBR was that many of their drop-off locations closed, which meant that they were no longer able to receive recycled bras. Elaine’s corporate career was in technology and so she began thinking about how she could use technology to help solve the issue that TBR was experiencing.
She created a rewards program to encourage consumers to recycle their bras and receive a discount when they sent them in to TBR. The goal was to partner with retailers who were also trying to pivot because everyone was shopping online, to encourage them to offer a discount to their customers and followers when they mailed in their bras to TBR.
Many of the organizations that TBR approached with this innovative idea were also trying to figure out how to become more sustainable and encourage their customers to do so also, they created a TBR Sustainability Scorecard for each of their retailers so they can see the impact that they are making on the environment and share that with their customers.
What has been your experience as a female founder of color? And specifically, as a female founder of color in the sustainability field?
“I think one of the biggest challenges in the textile recycling industry, besides lack of transparency, is that there are few women in the space.” Elaine elaborates that “Being a woman of color, I think has been a surprise to some I meet because there are so few in the industry. Unless they visit my website or see me on a zoom call or meeting, they would probably think I was not a woman of color.”