Re-thinking the Fashion Industry: Must Had's Journey Towards Circular Sustainability

Published on 2024-02-16

Startup Story

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Matteo Aghemo, Co-Founder of Must Had, explains how we can boost sustainable fashion by connecting brands with upcyclers, recyclers, and resellers to reduce textile waste.


Must Had's Journey

I'm Matteo Aghemo, leading Must Had, a venture we launched in 2021 with a vision to enhance sustainability in the fashion sector. Our initial focus was on upcycling, transforming old materials into new, valuable products. Recognizing a greater opportunity, we shifted towards partnering with major fashion brands to address the challenge of textile waste more effectively. We've developed a digital platform that simplifies how fashion companies manage their surplus materials. We connect them with a network of over 100 specialists skilled in giving new life to unused textiles through upcycling, recycling, and reselling. This approach not only helps in minimizing waste but also in promoting the reuse of materials within the industry.

Our mission extends beyond waste reduction; we aim to provide a clear understanding of the positive environmental impacts of these sustainable practices. Through Must Had, we're committed to fostering a more responsible and circular fashion industry, where sustainability is at the core of every decision.

Streamlining Connections in Sustainable Fashion 

During the years, we've fine-tuned a platform that directly connects fashion brands with upcyclers, recyclers, and resellers, making the matchmaking process seamless and efficient. This connection is the culmination of extensive groundwork—months spent mapping out the intricacies of both the materials needing revaluation and the capabilities of our circular solution partners. This meticulous approach ensures that the matches we facilitate are not just convenient but deeply rooted in a comprehensive understanding of the industry's complexities.

The real magic of our platform lies in its ability to simplify what would traditionally be a daunting task. In the conventional model, a fashion brand might need a dedicated CSR team to navigate the process of finding, vetting, and partnering with the right upcyclers or recyclers. They'd have to scout potential partners, understand their processes, negotiate terms, and finally, measure the impact of their collaboration. Must Had eliminates this cumbersome process by aggregating all this critical information, allowing for straightforward matchmaking based on detailed data and specific requirements.

Finding our partners, especially upcyclers, is an ongoing journey of discovery and collaboration. Initially, our strong foundation in the upcycling community, established during our marketplace days, provided us with a rich database of potential partners. However, we are continually expanding our network through diligent scouting and research, coupled with in-depth interviews to understand the unique value and processes of each new partner. This careful selection and onboarding process ensures that our network remains vibrant and capable, feeding our algorithm with the data it needs to create meaningful, sustainable matches. Our approach prioritizes the most environmentally friendly solutions, with a hierarchy that favors reselling and upcycling, resorting to recycling or downcycling when necessary, thereby reinforcing our commitment to fostering a more sustainable fashion industry.

Innovating Impact Assessment 

At Must Had, we're using a unique approach to evaluating the sustainability impact of the circular solutions we facilitate between fashion brands and our network of upcyclers, recyclers, and resellers. Our impact assessment tool, currently under development, is designed to offer a comprehensive comparison between the environmental footprint of circular (sustainable) and linear (conventional disposal) approaches to handling textile waste.

This tool focuses on key performance indicators (KPIs) such as the reduction in CO2 emissions, water savings, and energy efficiency achieved through the adoption of circular solutions. The challenge lies in the scarcity of data on the end-of-life phase for textiles, making it difficult to quantify the exact benefits of recycling or upcycling a garment compared to discarding it. Despite these hurdles, we are committed to building a calculator that provides meaningful insights, even if based on estimations, to highlight the positive impact of choosing sustainable end-of-life solutions for textiles.

In addition to environmental metrics, our assessment also considers the social impact of these circular solutions. Many of our partners, such as cooperatives, play a significant role in social inclusion by employing marginalized groups, including ex-prisoners and asylum seekers. We aim to quantify and communicate this social value to fashion brands, reinforcing the comprehensive benefits of engaging in circular practices.

Case Study: Uniqlo's Circular Journey 

A testament to the effectiveness of our platform is our collaboration with Uniqlo, a major Japanese brand with a significant presence in Europe. Our journey with Uniqlo began with small-scale upcycling projects, such as transforming existing materials into new curtains for their European fitting rooms. This initial project set the stage for more ambitious endeavors, including the conversion of old curtains into pillow covers for Uniqlo's offices, demonstrating the creative potential of upcycling.

Encouraged by these successes, Uniqlo expanded its collaboration with Must Had to launch its upcycled collection, leveraging our network of upcyclers to transform defective or unsold garments into high-quality, upcycled products for sale in their stores. This initiative not only showcased the feasibility of upcycling at scale but also highlighted the brand's commitment to sustainability.

As our partnership evolved, Uniqlo entrusted us with larger-scale challenges, such as addressing surplus inventory and online returns. Our solutions now encompass both upcycling and recycling, providing Uniqlo with a comprehensive strategy to manage excess materials sustainably. This case study exemplifies the transformative potential of circular solutions in reducing waste, conserving resources, and fostering social inclusion within the fashion industry.

Aligning Circular Solutions with Market Needs

The engagement and feedback we've received at Must Had highlight a growing readiness among brands, propelled by recent European regulations that emphasize the responsibility of producers for the lifecycle of their products. These laws, like the one in France banning the destruction of unsold goods, are nudging companies towards more sustainable practices. Our platform's timing couldn't be more opportune, offering a viable pathway to circularity at a moment when the industry is seeking solutions to comply with these new mandates.

Transitioning to circular practices is a journey, not a swift change, and our experience with brands like Uniqlo illustrates this gradual shift. Starting with smaller projects allows companies to integrate circularity into their ethos progressively, enhancing their sustainability profile over time. The positive reception from various sectors, not limited to fashion but extending to any industry utilizing textiles, underscores the versatility and necessity of our solutions in fostering a more sustainable approach to material management.

Navigating the Luxury Segment's Circular Transition

The luxury sector's transition towards circular practices presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Luxury brands, synonymous with exclusivity, are exploring how to reconcile this with circular principles without compromising their essence. Upcycling, for instance, offers a compelling proposition by creating exclusive, one-of-a-kind collections from pre-existing materials, aligning with the luxury ethos.

However, the path is fraught with complexities, particularly around brand identity, intellectual property, and market positioning. Luxury brands tread carefully, balancing the need to protect their brand while embracing sustainability. Recycling becomes a preferred route for many, aligning with circular goals while maintaining brand integrity. Some are venturing into upcycling for limited collections, signaling a cautious yet meaningful embrace of circularity.

This nuanced approach reflects the broader industry's struggle to find a balance between maintaining brand value and advancing sustainable practices. Legal challenges, especially concerning the use of branded materials by smaller designers, highlight the delicate balance between fostering creativity and protecting intellectual property. The dialogue around upcycling as the new luxury is gaining momentum, challenging traditional notions of value and exclusivity in the luxury market. As the industry evolves, finding harmonious solutions that uphold brand prestige while promoting sustainability remains a pivotal challenge.

Reflecting on Must Had's Evolution: Challenges and Insights

Embarking on Must Had's journey, the pivotal moment came when we decided to switch from a consumer-focused model to a B2B approach. This strategic shift, moving from engaging directly with consumers to interfacing with corporations, marked a significant transformation for us. It required careful deliberation and was not a decision we took lightly, given our initial two years of operation under a different model. However, looking back, this transition has been instrumental in aligning our efforts more closely with our core mission of fostering sustainability within the textile industry.

As newcomers to entrepreneurship, my team and I navigated the typical challenges faced by startups—building a network, raising funds, and gaining industry-specific insights from scratch. The textile industry, with its complexity and fragmentation, presented its unique set of hurdles. Its intricate layers and the diverse perspectives of various market segments—from luxury to fast fashion—demanded a nuanced approach to our solution development and business strategy.

Despite these challenges, with my background in the industry, and Eugenio Riganti (Co- Founderexpertise in digital transformation, we provided a foundational understanding that proved invaluable. Yet, the sector's intricacies, encompassing a vast range of materials and technical specifications, required us to adopt a highly adaptable and informed approach.

In this conversation with Noemi, it's been a pleasure to share the narrative of Must Had, shedding light on our journey, the obstacles we've faced, and the lessons learned along the way. Our commitment to making a tangible impact in the textile industry remains steadfast, driven by a passion for sustainability and innovation.

About the author

Matteo Aghemo