This start-up promotes sustainable clothing stores to consumers: "We are looking to create change behind the scenes".

By Laure Oomens and translated by Dounia Dorkenoo & Tarnue Kpissay

Recent images of textile dumps in the Chilean Atacama desert and on the Ghanaian coast have left no doubt about the textile industry's excess: there is a lot of work to be done to make the fashion sector greener and more circular. This situation is unacceptable to Niki de Schryver from Bruges. Through COSH!, her eco-responsible fashion platform, Niki wants to make conscious fashion more accessible to consumers and retailers, but she also wants to have a sustainable impact on clothing production.

"Fair trade clothing retailers often struggle to get noticed among the - sometimes misleading - marketing campaigns of the greenwashing giants."

The best of both worlds

Niki de Schryver explains that it is difficult to put a finger on the origin of her passion for fashion. "When I was very young, my mother had a knitting yarn store on the Brabantdam in Ghent. And before my father went into real estate, he had a rabbit skin tannery. Maybe that's where it all began." "My mother and I traveled a lot. We lived in Israel, the Sinai desert and central Turkey. These many trips sparked my interest in other cultures and lifestyles. "Although fashion was her passion, de Schryver knew early on that she didn't want to become a designer. "I didn't dress my dolls, I preferred to build marble runways," she explains candidly. "The processes, the industry, the logistics... It intrigues me immensely. I'm happy when I walk around the ports and see logistics."

That's the reason she chose a degree in fashion technology. "I think in fashion it's important to know every step. If, as a designer, you don't know what happens before your design goes to store and who is working on it, then you don't really know what you're doing. Then it becomes much harder to respond to challenges," de Schryver says. "For me, fashion technology brought together the best of both worlds: the processes, the logistics, the ability to work in factories in distant countries and thus experiencing other cultures, and work with other people globally."

The seed of sustainability has been planted

After her high school degree, Ms. de Schryver took a management course at the Vlerick Business School. She now has 17 years of experience in the fashion industry. "I first worked as a production and sourcing manager for six months and then four years as operations manager for Antwerp designer Bruno Pieters," she recalls. "I then worked for another company for a while, but they didn't take fair trade and the treatment of their suppliers and staff seriously. It was tough."

"Honest By was the very first fashion company to communicate 100% transparently: production locations, materials, suppliers, you name it. Everything was open source. Even the prices and margins were no secret.”

Not long after, in 2010, Bruno Pieters knocked on her door again. "He wanted to create a new luxury brand that was completely eco-friendly, ethical and transparent, and he asked me if I wanted to help him. So I joined him as business developer and did a lot of the behind-the-scenes research for Honest By."

The new luxury clothing brand was unique in the fashion world, de Schryver says with pride. "Honest By was the very first fashion company to communicate 100% transparently: production locations, materials, suppliers, you name it. Everything was open source. Even the prices and margins were no secret.” Fashion Revolution began its transparency campaigns only two years later, in 2013, in response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh."

Clothes for Lady Gaga

Honest By was a turning point for de Schryver. "It made me realize that I was going in the right direction, that I was working in a more fair, right and sustainable way," she says. "In most Moroccan factories, they yell at the workers, as if that's the only way to get anywhere. In the factory where we were producing, the boss acted very differently. I myself always went to sit with the people stitching, to guide them to achieve a luxury finishing. I noticed that equitable intrapreneurship, and later entrepreneurship, was inherent in myself."

"I also delved into sustainability, which I didn't like," she adds. "I think as a designer, you have to ask yourself: if this piece is going to end up on a pile of clothes in a landfill, can it be biodegradable? If the answer is 'no'? Better not to start."

The market gap

After the Honest By adventure, de Schryver continued her journey. She completed numerous e-commerce projects, went into business in London and became a marketing developer for several Belgian retail chains. "Suddenly, my eco-responsible heart started to bleed," she admits. "That's why, in 2017, I accepted De Tijd's invitation to Hack Belgium that brought 1000 people with an interest in sustainability together to brainstorm on solutions for a better future."

"During this session Jasmien Wynants, from Flanders DC, and Veerle Spaepen, who worked for Flanders Circular at the time, challenged the audience to come up with sustainable or circular solutions to save the fashion industry," de Schryver continued. "The fashion sector being one of the most polluting industries in the world."

"There we were, 40 to 50 people, brainstorming. But with every idea, I thought, this already exists, we've done this before, it's not new," she says. " Several thousand consumers are interested in sustainable lifestyle, but almost no one knows where to buy or how to find these eco, fair or circular fashion products . My idea was clear: I had to fill that void! "Instead of launching another product that would mean additional competition for circular entrepreneurs who are already struggling to get started, I wanted to find a way to connect consumers and retailers to one another quicker."

The leap to entrepreneurship

The idea of COSH! (conscious shopping made easy) was born. However, it took some time before de Schryver went public with her new project. "The corporate spirit was not foreign to me. I felt comfortable in the role of employee. So I started knocking on other companies' doors to see if I could start COSH! But I was met with a lot of "no's." "My mother also always had advised me not to go independent. I had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get into entrepreneurship."

"Now that bigger contracts are signed. I know you have to trust yourself and put your fears aside."

At times, it was an uncomfortable situation, she admits. "If I learned anything with COSH!, it's that I have to be patient and confident. As an entrepreneur, you want things to progress today rather than tomorrow. It takes so many steps in between to get a result. In the past, I have doubted myself at times," she says.

"Fortunately, I have accelerators like Start It @KBC, imec.istart and Netwerk Ondernemen around me that are beacons for me and reassure me that I’m fully on the right track. I have grown tremendously as an entrepreneur over the past few years and I am still learning every day.

Without greenwashing

COSH! has become an eco-conscious fashion platform that connects consumers with retailers. Consumers can find sustainable or circular brands of clothing, jewelry and cosmetics that fit their style and budget with a few clicks. On the other hand, it encourages stores to increasingly opt for eco-responsible and circular brands to gain visibility.

"Smaller retailers struggle to get noticed amidst the - sometimes misleading - marketing campaigns of the greenwashing fast fashion giants."

"Targeting multi-brand retailers rather than the brands they sell is a carefully considered decision," explains Niki. Smaller retailers have a hard time getting noticed amidst the - sometimes misleading - marketing campaigns of the greenwashing fast fashion giants." "In exchange for their membership, they get a spot on our platform and we screen one to two of the brands they stock each year."

Creating change behind the scenes

COSH! reviews each brand according to 7 themes out of 265 criteria. The platform looks at ethical working conditions, materials used, their environmental impact, circular economy, short supply chain, animal welfare, transparency and business model.

"A big chain like H&M can launch a vegan collection occasionally, but if its business model forces it to launch a new collection every week, it may be vegan, but it will neither be sustainable nor circular.

What happens when the brand practices greenwashing or products are not environmentally responsible enough? Does it have the opportunity to improve?

When this happens COSH! initiates a discussion with the brand involved. "We work independently and that is the difference between COSH! and other sustainable fashion marketing platforms. Other platforms work through affiliate marketing where the brands pay commission on the sales they make to traffic of the platforms ." By screening more objectively and in an unaffiliated way, De Schryver also wants to create a change behind the scenes. "We provide a cross-pollination between brands and retailers thus having an impact on what is sold in the shop. It's all little dominoes that together form a bigger picture."

The future looks bright for Niki de Schryver and her team. "We just hired our sixth full-time employee. And we're in the process of raising funds to evolve our platform and build more tools, but I'll save that for another interview," she laughs.