The next in the series of interviews with our event speakers, Chibudem Nwabufo talks about how she got the idea for Impact Fashion, what keeps her going on the bad days, and why we should never, ever put clothes in the bin. If you want to hear her in person, that check out the event agenda.
Can you tell us about Impact Fashion for anyone who doesn’t know what you do?
Impact Fashion came about because of the conversations I had with my friends. They’re not very sustainability-minded at all. They’re interested in fashion, still want to do their bit but aren’t necessarily going to go to talks and be super champions. I was asking them “what are some things that are hard for you when it comes to fashion?” And they told me they just don’t know where to recycle clothes.
At the time I thought – that information is readily available. I guess it’s just not in a way that is accessible or attractive to most people. So, I thought I could make an app that helps my friends find their closest recycling point around London. That’s how we started.
It’s been really quick. I had the idea and then I submitted something to the Environment Now programme which is run by O2 and the Big Lottery. I went in and pitched to them. They loved the idea, gave me some money and told me to go make it happen.
How quick is really quick? When did you have the idea?
I had the idea in around June/July. I got the funding call in August. The turnaround was really quick which is rare. There was a lot of background though. I’ve been working in fashion in some capacity for 6 years. Slowly trying to find my voice in this space.
When I got to Imperial, they said to me you’re interested in fashion, there’s loads of sustainability issues within that, we think you should work on a project that has something to do with that. That was the first time that anyone has been super encouraging in an academic space. I just ran with it. The idea for Impact Fashion is based on my research.
It’s been a year since we got the funding and now we’re trying to scale up. We are launching a pilot where we put sensors into some of the textile bins. The idea is that a lot of users complained that although now they know where the bins are, sometimes they get there and the bin is full. In essence it’s a waste of time. Nobody is going to take their clothes back home so they end up fly tipping. That causes issues for the local authority and for the local community. The sensors will allow us to see when the bins are full and take them offline. At the same time, we can inform our contract partners that the bin’s full and needs emptying. Overall, it should be a more efficient system.
Does this happen to be a technological solution to a problem or do you have a background in technology?
Technically I don’t have a background in technology. I think the way I approached it came from more of an environmental angle as that’s my background. I’m of the generation where we’re all on our phones and we grew up being tech-savvy. And so it just made sense. Especially looking at the demographic I was trying to interact with.
How big is your ambition and scale? Where do you want to go?
I’m not going to lie I haven’t thought about that too much. I’m very much in the here and now – what are we trying to build right now. We are only in London at the moment although we’re looking at launching in Birmingham and Manchester. So I’m looking at small, steady growth rather than have this massive ambition. But, I think there are opportunities to scale across the UK, into Europe and America. Right now I’m just trying to fine-tune what the technology is, what do we do, what do we solve. I want to make that as good as it can be and then put it everywhere.
How do people find out about Impact Fashion?
Right now, it’s word of mouth. Or searching on the internet. We’re trying to do some more marketing to reach our target demographic. We’re not just focussed on people who are already sustainably minded, like my friends. People who just don’t want to put their clothes in the bin.
I think recycling is fascinating. But not everyone does! So how do you get people excited about the idea of not putting their clothes in the bin?
I just wrote the first part of a blog around showing people the value in clothes. Around how much money you can get from not throwing your clothes in the bin. You can eBay them, you can go and get a voucher from H&M or John Lewis if you use their recycling schemes. So it’s putting that financial message out there; telling people their clothes have value, people are willing to pay you for your clothes and not to put them in the bin.
The next part of it, is looking at the community feel of things. A lot of people want where they live to not look like a dump. You can contribute to your area looking a little nicer. If you recycle more of your clothes then local authorities can get more income from the textiles. Then there’s an opportunity your area could be improved off the back of that.
We’re trying to show that we’re not only making it easier for users but that there’s an added benefit for them too.
What do you come across in people’s attitudes? Do people think that this is something they should be doing and don’t have the time for? Do they not know what the difference in impact is between throwing clothes in the bin vs a clothes bank? Where are we at the moment?
An interesting point my research brought out was that people don’t know what happens when they put their clothes in the bin. Some people think that if they put clothes in the bin it will get separated out. So, it’s about making sure that we put the information out there that if you put clothes in the bin they will be incinerated or go to landfill. If you put it in your recycling, you contaminate your recycling. It’s about getting that message out to people – the reality of what will happen if you just bin your clothes.
Obviously, there are also people for whom putting clothes in the bin is just the easiest thing to do. That’s a harder knob to twist. You want to make it easier for people to do the right thing. If it’s not easy, I’m not doing it. So we’re trying to make it as easy as possible and get as much information out there as possible.
Even when I pitched, a lady asked me “What do I do with my jeans that have chub rub on them?” I was explaining that they still have a value. Just because they have a hole in them doesn’t mean they can’t be used for something else. I interview someone a couple of years ago who upcycles denim and does artwork on them. Giving it a different life.
Just in case you didn’t believe me earlier I am really into recycling! I went to a facility in East London where they receive the clothes from textile bins and sort them. I learnt how they find a home for more or less everything. So, I’ve seen all of that but even I look at ancient, holey sock and wonder whether or not I can put them in the textile bins.
But you can! It’s that value thing again. Everyone was very proud when I was talking to them. They told me how they had given all of their good clothes to the charity shop. And when I asked about what happened to the bad clothes they said they’d put it in the bin. So, how do you define good? Good is subjective. You might think that something isn’t good, but it could be recycled into upholstery for a car. Or it could be used for research into how polyester and cotton mixed blends could be recycled properly. The stigma around giving away something that you don’t see value in needs to be changed – just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
How do you piece this all together with local councils, charities, contractors?
We work across the board. When it came to collecting data, I went directly to local authorities and charities to try and show them the benefit of putting their data in a new format. It was harder than I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be super easy and that everyone would think it was a great idea. There were so many questions that I didn’t anticipate. I think that’s the great thing about diving into something and not necessarily knowing everything. You learn as you go along. There’s a lot of issues around textile banks getting stolen. Some people didn’t want all of that information to be readily available in one place on the internet to minimise that risk of theft. So that’s why we’ve made it location specific. You need to be in the area to see the banks that are around you. You can’t just see a long list of the textile banks across London.
The people we’re working with on the pilot, are local authority adjacent. They work across the EU so we’re hoping that if the pilot goes well we can upscale it to other countries. That’s another challenge as well.
What has been your biggest learning curve?
The importance of communicating with people. You can learn so much just by being open to having that conversation. Talking to people, hosting events, responding to tweets or emails has shaped the way our business is going to grow. The sensor idea came from a conversation with somebody telling me how frustrated they were with full bins. I was trying to figure out how to solve their problem and I came up with sensors.
Have you got people helping you? Who is your team? Who makes sure you get some sleep?
I’ve been quite lucky. As part of the Environment Now programme I got a mentor. She’s amazing. I have an advisory board. There’s three of them; someone in tech, someone business oriented, and someone from a fashion background. I also have a group of mentors that I’ve known over the years. My mentor is my main go to. We have meetings every month and strategise. I also have an app developer and a data collector. It takes a village! I’m trying to build a team and for me it’s all about finding the right people. And for me it’s make or break because you want to find people who are giving just as much as you are giving. I believe in the idea so much, so it’s trying to get people to buy into this idea, and my commitment to it. Which is tricky and it takes time. I’m happy to wait it out though.
A lot of people have business ideas but few people go on and bring them to life? What is it in you that makes you go on and do it?
I think it’s naivety. It’s just being a stupid a little bit. It’s having something that tells you “Why not? You might as well try and fail than not try at all.”
Even when I applied for the grant I had that attitude. I was just happy to pitch and test things out. I don’t think about things too much. I try and figure things out as I go. Right now, I’m learning a lot about strategies, making sure the business plan is sorted, having all your ideas down, being strategic with your next moves etc. But the initial getting from an idea to conception is just being a bit naïve.
Which is really valuable because a lot of people don’t get past the “I can’t do it because…” phase.
There are always going to be barriers. I could have stopped when people said they weren’t going to give me their data. But I knew that I would turn that no into a yes. I’m a little bit determined. That combination of naivety plus determination is great.
Obviously, I days where things are going badly. But then you might receive a little email from someone who I’ve been trying to get in touch with for months. You have to celebrate the tiny wins.
With Impact Fashion in general I’ve not taken anything too personally. I’m just pushing and seeing where I can get.
Quite a few of the speakers have told me they hold on to the wins because that’s what sees you through the dark times.
If not, you would go crazy! It’s also important to have good friend who will encourage you. One of my friends texted me to say “don’t worry about it you’ll be dope tomorrow.” And once you’ve had a few little wins you’re more likely to remember you’re not always going to have a shit day.
When you’re not running Impact Fashion what do you do to relax?
I go to the gym a lot. Well, I say a lot. More than I used to in the past! I run and I cycle. I can’t think about anything apart from not dying when I run. I live in Barnet which is quite green so I just walk. And I get a lot of ideas when I’m walking and get quite a lot of ideas even though I’m not thinking about work. Plus I just hang out with my friends. We chill out, have dinners and spend money we don’t have! My friends keep me sane.
What’s the ask? If anyone read this and wanted to do something what would you ask?
Don’t put your clothes in the bin. Whatever, it is. Never the bin!
I really enjoyed talking to Chidubem. She is relalxed, engaging and quick to laugh. All of which I suspect covers a steely will to grow Impact Fashion and make a difference.
I think that what Chidubem modestly calls naivety is actually a brilliant combination of optimism, determination and resilliance. I love her focus on one issue that can be fixed and refusal to be derailed from that mission.
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