In 2013 the Rana Plaza Disaster shed a tragic light on the negative social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry. For Aisling Byrne, founder of the Nuw wardrobe, it was a turning point in her relationship with fast fashion.
“I started researching how I could lead a more sustainable lifestyle without having to completely remove myself from the fashion industry. What I could see around me was people sharing their clothes with friends and family, and that was creating our own ecosystem. Using what we already had was far more sustainable than ever buying something new.” BGV invested in Nuw in 2018 and since then, the sustainable fashion industry has become a formidable movement.
Currently, the ethical fashion industry is worth over $6.35 billion USD, and this is predicted to triple in less than a decade. In this interview, Aisling provides some valuable insights into how to be a more sustainable consumer, and the sorts of questions you can ask yourself before you buy. For example, “Ask yourself, are you buying from a brand that has a sustainable collection within an entire store of unsustainable collections?”
She also shares a wealth of advice for first-time founders, especially for those at the beginning of their startup journey, be it in sustainable fashion or otherwise.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the full interview here.
In 2013 I spent time in India with an NGO called Suas Educational Development. I was 19 and not really informed on global issues or the effects of global consumption. I had heard about this market in Delhi pieces from high street brands with small defects would be sold, and I was so excited. The plan was to finish the summer in Delhi and get a suitcase filled with clothes - my college wardrobe would be sorted. I think that sums up the mindset I was in before mid-2013. Then that April, the Rana Plaza building disaster happened. Over 1130 people died when a garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
A global spotlight was shown on the fashion industry. I was quite close to Bangladesh at the time and my mindset completely shifted. I didn’t expect that to be how my lens would focus, but it did. When I was over there, I had the opportunity to learn so much about what was happening in the industry, and how it was really affecting people and the planet.When I did get to Delhi, I passed the market and had no intention of going in. But it was a moment of reckoning, I could see all these clothes that were wasted and being sold for next to nothing. I could see the pollution all around me. It was a big moment of change. However, when I got back home it was really frustrating because as a university student, access to sustainable fashion was treated as a luxury.
It was really expensive, and there was this idea that you needed to “buy into” sustainable fashion - that to me just didn’t fit. I started researching how I could lead a more sustainable lifestyle without having to completely remove myself from the fashion industry. What I could see around me was people sharing their clothes with friends and family, and that was creating our own ecosystem. Using what we already had was far more sustainable than ever buying something new. And if that concept could be scaled, then we could provide a real, sustainable and affordable alternative to the fast fashion industry.
So that became the focus. Nuw has turned into both a borrowing platform where you can borrow things short-term, and also a swapping platform, which the majority of the focus is on now. You upload a piece of clothing, and members get a token for each piece they upload, then they can then use that token to take a piece from the platform for themselves. It’s all about giving new life to the pieces in our wardrobe, using what we already have as a way to access more fashion, and really leaving this buy-wear-dispose mindset behind.
What do you hope Nuw will change?
Long-term I want to disrupt the fashion industry so much that the production of clothing would go down. The real problem is that we are producing far more clothes that we need. 100 billion pieces of fashion are created every year, and that means the amount of pre-loved clothing that exists in the world grows exponentially. In order to reduce production, you have to reduce the demand for first-hand fashion.
Our hope with Nuw, is that people do not need to buy first-hand in order to feel that rush of something that’s new to them. For our members it’s about being able to change their wardrobes in an accessible, affordable way. For fast fashion, we want to see a big industry shift. We hope our model really competes with what they’ve built and forces them to change by slowing down, producing less and creating more value from the pieces that are produced over time. The production of fashion involves using our finite resources and chemicals. We want the fashion industry to move away from the dependency on these means of production.
Who are you hoping will use NUW?
Our focus and target market grew up with e-commerce and fast fashion, and are now super aware of the impact of the industry, but need an affordable way to make any significant or relevant change. We really look at high street pieces as the focus for sustainable fashion. At the moment, a lot of the solutions skew luxury. That makes sense, because if you're reselling it’s a better business model to sell higher value items. With rental, it needs to be luxury because why would you rent if you could buy it for a very similar price? High street fashion gets left behind, but as a student that’s all I cared about.
I didn’t go into designer stores, I didn’t go into my friend’s wardrobes and ask them what price or brand it was from. We tackle the high street industry head where a huge amount, if not the majority, of pollution happens. Young women are the highest consumers of fast fashion. We have observed a slight intergenerational change, where millennials or women over the age of 24, will have a lot of fast fashion in their wardrobes from when they were a bit younger, and they want to get rid of that. They want to pass their old clothes on in favour of a more curated wardrobe. They’ll swap out the majority of their clothing, and take less. Then younger people who are still finding out their fashion identity, tend to swap a lot and sometimes benefit from being able to wear higher value items they may otherwise not have access to.
What makes Nuw different from the fast fashion industry?
The way fast fashion brands present themselves as sustainable is generally greenwashing - using sustainability terms as a form of marketing, whether or not they can actually stand over these principles, or whether they actually have a policy implemented. Ask yourself, are you buying from a brand that has a sustainable collection within an entire store of unsustainable collections? Are you looking at a brand that changes their trends on a daily or weekly basis? Even if they have a sustainable collection, they’re still mass and over producing.
Whether or not a piece of clothing is actually sustainably made, if you are not consuming it in a sustainable way, that is still non-sustainable practice. What Nuw has people do, is reuse what’s already in circulation over and over again, regardless of how it's been made. We always say the best revenge against fast fashion is just wearing the clothes. We take the best parts of fast fashion, the access to a lot of variety, really quickly and take away the negative impact.
What makes Nuw different from other solutions in the sustainable fashion space:
We don't do peer to peer rental. We find this has a barrier to entry as you need to have high value items to rent as well as the purchasing to rent from others. Rentals are great for one-off items for a super fancy event, but not on a daily basis if you want to change up your wardrobe. Sustainable fashion needs a broad-set of solutions that ensures everyone can get involved. Resale has also become very professionalised. The people who do best on resale platforms are those who have built clout, those who run them like an actual shop, or vintage resellers who do it as a full-time job. For more casual sellers, you could upload a piece, put a lot of effort into it, but still be waiting seven or eight months for something to sell for £5-20. That’s become a bad experience for recirculating your wardrobe. You need to be efficiently getting things in and out of your wardrobe, and attaching monetary value to each item, reduces the likelihood of this happening.
With Nuw the big difference between everyone in the industry is we take away the monetization of individual pieces of clothing. We use a simple token system - silver for high street and gold for mid-market and above. If you put too much effort into valuing items that people are already ready to give away, you reduce the likelihood the piece will actually go somewhere. If the mission is to make sure that these clothes get out of wardrobes and into the hands of someone who will wear them, you need a process that is very frictionless. When you're ready to part with something, you're already emotionally attached to it. Once you have a token, you have the value that you need, to immediately get something that you do want. We believe that this is the only thing that will work for high streets. Across reseller platforms, and ThreadUp has a good report on this, high street brands are the most difficult to resell. Whereas, on Nuw they perform the highest. We’re taking away preconceived notions of how we can recirculate items of clothing. The trading system we developed works for items that are sold at such a low value on their first point of sale and are actually undervalued entirely. We bring that value back in a way that isn't tied to money.
Are there any success stories you can share about your impact to date?
We have members who are really into fast fashion and don’t know a lot about sustainability, and then we have members who are really into sustainability but really aren’t experimental with their fashion. We have one member called Sarah, and she studied environmental science and really understands what is happening in the industry, but historically never had a love of fashion. It’s really difficult to experiment when you want to be conscious because you don’t want to try things that don’t work out and create more waste. Now her wardrobe is 75% Nuw items, and she has the ability to experiment while staying true to her values. It’s really nice to see those total lifestyle changes. On the other side, we have a member called Jenny who is used to sales packages arriving everyday. A friend told her about Nuw and she started swapping and borrowing. She didn’t really know a lot about sustainability or what was happening in the fashion industry, but as you go through the Nuw process, you start to learn how much water and CO2 is used. When we spoke to Jenny, she said it was so lovely to get a package that wasn’t from ASOS, had a note in it, and felt like it was from someone.
That piece is so different to anything else in her wardrobe. She now has far less packages coming through the door, because she is really mindful of those packages as they come in. The most interesting thing for Jenny, was that she was selling a piece on depop for £70. People would come and try and haggle the price down to £40, and she said no because she thought it was a good dress and didn’t want to sell it for less. But she swapped it on Nuw because she would prefer to give it to someone who genuinely wanted it, rather than sell it to someone and devalue the item completely. Before Nuw, the expectation was that if you were into fast fashion and your mindset hasn’t changed, you will always take the value. But actually, we’ve found the value totally shifting. Jenny was really happy with all the pieces she was getting from Nuw, and she really wanted to feedback into the community, which becomes a really important part of the cycle.
For members, it’s not just about what you take, it’s really important for people to also take your pieces, and for you to feel like you are feeding into the community and that you are really a part of that change. There’s a lot of positivity and empowerment of being able to be a part of the solution. In both Sarah and Jenny’s stories, you see people’s whole mindset change, which is what we set out to do. On top of that, there’s 1000s and millions litres of water which have been offset, and CO2. But I think it’s the behaviour change that is the most important to see and talk to our members about. Especially as a founder, it’s important to fundamentally understand what those behaviour changes look like and how, if they’re reproduced, they could feed into your mission.
What’s one thing you wish you had known at the beginning of your startup journey?
If there is anything that you don’t know - which is probably 97% of building your business, find someone who does and ask their help. I started building Nuw and really committing to it, six months before I moved to London for the BGV programme. When I got to London, I didn’t know anyone so I had to ask for help. When I was at home I was in my comfort zone, and felt awkward asking people I didn’t really know for help, especially when you don’t have any money as a startup founder. I thought, “How do you ask for favours in a way that isn’t rude, or isn’t taking advantage of people, or what are their expectations?”
What I’ve learned is that if you ask someone for their help, and they meet with you, the default is that they want you to succeed. They are helping because they have been helped in the past, and they recognise the benefit of helping people, and so the intent is there. Everything moved so much quicker when I realised that I don’t have the answers to everything, but somebody else might. You become a better as a founder because you’re able to delegate, and learning that although this is your baby, you’re not going to have all the answers to figure it out. You can also do yourself a disservice if you’re struggling with certain areas and become very self-critical which doesn’t move things forward. You can’t be skilled in every department - you can’t be someone in tech, and also in business, and also in design, and also in marketing. That would also be really inefficient! But surrounding yourself with people who can feed in, really helps.
What three qualities make a successful founder?
Just showing up.
I genuinely feel that this is a big reason why a business succeeds or not. A business can only succeed if you come into work everyday. It doesn’t matter how great the idea is, if you don't come in. Some days are going to be exceptionally tough, and you may cry loads - I cry all the time! And that’s fine! I talk to my boyfriend about everything that’s going on all the time. You need people who will also tell you to turn off everyday, and people who will remind you that you’ve been here 100 times before and it’s worked. You need to believe that it is going to work out, but just being there is half the battle. If you’re there, you can solve things. If you’re there, you can keep going.
The ability to decide what advice you should take.
You will get lots of advice from lots of different people. I used to take all of it, both personally and professionally. I would feel that if they must know best. It was a big change when I learned that there’s always going to be feedback, but you don’t always have to take it. You can no, I disagree. As a founder, you understand your business better than anyone else. For example, we were told with Nuw, that no one would exchange clothes if they weren’t paid for it. I thought that the people who told me that must be right because they’ve done business before. Then every person I spoke to from our target market, told us they didn’t want to do resale. I realised I just needed to listen to our users and members, and not take every bit of advice. I say listen to the advice, but then go back to the people who are actually going to use their product and buy into the concept, they’re the best advice.
Have something that reminds you why you’re doing it.
If you don’t really have a strong mission, you’d just give up. Building a business is incredibly tough, if it was easy, so many people would do it. And getting through those really tough times, and every new experience is equally tough. You think it gets easier as you go on, but it actually gets harder emotionally as there’s more at stake, more people involved and more expectations. To push through those times, I go back to the True Cost documentary - it’s all about the fashion industry and what’s wrong with it. I think this is especially relevant when fundraising.
You’ll be spending a lot of time with the mechanics of the business, and all these things that aren’t the reason you started. When you’re very deep in it, you’re trying to prove that this can be scalable. I think what BGV does really well is say, “Don’t think of it as your projections of revenue, think of it as, if you are going to affect and change the lives of people globally, what do you need to scale at that point.” Coming back to that, and coming back to your mission helps realign you. As a founder, remember why you're doing it and it gets easier to then go back to step one, which is just get up and show up the next day.
Aside from NUW, are there any other tech for good companies you admire?
There are two BGV companies I really love. The first is Birdsong. They work with local seamstresses and a lot of women who were refugees who came over to the UK, and make sustainable clothing collections. Sophie, the founder, has so much passion and knowledge of the industry. You can see that every decision they make within the brand is always made for the right reasons. I’ve never known a company to be so transparent, and so wholesome. You can see where every pound you spend with Birdsong goes. I lived in East London for quite a long time, and I could see it directly affecting the local community. It’s been amazing to watch that brand grow. They also did a lot with size diversity in sustainable fashion and have really pioneered that space.
The second company I really love is Fairphone. This is a phone that’s ethically made, but what’s more interesting is that as the company has scaled, what they’ve done is build an ethical supply chain for phones. A supply chain is so hard to build, especially because a lot of the resources that go into electronics are made in areas of a lot of conflict. It’s really impressive to see a phone made fairly, because at the end of the day so much needs to happen, and if they can do that, they can help replicate that for all technology companies, who aren’t putting in the effort. That’s something that could really shift things, and it’s really nice to know the beginnings of a company that started in BGV and could potentially, very quickly, make waves within the whole electronics industry.
I had heard about both Birdsong and Fairphone before applying to BGV, and it was really exciting when talking to them became accessible. When you start as a founder, you think everyone is far away, like a CEO in a big corporation. But other founders are so normal and accessible, you never really get out of the founder mindset. It’s nice to know that everyone is on equal footing, and other founders are willing to help you.
What’s next for you and Nuw and how can people help?
If you love what we do and want to recirculate some of your pieces, it would be amazing if you downloaded the Nuw app on iOS and Android, and you can follow us on socials. We’re also in the process of raising a seed round. This will be our biggest round to date, and we are really going to look at scaling across Ireland and the UK, and building our team. Next step wise, that’s really exciting.
We have the mechanics done, and understand exactly how it’s going to work. For us, there’s a sense of accomplishment that after so long, we have really figured out what we need to fix this problem and we’re so excited to start building that now. We can’t wait to close this raise and go headfirst back into the product, and the fun bits of the startup which is building.
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