How Entrepreneurs Advance Clothing Reuse

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“Mom’s Store Nepal” enables reuse of baby clothes. It’s a business model that supports families, the circular economy, and sustainability awareness.

It’s better to reuse clothes than buy new ones.

“Fast fashion” – new clothing – has a huge environmental impact. Used clothes can also be cheaper for consumers.

But for entrepreneurs, building a business around clothing reuse may be challenging.

Local norms may not support clothing reuse; people may see used clothes as “dirty” or low status. The logistics of getting and distributing the clothes can be difficult. Meanwhile, COVID complicates everything.

This was the situation facing entrepreneurs Suman Kunwar and Sita Bantha Magar when they wanted to start a business in their home country of Nepal. This case study shows how they tackled it.

And, Sita and Suman offer you the opportunity to help shape their work. They welcome your input to refine their strategy.

Here’s what has happened so far.

Envisioning the circular economy in Nepal

Suman and Sita are both from Nepal but were living abroad when they met.

Suman had spent almost a decade in the technology industry, mostly in Europe. In 2020, he was completing a postgraduate program in entrepreneurship at Coventry/Deakin University, and had to develop a business model proposal.

He chose clothing reuse as the proposed business. Why? After years spent in Europe, Suman had a lot of exposure to sustainability and ideas of the circular economy.

“I also wanted to do something for my home country,” he said. 25% of Nepal’s people live below the national poverty line, and clothes in Nepal are very expensive.

In 2020, Sita was living in Australia. With a degree in agribusiness, she had worked as a micro-enterprise development officer with multiple international agencies. She’s also a mother of two children.

Suman and Sita met in the Facebook group “Entrepreneurs for Nepal.” Together, they had the idea of enabling low-income families to afford baby clothing through a non-profit entrepreneurial venture, and they decided to start “Mom’s Store Nepal.”

Prioritizing baby clothes as a gateway to sustainability

As they began their clothing reuse venture, Suman and Sita decided to prioritize baby clothing. They saw it as an area of greatest need – and also as an opportunity.

Babies in Nepal require a lot of clothing, for several reasons. Before they’re toilet-trained, they need multiple changes of clothing. “In Nepal, the diaper cost is high, and using diapers is not considered healthy for babies,” Suman explained. Additionally, low-income families don’t have electric clothes dryers, so during wintertime and the rainy season, even more clothes are needed.

There’s also a supply opportunity: because babies grow fast, their clothes may not be worn out. “Parents can have clothes that are not used much,” said Sita. “They no longer fit but are still in good condition.”

For Suman and Sita, clothing reuse is also a way to increase local knowledge about sustainability. Awareness of waste reduction, in particular, is limited in Nepal. “People have a tendency to think that they do not have to think about sustainability because they are close to nature,” Suman explained. People may be aware of climate change and poverty because these have clear local impact. But the concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is relatively new.

Sita and Suman want to change this “mentality” — to bringing greater awareness about diverse aspects of sustainability.

Understanding the landscape for clothing reuse in Nepal

As entrepreneurs, Sita and Suman wanted to understand how Mom’s Store Nepal could get used baby clothes, and whether potential customers would accept them. They had first-hand knowledge from their time in Nepal, but also conducted interviews and surveys. Here’s what they found about:

Willingness to sell or donate clothes. People prefer to donate rather than to sell clothes. This is often an emotional decision: Parents are simply attached to their babies’ clothes. “A mom always wishes to give away to someone needy,” explained Sita, “as she feels attachment with her baby’s worn clothes.”

Willingness to purchase used clothes: In Nepal, the perception of used clothes is mostly negative. People associate used clothes with poor quality and poor hygiene.

With this information, Suman and Sita began trying out different strategies. Financially, they wanted to be self-sustaining and cover operating costs, then to reinvest or donate any profit to create positive change.

Mom’s Store Nepal began in 2020. Since then, there have been at least three main phases.

Phase 1: Mom’s Store begins clothing reuse locally

Initially, Sita and Suman drew on their network to advance their business. They shared their idea with friends and family and through social media channels. They identified leads who might donate clothes. “Many clothes received were damaged and not ready to use,” Sita recalled. Stores also donated surplus stock and off-season clothes.

To emphasize local sustainability, they decided only to take clothes from within Nepal –not from international donors. “We want to only use things we have in our surroundings,” Suman explained.

Initially, they targeted customers in slums, and gave the clothes out for free. “We thought they were poor and might need help,” Suman recalled. But the approach didn’t work. “When we gave clothes for free, people didn’t use them,” Suman explained. “People devalue things that are given for free – they wanted to wear new clothes.”

Mom’s Store also sold in a weekly market in the Pulchowk mall in Kathmandu. There, they found that educated people were most likely to buy — but also saw free or cheap items as questionable. One father asked “Why are you selling this so cheaply?” (Mom’s Store sold 6-7 items for $25.)

When Suman explained to the customer that the clothes were repurposed, he didn’t buy them. It’s likely he feared that used clothes might be dirty or come from dead people: a spiritual belief is that such clothes should be burnt.

“We really need to bring awareness of sustainability,” Suman concluded at the time. “That really hit me hard. If we can’t change the mentality, we can’t do anything.”

Phase 2: Mom’s Store increases efforts to meet customer needs

Sita and Suman recognized that Mom’s Store couldn’t just provide used clothes. It also had to meet specific customer desires for:

  • Clean, high quality clothes
  • Details on where clothes came from
  • Education on sustainability
  • Easy access to clothes

To achieve these broader goals, they took several steps.

They built out their team, adding members based on their interest and expertise. Today, team members include fashion designers, software engineers, business students, and media professionals. The team began as volunteers but received shares in the business, which will be funded soon.

They increased quality. They needed expertise in how to make clothing reusable and bring it to market. Guidance came from a friend working in design, who knew about materials and how to repurpose them. Now, clothes are clean and sorted before use. A Mom’s Store graphic shows the process:

They provided consumer incentives and education. When people donate clothes, Mom’s Store gives them feedback on the carbon saved. The company also shows these numbers on the website. The approach increased donations, said Suman. “It gives donors a clear picture of what we are doing and how they are helping us and the environment. Now, they donate 3-4 times a year.”

Here’s the certificate donors receive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phase 3: Mom’s Store adapts to COVID

COVID hit Nepal hard. In October 2020, Nepal entered COVID lockdown for 3 months. The weekly market ended. Financial hardship increased as parents lost jobs, and products became more expensive due to limited supply.

The Mom’s Store team had to pivot. Centrally, they shifted many operations online. They had experimented with a web app, which they expanded. The app, developed by Suman, lets people buy and sell clothes. Users can post ads; have conversations with buyers/seller; and sort clothes by brand, location, quality, popularity, and price. They can also mask their identity if they are shy about dealing in used clothes.

Mom’s Store created a Facebook community, Momtaa, which now has 3.3K members. “It’s a group explicitly for pre-loved clothes, a group of like-minded folks,” said Suman. The Facebook community was a way to fosters cultural change, building the audience for used clothes. The Mom’s Store team also learned about their clients through Momtaa: “By being near to the people we learn and get a chance to know their perception and experience around pre-loved clothes,” said Suman. 

Unable to sell at the market, they explored other channels, connecting with authorized sellers who sell at existing stores. “That worked great,” said Suman. “People didn’t return many clothes, and wanted more.”

They continued to provide ever more clarity and transparency. For example, their current donation form provides both education and direction. Their graphic shows the Mom’s Store process:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom’s Store evaluates success

Suman and Sita look at metrics related to impact (clothing reuse and sustainability awareness) and financial viability.

Here’s where they stand in 2022:

  • Mom’s Store has collected more than 2100 clothes from different donors
  • It has brought more than 70% of these clothes into the circular economy
  • It has helped to preserve more than 10735kg of Co2
  • It has advanced the culture of using pre-loved clothes, as demonstrated by the 3.5K Momtaa users

Recommendations for entrepreneurs in the circular economy

Suman and Sita offer these tips based on their experience:

  • Start small and focused on one type of product for re-use: a niche market.
  • Build education into the model to shift people toward sustainability. Recognizing consumers (e.g. with a certificate) can help. Even actions that sidestep your business model — like creating a secondary marketplace on social media — can be worthwhile if they help shift behaviours.
  • For customers, price is a value signal. Your costs might be low, but pricing to reflect quality products and current norms can help you build demand.
  • Use existing infrastructure and partners to grow your reach. Partnering with retailers to sell products helped Mom’s Store expand faster than they could have by starting from scratch.
  • Turn digitalization into an advantage. During a pandemic where businesses were struggling to survive, Mom’s Store used their mobile application to reach and help more parents purchase and sell preloved clothes.

Help decide what’s next for Mom’s Store

This is where Suman and Sita welcome your input.

As they look forward, a central goal is continuing to build out their infrastructure for getting and distributing clothes. Sita pointed to her experience in developed countries, where markets for used clothes and items are more systemized. “For example, when I was in Australia, I saw municipal and other private entities operating collection and selling points in almost every suburbs or towns.

“We dream of developing Mom’s Store Nepal into a well-developed chain of stores that reach most cities and towns in Nepal. But we are short of the capacity, fund, and tactics to scale in that level at the moment.”

They want to work with local governments in cities, asking them to install and monitor clothing donation bins in each ward. They’re also interested in collaborating with Montessori schools to seek potential baby clothes donors; that collaboration fits with Montessori’s emphasis on service and engagement.

Getting this infrastructure in place is necessary to create the “sustainability mindset” they want to see, said Sita. People can’t act sustainably if they don’t have the opportunity.

Are you an entrepreneur? A strategic advisor? A development expert? Share your ideas directly with Suman and Sita.

A note of appreciation

Suman and Sita acknowledge and appreciate the Mom’s Store Nepal team, which keeps the organization running: Anu, Sanju, Sunita, Barsha, Hishi, Rasila, Nisha, and Alisa.

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Author

  • Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. Maya develops and oversees NBS’s knowledge products, and is obsessed with communicating complex things in clear terms (when possible).

  • Abby Litchfield is a Senior Associate at the Network for Business Sustainability, overseeing partnerships, processes, social media, and all things graphic. Abby is deeply passionate about bringing people and organizations together to advance sustainability, and loves creating new content with NBS collaborators because it's an opportunity to do just that.

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