According to the World Bank, clothes production accounts for about 10 percent of global carbon emissions, more than the combined output of the aviation and shipping industries. Alongside that, fashion manufacturers use up vast amounts of water in the production process – around 900 billion cubic meters every year, to be precise – and produce 20 percent of the world’s wastewater. At the other end of the chain, the planet’s landfill sites are continually filling up with discarded items of clothing as consumers buy new items and throw away the old.
All of which presents a conundrum for those selfsame consumers. At a time when we’re all being encouraged to buy electric cars, fit heat pumps or solar panels to our homes, eat less meat and abandon our addiction to single-use plastic in order to avert an environmental catastrophe, we are facing the prospect of forging a new relationship with the clothes we wear.
Which is tricky. Yes, you can buy less often and more carefully, but the pressures to look good – professionally and socially – are immense. We express ourselves through our clothes and simply reducing consumption puts a brake on that self-expression. Buying an electric car is quite exciting, fitting solar panels feels very modern, wearing the same few items of clothing for months or years on end is not such an enticing prospect, even if you swap cheap and disposable for more expensive and durable pieces.
But, we live in the age of the circular economy, and the fashion problem has opened the door for new entrepreneurs. Britain’s DePop – recently sold to Etsy for $1.6 billion – proved that second-hand clothing can be successfully sold to generation Zers via a peer-to-peer platform.
Make The Most Of What You’ve Got
Second-hand clothes aren’t the only game in town, however. In her book, Shop Your Wardrobe, writer and entrepreneur Jill Chivers encouraged her readers to make the most of the clothing they already own. It’s an idea that has been picked by – among others – entrepreneur Bianca Rangecroft.
Recalling her previous career in investment banking, Rangecroft describes herself as a typical young analyst. “I had the shoes and I loved fashion.”
And it was at that point, she observed a problem – and one that was common both to herself and her colleagues. A lot of clothes shopping was going on but a much was thrown away or not used. People weren’t necessarily making the most of their wardrobes. Some very well-paid women were complaining they had nothing to wear for client meetings and presentations.
A 21st-century problem, certainly but also a market opportunity. So Rangecroft came up with the idea of Whering – a wardrobe utilization tool in the shape of an online personal stylist designed to help women put together outfits from the clothes they already owned.
After conducting focus groups, Rangecroft set about building the tech in-house. She also sought VC backers but that proved difficult. “There was a lot of interest on the part of VCs but they were very focused in their portfolios and there was a lot of dry powder. It became clear it would take more to convince them.”
There was also something of a gender divide. Largely male VCs didn’t necessarily see a big enough problem to warrant backing a solution. “They would say things like I’ll go and chat to my wife.” So Rangecroft took the decision to delay the fund-fund raising, feeling the valuation wouldn’t be right.
That was 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Fast forward to 2021 and Whering is now out of beta and operating a range of services. In addition to enabling customers to digitize their wardrobes and organize individual items into “collections,” the site also allows people to sell clothes they don’t want.
But who is using the site and why? Well, the evidence to date suggests the user base is not entirely the one that was expected. “We thought the sweet spot would be women aged 30-45 with high disposable incomes,” says Rangecroft. “Actually 65 percent of our audience is from Generation Z.”
Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. The circular economy – as regards fashion – has been around for longer than we think, not least in the shape of vintage shops and their slightly less trendy charity shop cousins. These have traditionally been destinations for the relatively young – people who may also want to make the most of their existing sartorial assets.
However, Rangecroft believes that the range of options is allowing Whering to attract women from across the demographic spectrum. Some like the convenience of digitizing their clothes and matching them up into outfits. Others enjoy the recommendation element. Others can take advantage of the sell or repair options.
There is a question here. Is Whering simply a service for those who need some style advice based on their own previous purchases or has it got the potential to play a role in creating a less wasteful fashion ecosystem?
Well, probably a bit of both. The company does put sustainability and circularity at the center of its offer and anything that helps us all to buy less and re-use more clearly has some kind of a positive impact on the environment. The app has been downloaded 30,000 times and on average users are uploading 35 items of clothing. A good start then, but clearly not something that is going to save the planet.
There is, however, a bigger point. If human beings are to change their consumption habits, we need businesses and economic models that will help us to do that. Individually, the impact is limited. Collectively, the overall impact of enviromentally friendly companies could be much bigger.
And this is a sector that’s attracting entrepreneurs. The shop your wardrobe category includes Stylebook and Save Your Wardrobe. Vinted and the aforementioned Depop address the secondhand market and rental is covered by Rent the Runway. Meanwhile Good on You allows users to check the sustainability of prospective purchases.
So, at the very least there’s a business opportunity. The environmental impact depends on just how much traction the circular economy can gain.