Nuw: A sustainable, community-minded alternative to fast fashion
The fashion industry is responsible for more carbon emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. On the production side, garment manufacturing is extremely water intensive, and when it comes to waste, the problems are even worse: So-called ‘fast fashion’ and luxury brands alike burn millions of unused items every year, creating thousands of tonnes of toxic fumes. Mountains of unused garments also end up in landfill, which leads to a slew of environmental problems. Much of this story is hidden, however, behind the glamour of the industry, which is mostly encountered by consumers in shiny retail stores.
For a recent episode of our podcast series on the Circular Economy, we spoke to Aisling Byrne, founder of Nuw, a social network that lets users share and swap their clothes with each other. “It's an app and also a real-life community... and it was born out of our want, and also our need, to move away from the fast fashion industry and the ‘buy, wear and dispose’ culture,” explains Aisling.
Aisling was in India in 2013, when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in neighbouring Bangladesh. “It was an awakening moment to... the true cost of the fashion industry, both environmentally and socially,” she says. Brainstorming ways to tackle the fashion industry’s secret sins, Aisling and a friend realised that we were actually solving this problem among family and friends by just sharing clothes. This approach provided an alternative to buying brand new items, while still giving the satisfaction of acquiring something novel – and empowering people to make use of the clothes already in their wardrobe. “What was so liberating about this realisation was that we could do it all with what we already had,” says Aisling. “We didn't need to become other people, we didn't need to buy our way into sustainability.” It was from there that the idea for a wider social network emerged, allowing people to share and swap clothes on a global scale, and offering an easily accessible alternative to fast fashion.
Sharing or swapping clothes offsets at least 25 percent of the resources that would have otherwise been used in the making of a new garment. Aisling estimates that the figure these days is closer to 60 or even 100 percent, thanks to the growth and resource-intensity of the fast fashion industry.
Nuw was born when Aisling joined the Ideas Collective, a social incubator programme for students and recent graduates. It was here she learned the lean startup methodology that has served her so well in building the business. “It’s really a case of testing the ideas that you have, on as small a scale as possible, as manually as possible, before you start building anything,” she explains. The approach allows founders and innovators to prove that people want to use what they’re building without actually having to build a product. For Nuw, the earliest example of this was when Aisling asked women at Trinity University to email her photos of their dresses from the previous year’s ball. She then uploaded the photos onto a Squarespace page, provided a form for people to fill in if they wanted to borrow a dress, and set up a WhatsApp group for the items’ owners and those who expressed an interest. After just three weeks, 350 students signed up and 60 people borrowed a dress for the ball. “People were obviously really excited about wearing the dresses, but we were intrigued that they were talking about environmental impact,” says Aisling. “That was real proof on a very small scale that something like this had legs and could really work.”
In another revealing example, Nuw users requested a calendar feature to be able to block off dates that they were not available to share items. By listening carefully to the community, Aisling and her team were able to ascertain that the problem was, in fact, that people felt bad about letting their community down when they were away from home and unable to share. The problem was ultimately solved simply by adding a comments box so that users could chat with each other and communicate their availability. Combining the lean approach and deep listening, Nuw avoided building a complicated piece of technology while solving a pressing problem for its users.
Beyond encouraging and empowering people all over the world to share and swap clothes, Nuw is about changing how we view fashion and questioning society’s obsession with new things. “We’re looking to provide an accessible alternative to fast fashion where people no longer think, ‘Oh, I'm going to go to a store and buy this brand new,’ but that they'll always look at borrowing first,” Aisling concludes. “If you're on a night out and see one of your friend’s pieces, you’ll ask, ‘Can I borrow that?’ rather than, ‘Where did you buy that?’”
Update: Re the statement that “stat is that fashion is responsible for more carbon emissions each year than international flights and maritime shipping combined”. It has been pointed out to us that this may be an inaccurate comparison. This does not in anyway detract from the amazing work that Nuw are doing, or the importance of tacking the climate impact of the fashion industry. However, we thought it worth acknowledging that it is also important to get our data right. More on our thoughts on this here.