Written by Helena Van Lierop translated by Tarnue Kpissay

In 'Businesswoman in the spotlight' we speak with entrepreneurial women of the highest order. Meet Niki De Schryver, founder of sustainable fashion platform COSH!, Conscious Shopping Made Easy, a well established name in the world of sustainable fashion. In 2018, she created a guide for consumers looking for sustainable shops. COSH! also supports retailers and brands who want to grow. "From the beginning I had the idea that we should be a platform where everyone can find a sustainable alternative within their own style and budget," says De Schryver.

It wasn't always Niki's big dream to work in the fashion industry. "Before, I wanted to do something with people and culture, but I also liked processes. That's why I started studying fashion technology. In the fashion sector, there was a lot of opportunity for me to work abroad and there you encounter many different cultures. I ended up in fashion from a completely different angle than the standard one. Not from the classic: 'I'm a girl and I like to wear cute outfits'. For me, there was no point in becoming a fashion designer, because then I might not be a good one. Fashion technology therefore was the ideal path for me."

Sustainable heart

Fifteen years ago, Niki De Schryver started working for Antwerp fashion designer Bruno Pieters. Upon his request, she did business development and built a strategy for his new fashion label Honestby. An ethical and ecological label that clarified the entire process transparently: "Each step was fully explained," says De Schryver. "That way we wanted to show consumers that a 900 euro luxury product can be justified if everyone in the supply chain is paid correctly."

"The years after that I focused on e-commerce and online marketing. As a final stop before founding COSH, I worked as an omni-channel business developer at a sportswear chain. I was in a golden cage there, so to speak, my sustainable heart was bleeding."

“Setting up yet another brand didn't seem like a solution to me”

De Schryver then went to an event in Brussels where a thousand people brainstormed about a sustainable future together. "When it came to fashion issues, everyone came up with ideas that actually already existed. Then I thought: if those people don't know these ideas already exist, we need a platform that connects consumers with an interest in sustainability with shops that offer it."

"Makers who are already engaged in sustainable entrepreneurship don't need more competition, they need growth. That's why I didn't think it was a solution to set up yet another brand. I wanted to do something to support the good initiatives that already exist. That was an idea that did not yet exist in Belgium." Niki submitted her idea to Flanders Circular, a collaboration between governments, entrepreneurs, citizens and companies taking action for a circular economy. "I then won the outstanding grant of 100,000 euros. In May 2018, the money was on my account and we immediately started building COSH! By now we have a team of eleven people."

“Setting up something may look easy, but it isn't always”

"Officially, my meetings stop at 5pm. But in reality, I work until midnight at least three nights a week. Since six months I have been able to say that I take at least one and a half days off on the weekend. Setting up something may look easy, but it isn't always."

Consumers and retailers

"We work both ways. That means that on the one hand, consumers use COSH! to find sustainable fashion, and it's free for them. And on the other hand, we attract companies and brands. In this, we have two types: the multi-brand retailers who stock the most sustainable brands or are making the transition, and on the other hand, the makers or designers who take out a membership with us with their own flagship shop."

"For each retailer, we screen one or two brands annually, depending on whether the retailer is a small retailer or an established one. We screen the sustainability of brands in an independent way. In other words, we are not dependent on affiliate marketing.”

“Given that shops often choose brands that are also sold by other stores, COSH! covers the entire market and nearly all relevant fashion brands get screened."

When is a brand considered sustainable?

Before a brand is considered sustainable, it has to comply with many conditions. All brands listed on the COSH! website are checked on 265 points. How ethical is the production? Which materials were used? What distance did the product travel? How is the animal welfare? These are just a few examples.

"It is one thing to say: 'we work with these sustainable materials', sometimes we then find out that these sustainable materials are hardly present in the actual product. It is compulsory to indicate the material composition on the product label and this must also be published on the website. Customers who shop online should also be able to see it."

"With my knowledge of textiles, I can quickly feel which textile fibre it is and sometimes it does not match what is written on the label. In other shops you can even smell the chemicals. My family doesn't like to walk in the city with me on Saturdays," she says, laughing.

On the tip of their toes

"If we suspect a brand of greenwashing, we cannot simply publish a text, following the rules of journalism. The brand must always be given the chance to respond. That's why we schedule interviews with those brands. By asking critical questions we keep them on the tip of their toes."

"An example: a brand wants to use only recycled materials by 2025. But they still mix different types of fibres, such as polyester and cotton, which means they cannot be recycled after use. In that case, we also express this critically in the brand screening on our website. Afterwards, we received congratulations from the internationally renowned brand in question. They're pleased that someone is looking at it so critically. It motivates them to improve in the future."

COSH! tries to be a countermovement by grouping small, independent retailers who cannot compete with the fast fashion chains by themselves. "Our marketing team creates visibility for small initiatives that don't have a marketing team. Some entrepreneurs are alone. They cannot make their website easily findable and also design and develop their production. We try to be a channel that collects all the information and sends it back to the local entrepreneurs."

“Not everyone can afford a 100 euro jumper, so we also added second hand shops to our platform”

Slightly more expensive

"We don't have a specific target group. From the beginning I had the idea that we should be an inclusive platform where everybody can find a sustainable solution within their own style and budget. Against all recommendations, I therefore didn't choose to stick to one particular style or price category. Some platforms only offer sustainable fashion from five hundred to one thousand euro. We try to avoid that. Through the eyes of a large part of the population, sustainable fashion still is a bit more expensive. Not everyone can afford a jumper of one hundred euros, which is why we also added second-hand clothing shops to our platform."

"75% of our users find us through Google. That's about 12,000 people per month. Our Instagram page only causes 2% of our traffic. That is very little. Many people forget that Instagram is a bubble. There are still people who don't spend all day scrolling on Instagram, and we reach them too. That's part of our strategy, there are so many shops that are doing super well on Instagram. Why should we compete with them?"

“There are still people who don't spend all day scrolling on Instagram, and we reach them, too”

Sustainable menu

"We are cooperating with the cities of Bruges, Antwerp and Mechelen. We create sustainable shopping routes for these cities. In Antwerp, we have a guide to find new shops, but we also have a second-hand route map. They have QR codes on them and when you scan those, you'll see the sustainable menu of a certain shop."

"COSH! is growing. First we're going to expand in the Netherlands, especially in the fashion cities. We already won a government tender in Amsterdam. There will be 130 more shops on our website. Other countries are in the works as well, but I'm keeping them a secret for the time being. Behind the scenes, we have already mapped out the whole of Europe."

Oh my COSH! Do you want to buy sustainably but don't know where to start? COSH! will work it out for you.

  • Visit the website of COSH and go to 'store finder'.

  • Enter your city, budget and type of shop.

  • Besides clothing shops, you can also look for sustainable shoe or cosmetics shops, restaurants and much more.

  • Planning a daytrip? You can also create your own personal shopping route.

  • Create an account.

  • Select all the shops you want to visit.

  • Go to 'My Shop List'.

  • That's it! On the map you can see which shops are closest to each other. The website also gives you detailed directions from shop to shop.

  • Recognize all sustainable shops with the COSH! sticker on the window.

Photo of Niki de Schryver by: Jeroen Gijselinckx