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How Tersus handles the resale ‘dirty work’ for L.L. Bean and Eileen Fisher

If you ask Steve Madsen, founder and chief technology officer of Tersus Solutions, to describe what his company does, he replies, “The stuff nobody else really wants to do.”

He’s not kidding. Although his company works with high-end apparel brands including The North Face, L.L. Bean and Eileen Fisher, there’s very little fashion-world glamor in the backend of the recommerce business. Reconditioning used garments for resale is laborious work.

“We receive the product, we sort it, we condition-grade it, we clean it, we repair it, we put it on a shelf and we ship it to the customer. We provide all the touches that have to be done,” Madsen says.

In both of our conversations in the last several months, he had just come off the shop floor covered in the down feathers that insulate the inside of high-performance jackets and sleeping bags (more on this later). “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds, let’s just put it that way,” he jokes. The facility is a mix of industrial laundry, repair shop and warehouse.

It might be dirty work but it’s increasingly important in the circular economy.

The recommerce market for apparel

Recommerce for apparel is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 24.6 percent, according to Future Market Insights. Every jacket, shirt or pair of jeans that can be resold is one more piece of clothing that doesn’t end up in the mountains of textile waste in places such as Ghana.

Most of the attention goes to the brands diving into resale and the technology platforms that support them. That’s cool, but brand-managed recommerce also relies on partners, such as Tersus, doing the difficult, hands-on work behind the scenes to recondition used garments.

Starting with a technology

Before Tersus, Madsen owned a “green dry cleaning” business in Denver, Colorado, using liquid carbon dioxide cleaning equipment. 

He says he was fascinated by the technology but the early machines lacked manufacturer support, could manage only one bath per cycle (imagine not having a rinse bath in your washer) and lacked programming capabilities. The biggest issue, though, was “fluid management,” making it unclear whether garments were awash in dirty fluid all day, Madsen says. 

Recommerce for apparel is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 24.6%.

He started tinkering. Eventually Madsen launched Tersus Solutions in 2009 to sell his own liquid CO2 cleaning machines to commercial cleaners. The first one he built is still running. 

From there, the business grew as a solution shop. Fifteen years later, Tersus bills itself as “the backbone of the recommerce sector,” serving The North Face, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, REI, New Balance, L.L. Bean, Allbirds and others.

Recommerce’s backbone

Tersus got its first taste of extending the lifecycle of apparel with Patagonia’s Encapsil climbing jacket, which debuted in 2013 with low-density down and a plasma DWR (durable water repellent) coating. As opposed to standard chemical treatments that emply PFAS for water repellency, plasma DWR modifies the surface at a molecular level, creating a hydrophobic barrier that repels water droplets effectively. Standard cleaning practices diminished the down’s fluffiness (or “loft”) and compromised the coating, which Madsen says his liquid CO2 cleaner didn’t do.

A couple of years later, Tersus started cleaning products for Patagonia’s Worn Wear program and working with REI on rented and returned sleeping bags. Madsen’s recommerce empire was up and running.

Tersus also found a niche cleaning down feathers that arose from its work on the Encapsil jacket. The down cleaning process uses a unique process that separates down based on species and color and cleans it.

How does this scale?

When I asked Madsen about scaling the backend work necessary to support the recommerce industry, he made it clear there is much more to be done. 

“The feedstock is out there, but how do you consolidate it and get it somewhere economically to put it back into the system?” he says of used garments scattered around the world. 

Madsen added that partnering with collectors of materials, and having an end market for the materials, is also important.

“How do you scale to feed the beast?” he says. “Everything moves very slow. The brands move slow. Everybody does.” Madsen described growing slowly according to supply and demand, although that may displease investors who want quicker returns. As the industry learned with Renewcell, when innovators do move quickly to achieve scale, they can quickly get burned.

[Continue learning about circular business models and materials at Circularity 24 — the leading conference for professionals building the circular economy — taking place in Chicago, IL, May 22-24.]

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