The Nu Wardrobe

For our second issue editor Geri Dempsey sat down with Nu Wardrobe founder Aisling Byrne in London to discuss the realities of clothes waste and how we can all be better global citizens.

Words: Geri Dempsey | Images: Hayley Stuart

So let's start where it all began 

Aisling: So I started Nu with my friend Ali who also lives in London. I’ve always been interested in fashion, I considered doing Fashion Design, and then I went and ended up doing music in Trinity and then while I was there I did a summer volunteer programme with SUAS and Ali was on the same programme, but we were both in different places, she was in Delhi and I was in Kolkata. While I was over in India I guess I saw the whole dark side of the fast fashion industry, and you just come back with so many questions.

I mean it's great that you actually came back and genuinely did something?

Aisling: Oh yeah well like it took a while before anything actually happened. It made me think, I mean I was so bad, any spare bit of money I had I’d be going and buying something in H&M or Zara.

Like us all of course.

Aisling: So once I was back I was thinking about it and just feeling so depressed about the whole situation and nobody seemed to think it was a problem. It seemed like if it was really this bad surely we couldn't act like this, or surely the industry just can't be like this, and then it hits you that it truly is that bad. So it was about two years later when me and Ali were running an event in college together and we became friends, and just started talking more and more about what we' both experienced individually and the crossover, and I guess our feeling was just that everywhere we looked you could either buy better or just not buy at all. You could buy more expensive things, which a lot of people at our age just couldn't afford, or you could just not shop at all which in reality isn’t much fun.

I feel that having a base around a college is so clever, because when you're at our age you just don't have the disposable cash to burn, so borrowing is just so ideal.

Aisling: Yeah and it's a really big problem, especially when you look at businesses that operate in any sort of rental model, or in any stage of moving away from fast fashion, they just won't cater to young people because they don't have the purchasing power. Young people would be much more conscious consumers as they progressed if they were starting earlier.

If  you're in a routine of doing it you would be used to it, rather than just coming to it when you're in your 30's and suddenly deciding to start caring about things. I suppose it really brings it back to it being a class issue.

Aisling: Exactly, if you want to be sustainable you have to be able to afford it and if you can afford it you can also afford to be more polluting. It is just such a weird set up, where you can afford to get out of it or get into it and that a lot of the control doesn't lie with anyone else.

So anyway, starting out it was quite hard to bring friends on board because they weren’t necessarily as passionate as us and of course we felt sad about it and we researched it a lot and just felt worse and worse but couldn't actually do anything. You'd still just run to H&M or Penney's to get stuff for a night out, because that was our objective, to be going out and enjoying fashion, but we couldn't actually do that in a sustainable way with the options we had.

So we did an ideas collective with SUAS two years later, which was interesting as they had actually realised that a lot of people seem to have seen things that really trouble them while on the trip. Their hope is that you go over there and volunteer and somewhere down the line you use that experience to do something within the Irish society I guess.

We decided to start a swap shop, because loads of our friends are able to change up their wardrobes without having to buy new pieces all the time, so it came from this whole ethos of to wear something different doesn't necessarily mean you have to buy something new. If you borrow, share, rent or swap something it's new to you, and you're still getting that rush and feeling of wearing new pieces.

Yeah I can see the idea of swapping, especially while on campus so easy, it'd be hard to ask a stranger you've seen if you can borrow her dress, but when it's through a network and something that’s affiliated it makes it easier to swallow in a way, Id be way more up for lending that way. I used to be pretty strict on who I’d lend to in school, and I feel like strangers would be almost more respectful of my clothes than my own friends would.

Aisling: Yeah and that’s actually what we found as well, when you meet someone, and there’s a contract and vision of when if something happens you have to pay the full amount people are on board. There is so much about the trust building as well.

I suppose now what we're figuring out is who can provide things to lend and who can borrow, and are they the same people and how do we incentivise the people to lend. Our biggest challenge is the incentive, because everyone has these wardrobes that are full, either with good things, or not so good things and so how do we recirculate the clothing that's sitting in people's wardrobes, without always attaching full value to it. Looking at reseller sites and companies like that, people need to get the value they feel their pieces are worth before the companies get the piece. It turns out items that are under used are sometimes more harmful than ones that are less well made, but worn a lot more. Occasion wear can in some ways be more negatively impactful because it takes so many resources to make, but is then worn less. What we're working with is that if collectively we can share the more we can collectively save. You’ll save money, but still have a constantly changing wardrobe.

When I set up my profile on Nu I imagine I’ll start with Occasion wear, but would you say that’s the thing, penetrating different groups and getting people into a routine of borrowing for Friday night’s out not just a ball or a wedding?

Aisling: Yeah it's like trying to start this like behaviour change, and I guess you have to look at where trends are going and markets are going. You can see that there's certain issues, and the reports say that consumption of fashion will go up 60% over the next 10 years because fast fashion isn't in markets outside of Europe or America, so it's looking at going into Latin America, India, more of Asia. The planet just cannot provide the kind of resources that would need to grow. So it’s whether there’s going to be a tipping point when people start realising that we can't keep wasting our resources and our time trying to figure out a system that’s broken? 

Even our whole panel discussion was "Can fast fashion ever be Sustainable?" and the short answer was no, it can't. There’s tons of breakthroughs that are making production disposal of fashion more sustainable, but nothing on the consumer end in tandem that’s going to actually slow down the rate of how its consumed. So its actually dangerous either way. Its really encouraging that there are so many different models that are coming out now, and that if there’s enough something will work, and that it will actually just take away from fast fashion. There's a lot of arguments that go straight to capsule wardrobes, but I guess we feel where we fit in is that there has to be some sort of transitioning period, so you're not going to get people to completely adjust to capsule wardrobes when fast fashion is such a big player in the industry. We know the reasons why and we can't keep blaming people for a system they’ve always known. If we can still give people the lifestyle that they currently have but know that in the background the bi-product is more sustainable, then we can change mind-sets.

You’ve raised a really interesting point, I’m really curious how you approach your tone of voice as a brand, and avoid things like blame or it all getting too negative?

Aisling: Yeah we do need to be a very fashion forward platform. Just looking at the trials we did for the Trinity Ball, was people getting the experience of borrowing the items and having their outfits organised and when dropping them back we'd tell them how many litres of water they'd saved and co2. A lot of them were shocked, and so its a far more interesting way to be empowered and feel like you've actually made a difference and not getting overwhelmed by the negatives of fast fashion and fall into a thought pattern of “I just can't do anything, I’d have to change my whole life and become vegan on the side.”

Speaking honestly, do ever find it exhausting, especially when coming up against so many hurdles?

Aisling: Sometimes you find yourself thinking: “How realistic is it that things will actually change?”because it's such massive machine. Even after the Rana Plaza disaster when they were trying to bring in the Bangledesh Accord, one of the guys involved was talking about how he was trying to get brands on board, and they only needed 3 to start but could only get 2 to agree. He said brands govern Bangladesh, they don't answer to anyone, they're like gangs.

Yeah and its such a tough one because once one country implements better laws and working conditions they just have to sit and hope brands don't up and jump to the next cheapest country.

Aisling: Yeah it's like a race to the bottom with all of the brands. Which is why things like the EU are so beneficial. because they have competition laws. 

Would you say it would take a larger body coming together to connect you guys and other ethical companies to make one large collective to affect change that way?

Aisling: Fashion Revolution are actually really good for that, and thats definitely brought a lot of support. I guess for a lot of sustainable or ethical designers, especially in the design stage, feel like they're just competing in isolation with these huge companies, when really they all need to find their own audience and cultivate that. A lot of them don't necessarily want to go down the mass production route or churn out clothing, but it still does make it difficult because people are always trained to think: what is the cheapest thing I can get? In the Netflix documentary “The True Cost” they talk about how although fast fashion is cheaper, you'll end up buying more of it, and actually lose money. We've gotten into a culture where instead of investing in healthcare or investing in yourself, you'll go buy a few t-shirts and it will make you feel better.

Personally I lean more towards vintage shopping now as I can’t stand walking down the street and seeing 3 people wearing the same top as me.

Aisling: Yeah I think with fast fashion its so hard to maintain a personal style, because it just changes so quickly. All the shops look the same, done up with the same patterns and the same colours, and it gets so boring. I used to really enjoy fashion but the more I've learned about it the more uninteresting I find it.

I wonder what they'll look back at these times as?

Aisling: They'll think ah that was a repeat of the entire last century in the space of ten years because they ran out of ideas.

Have you had any surprising highlights?

Aisling: I think our biggest so far was getting brand ambassadors, which was very cool. We put out applications for brand ambassadors and got over 150 responses, it was a great acknowledgement of wow young people care and a testament to the power of social media. From what we’ve seen of the people who have gotten on board with NU, I feel like it just attracts a certain type of genuine person. It never gets old just hearing someone say “I borrowed something from your site after a friend recommended it.” It reaffirms that we’re making a difference, and sure it's a relatively small group of people but hearing someone say "Oh you should check Nu" if they don't have something to wear rather than telling them to just run out and buy it makes it worthwhile.

To me it seems like it could only be a win win, I wish I’d had it when I was in college.

Aisling: Our only struggle is getting a supply to meet the demand, but the fact that people are borrowing is actually great, because we get an insight into what parts are working and what aren't. We know definitely that the time for something like this is probably coming, but it's just figuring out how you get enough early users.

Was working it around colleges and campuses always part of the business plan?

Aisling: It’s interesting because that's where we had the problem and nobody seemed to be considering young people. Everywhere we looked it would it was expensive subscriptions services for ethical start up’s with none catering to our age range. For people our age often the only thing that’s out there is fast fashion or thrifting.

I feel that the convenience factor must be a huge driver as well. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that people are lazy, and will always take the easy way out when they can.

Aisling: Yeah that's what we've realised, it just needs to be so convenient. I think as well that if sustainability is going to get on the map and start changing in different industries and if it's going to become mainstream, fashion is definitely the industry it should be in. Its so creative, it's really vulnerable to disruption, and it has all of the tools and things we'd need to actually make solutions like this work and i think now it's just waiting to totally transform.

Even just with personalisation and all the different opportunities that they have there's definitely room for sustainability. Its a really fun place to start making things better as Fashion is made to be enjoyed. Which is also the thing, sustainability can be so boring. Telling people to recycle is not a fun thing to do. but fashion actually is fun and playful when done right.

Our difficulty as well is that things that are a problem for the industry aren't necessarily the problems for the people who would be using the platform because fast fashion isn't a problem for them. Often they're thinking: “Brilliant, cheap clothes.” So we're trying to figure out what are the problems that people actually do have and how would we solve that in tandem with solving environmental or human rights problems. 

Yeah I was thinking of how it’s handy if you're strapped for cash but also does great things for the environment, which leads you to what factor do you target people on?

Aisling: Exactly because people's problem isn't “it's hurting the environment”, it’s more "I don't have something new to wear next week which is very inconvenient."

I mean I guess it's progress even getting people in on the cost issue first?

Aisling: Oh definitely, and even positive affirmations of being a lazy eco queen doing the bare minimum. Our main thing looking to the future is can we solve different issues or start different patterns of behaviour before it all gets too bad. There was an organisation we were involved with called Climate-Kitc, who noted that they’d seen so many sustainability start-ups come through, and so much of them didn’t work because it's all such new stuff and the ideas, while great, just didn't work at the time. They were clever and said we need to start getting networks of people who have done these things, because they just kept losing them back into the general workforce instead of pooling them all together and using the experience they had actually gotten first hand. It's so important when there's new industries happening that they don't just like fall on their own, that all the information can actually go somewhere so that you can start building it as a new theme within business. Right now we're trying to figure out what went wrong for other clothes platforms, but it’s a lot of speculation and wondering what went wrong.

How have you found London as opposed to Dublin?

Aisling: When you get here you realise immediately that it's totally different. Dublin's so tight knit, and though I love it, it's no wonder that you can make a success of things here. Its different especially with business matters, you just have to be very straightforward. Trying to explain to governments that we don't have the infrastructure to take care of our clothes waste, and that at some point other countries are going to stop taking our waste, is challenging. Developing countries right now are trying to bring in bans. If clothing is brought to charity shops, only around 10% is sold, and the rest is shipped to developing countries where it undercuts the local garment economy, because its sold at a knock down price. 

That’s the thing, a lot of people think it's fine if they buy in bulk as long as they’re bringing them to charity shops, and while of course it's great you're not throwing them away, in reality they’re just making themselves feel better about the waste they've created not necessarily that they're giving good pieces that can be resold. If you're donating a stained t-shirt with holes in it, it's not going to get sold. It’s going to go somewhere else and have a negative impact.

In Ireland there is such a huge problem with waste, and in the same way that China stopped taking in our recycling, we're going to have the same issue with clothing, but we just pretend that it's not happening. It's a future truth that all of this, the businesses create the waste, and people obviously consume it, but we will always pay for it. Got this has taken a really dark turn.

No its relevant, but to bring it back on track, I've been genuinely amazed at the speed of which people went from being relatively indifferent and inactive about causes like Repeal, to being members of canvassing groups, so I really do have faith in people. 

Aisling: Definitely, there's so much to be said for education and even just enjoying stuff and feeling like you could actually have an impact on it. When you're advocating for something you're like this, where it affects you and you feel a responsibility to actually act on the other people that it's affecting too, things like that are really powerful. If this whole process has taught us anything its that there's actually so many people who feel as passionately as we do and I do think there's a general consensus within all of us that no one deliberately wants to harm the environment or hurt people.

Given the option you would choose the better one if it was as convenient as the other. When you approach it from that way, actually giving people the power to do things that they truly want to do, rather than always making it feel like they have to conform to something else is the ideal.

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Geri Dempsey