Innovator Spotlight Series: in conversation with Aisling Byrne, Nuw
Sustainability is an issue that permeates the fashion industry today and as a result, there’s a growing number of sustainable fashion brands, technologies and new business models that aim to change it for the better. But who are the innovators in the space? Fueled will be speaking to founders that are leading the sustainable fashion movement in a series of interviews called the Innovator Spotlight. Read on and get inspired.
Aisling Byrne is the co-founder of Nuw, a social network to share your clothes and reduce your impact. On the Nuw app, members can swap items they are ready to part with and find new items to love, or borrow and lend occasion wear short-term with fellow members.
Aisling was listed as one of Ireland's 30 under 30 in 2018, and has guest lectured on the topics of sustainable fashion and entrepreneurship at Trinity College Dublin and the National College of Art and Design.
What is sustainability to you?
To me, everything that's made comes from the planet, so there shouldn't be anything that we don't use. Take clothing for instance, I always like to think about it as “Why should the life of a piece of clothing be any different to that of a person?”, in terms of being made with love, fulfilling what it's come here to do, having a long and happy life and then eventually going back into the earth. If it's made from our natural resources, we want these pieces to accomplish their life cycle to be in balance with how the planet is built.
Sustainability for me is just being conscious and remembering that everything we have and everything that exists was made from our natural resources. We should be wanting to protect our clothing as much as we protect our forests.
How does sustainability tie in with your story and how did you get started with Nuw?
Nuw started when, in 2013, Ali (co-founder of Nuw Wardrobe, ed) and I went on a volunteering trip to India for 3 months with Suas Educational Development, an irish NGO. During the program, we got to see first hand the devastating social and environmental impacts of fast fashion. We felt angry, frustrated and heartbroken for being complicit in an industry that caused so much harm.
Once back in Ireland, we just couldn’t ignore what we had learned and witnessed. If on one hand, we realised that there weren’t many affordable and sustainable alternatives to fast fashion, on the other, we realised that we were already doing something about it and consuming fashion responsibly. We were sharing clothes among friends for special events and went to swap shops on campus. To us, this was the perfect solution because those pieces of clothing were getting recirculated in our own ecosystem and we didn't have to go and partake in fast fashion to enjoy fashion!
Our idea was to take this concept and make it a lot wider so more people could get involved and learn about sustainability and the positive positive impact they were making (ie: offsetting a significant amount of CO2, water and waste in the process). Sometimes young people can experience the so-called climate anxiety: “If i can't do it all, I can't do anything”, so if I'm not a vegan or I haven't shopped at a zero-waste store there's not really much that I can do.
When talking about this climate anxiety, how do you think young people can overcome this?
I think it's a lot easier to do so as a community because you get to see the significant impact of a wider group. Individualism is a hangover from previous generations and we're finding, as a generation fighting climate change, that we can't actually do anything unless we all do it together.
It's nice to be a member of Nuw because whether you’re clearing out your wardrobe or somebody else’s, you see clothes go on and live a second or third life and the collective impact. You get that sense of “everyone is doing it”.
It's very encouraging, you feel like we actually might solve the problem because there's enough people that are doing something to create positive change.
What is the problem in the market that you're solving ?
For us it’s all about affordable access to more sustainable ways of consuming fashion and recirculating high street pieces. When we first started Nuw, we had a very sustainability-minded community. People knew what was going on in the fashion industry and we thought that a platform like this would only work for mid-market to luxury brands, but we had actually never really set out to solve that problem. So that is where we started; as a borrowing platform. It was catered towards students attending university balls and weddings. One-time wears that you wouldn't get much use out of. You could borrow from people short-term and then they would get it back.
However, what we learned was that high street pieces were actually getting shared quite often but the effort to borrow them was too high. We were working towards this specific issue and then the pandemic hit.
Luckily, we had run swap shops before and always wanted to build that capability into Nuw when the time was right. Here is how it works: you upload an item to swap, you get a silver token for high street items, gold for mid market and above. You can then use that token to take a piece off the platform which means you don't need to swap directly with people. During the pandemic, we could see that fast fashion purchases skyrocketed, signalling that people were still buying clothes at an alarming rate. We needed to do something with the platform enabling people to get “new” clothes even during lockdown.
We finally hit the solution we needed, which was to recirculate high street items. The growth has just been incredible! We're at 215% month-on-month growth at the moment with 800 uptick in usage since November.
How did you validate Nuw in the market initially?
At the very beginning, we started with just a Squarespace website. I went back to my old university asking if any of the girls had photos of the ball dresses they previously wore. They emailed them to me and I put them up on the site. People could then request to borrow them and I would set up a Whatsapp group with those people to set up the item borrowing.
Trial two was a more automated website/ platform. We were able to expand to a couple of universities and recruit a couple of brand ambassadors. We then moved to London and were selected for the Bethnal Green Ventures Tech for Good accelerator. This enabled us to get to the pre-seed round and finally build our app. We had our first 100 beta testers and held an event where people shared their clothes and collected a lot of data from that. In January 2020, we launched the app publicly and then Covid-19 happened.
To test the swapping was easy because we ran swap shops back in 2015 and had tested loads of different things with tokens and how to encourage people to bring better quality items. We decided to add different tiers of token to Nuw and decided what was acceptable and what wasn’t. We ran again focus groups and asked our members what they thought.
To get the app going, we needed supply, so we partnered with the Dublin Simon Community, a charity that has a range of charity shops, that way they could sell some of their clothes to accept new ones. We then promoted the app on social media and that’s how we got it going!
And moving further into the future, what is the vision for the company?
We've always set out to build Nuw as a global social network so the next stages of growth will focus on making the app more geolocation run so that people can sign up in the same way all over the world and start sharing with people in their local community. That way, we can reach key locations and recruit local brand ambassadors.
We want to expand outside of Ireland and the UK as we've always wanted to be a global solution to a global problem so it's just really building the tech infrastructure to make that happen.
We feel we've got the mechanics of it now and we would want someone to be able to search in a radius of their own area. But when you do so, you have to keep safety in mind and build features so that people can't figure out where your actual area is. Once we have that feature and it’s safe, we'll be able to open the platform worldwide.
We are also experiencing challenges related to people being the only ones sharing in their location but that's where we need to be able to spot that and quickly move to the area and make it a bit visible or start running social campaigns in those areas.
What are your challenges in the market?
Right now, size diversity is a really big challenge. We've been trying to get stock from the Simon Community partnership that we know is going to have more plus size items. That's been something that we really want to push as a startup.
We depend so much on people supplying the platform and need to be able to get people of various different sizes on board. Plus size pieces get taken really quickly and then the supply stops and we need to restock again. That's been a big learning for us: how do you build size diversity but in a really sustainable way, in terms of business or environmentally. We are working on that.
Another challenge is automating the platform and keeping it safe and easy to use. Because it's peer-to-peer, safety, location and the approval process are all very important. Right now the process is very manual and we'll have to incorporate more AI tools for that. So there’s this automation process that needs to happen without losing the community feel.
Anything else you would like to add?
Just to say to anyone interested in swapping and sustainability that we would love for you to join the community and the platform. See you there!
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