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Making Fashion Sustainable: Small Business Interview Series with Swapaholic

In Singapore, Swapaholic gives environmentally-minded fashion enthusiasts the opportunity to trade their used clothes for credits that can be used to purchase trendy attire. The startup has already proven to be effective, by "rescuing" over 20,000 items of clothing in the past year and a half, making it a success story both as a business and as an agent of positive environmental impact.

It sometimes seems that it costs a lot of money to keep up with the constantly changing fashion trends. Swapaholic is a unique fashion startup in Singapore that aims to save individuals money while giving them the chance to engage in responsible consumerism. To do so, this company organises clothing swaps in which hundreds of shoppers trade their used clothes for other lightly used and carefully-examined clothes for a small fee. This business model allows shoppers to frequently change their wardrobe while having less harmful impact on the environment. We interviewed Swapaholic's Founder and Director, Priyanka Shahra, to learn more about what makes the organisation so effective, as well as to illustrate some lessons for other startups and future entrepreneurs.

When, why and how did Swapaholic begin its operations?

Swapaholic was founded in 2017 to solve the over-production and consumption problem of the textile and fashion industry. The textile and fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry globally. This can largely be attributed to wasteful production and consumption patterns. In fact, the quantum of wasteful production can be measured by fast fashion's 52 micro-seasons - this effectively means that new fashion items are produced almost every week! And to understand the wasteful consumption mindset, it is shocking to learn that the average women utilises only 20% to 30% of her closet's capacity! Swapaholic exists to break this vicious cycle of over production and consumption.

I was shocked to learn of the colossal environmental and social hazards that exist through the textile lifecycle as late as 2015. Being from a fairly exposed and well educated background, it came as a surprise that someone like me me was unaware such an important fact. As a former "shopaholic", this epiphany hit me very hard making me question a lot of my consumption patterns. Whilst pursuing a Certificate from Harvard Extension School in Sustainability and a parallel Masters Degree in Strategic Design Management from Parsons, I began to study the industry and quickly learnt that there were many others like me who were shielded from this knowledge.

Through extensive research and adoption of design thinking methodologies, I came to the conclusion that the textile industry's issues can be solved by a 4-pillar approach: building awareness, providing sustainable options, optimising the excess and recycling the unusable. Swapaholic targets the third pillar. Swapaholic was thus born to create an alternate platform for fashion lovers like myself to express our personal style without compromising our planet.

What makes Swapaholic's business environmentally friendly?

The solution Swapaholic adopts principles of the circular economy to deliver value to its audience and our planet. Swapaholic's "fashion swap" model allows one to create value from the under-utilised excess capacity in their closets. Instead of subscribing to wasteful production and consumption, you can "swap" for "new-to-me" items from other's closets that are in perfectly great condition. With over 4 billion people in urban areas globally and an average closet containing over 100 pieces, rest assured there are enough fashion items to go around! One person's unused item could be another's treasure! Further, given fashion's cyclic nature, styles are back in fashion as quickly as they were out—this constantly ensures that waste is minimised and there's always a stylish and unique selection. Swapaholic allows you to declutter and refresh your wardrobe without hurting your wallet or our planet! Our USP Swapaholic is the first of its kind swap-with-standards. Our thorough quality checks, proprietary point system, careful curation, influencer partnerships and unique brand set us apart from other consumption experiences.

How do you measure your business's impact on the environment?

Swapaholic currently measures impact by quantifying how many fashion items have been surrendered and swapped with us. This statistic is directly linked to natural resource preservation. Simply put, the more items we rescue and reuse, the less natural resources are wasted in production processes. Further, items that are swapped are prevented from being thrown into landfills, thereby controlling greenhouse gas emissions caused by textile waste. As we scale, we aim to be able to precisely quantify this preservation of natural resources. Our data model is designed to be able to capture several attributes of each piece of clothing that we rescue to be able to allow for this analysis.

How would you rate your progress so far?

Being a young startup in prototype phase, we have managed to validate our concept and iterate quickly over the last 1.5 years. We have rescued over 20,000 fashion pieces and provided them new homes. Our average event has a footfall of 150-200 swappers which is sizeable given Singapore's population. Our growth showcases that we are slowly overcoming the hurdle of Asians' conservative mindsets a towards the preloved industry.

What are you most proud of, and where could you improve the most?

We are most proud of our growing database of diverse members. When we first set out on our mission, the early adopters were people who were making lifestyle changes because they were aware of the fashion industry's hazardous practices. Over the last year, we've managed to attract varied demographics and age groups and change their consumption behaviours. We've managed to convert some unlikely candidates, contributing to some of our proudest moments.

Given the manageable scale of our operations, we've been successful in providing stringent quality checks, curation and a personalised experience driven model. We need to rapidly iterate in order to power our ambitions for scalability without losing out on this special personal touch.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of Swapaholic's work?

Swapaholic's challenge is to educate customers on our new business model in a convincing and succinct manner. We have a lot to communicate from how it works, how preloved does not necessarily mean compromising quality or experience to how a tiny behavioural shift can change the world!

The most rewarding for me is definitely watching customers from different walks of life get hooked on to swapping. Listening/watching their delight as they find unique pieces is an unparalleled high. What also drives me is watching our team being fuelled to bring their A-game every minute of every day, knowing that every small action of theirs has the capacity to make a difference. Watching mindsets shift at even at this small scale is unbelievably satisfying.

Do you have advice for other small businesses that seek to adopt sustainable practices?

We don't claim to be experts but if I had to make a recommendation to other sustainable businesses it would be to define a code of ethics/manifesto for your social enterprise/business. This will remind you never to stray away from what you've set out to do. Don't be afraid of setting these ostensible constraints as the very principles of innovation or design thinking suggest that every problem has a solution, no matter the constraints. This not only ensures consistency in your long term vision but helps you provide your stakeholders true value within a solid framework. Additionally, it is important to put the customer's convenience first. I find that as social entrepreneur it is easy to lose sight of this. No matter the nature of your business, we must look to provide customers with a product or service that can be conveniently embedded into their day-to-day lives. We have to consider various sustainable factors to be able to implement this, but it has to be a core consideration to be able to scale and create maximum impact.

Did Swapaholic ever require additional financing later (e.g. working capital loan, asset purchase loan, equity, etc.)? If so, why?

Swapaholic has not yet raised outside funding as we've considered ourselves to be in prototype phase. Our capital investments have been primarily spent towards asset purchase, tech development, manpower, brand development and social media management. As we adopt technology to be able to scale our vision, we will soon require additional funding for e-commerce tech developments, manpower, warehousing and logistics.

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William Hofmann

William is a Product Manager at ValueChampion Singapore, helping consumers and SMEs find the best banking products through comprehensive analysis of data. He previously was an Economic Consultant at Industrial Economics Inc, where he conducted a variety of research and economic analyses. He graduated from University of Vermont with degrees in Economics and Psychology. His work has been featured on a variety of major media such as the Straits Times, the Business Times, the Edge, DailySocial, the Entrepreneur and more.