80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage

Hello, I am Arie Katz, UX Designer and Customer Experience Specialist. I teamed up with Alex Kogan, a former colleague who also happened to be a passionate environmentalist and with Alessia Gotti, a sustainable textile expert, to create a fashion tech company called Roundrack “The sustainable material platform”. Our team aims at solving a huge challenge: implementing more sustainable practices in fashion, starting with the European market. Basically, we want to save the planet by helping fashion brands easily source sustainable fabric.

I have some good news and some bad news about it.

The good news is that there are currently enough sustainable practices in circulation for the fashion industry to reach key sustainability goals, including those of the UN.

Furthermore, 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage. Which means, that choosing the right suppliers and materials for a garment will yield the highest sustainability ROI.

The bad news is that we are still heading towards catastrophe, as the sustainable practices are simply not being adopted.

Sourcing sustainable fabric could halp reduce fashion waste in the wilderness
An exemple of fashion waste: used shoes abandoned in the wilderness

Sustainable practices are simply not being adopted

Why? Why aren’t fashion brands rushing to replace their materials with better ones?

When we discovered this astounding fact, courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it was clear to us that this is the area on which our company needs to focus its solution.

We founded our fashion tech company, RoundRack, almost a year earlier with a clear mission to solve fashion’s sustainability problem, but without a clear idea of how to do so.

At the time, I was recuperating from injuries sustained in a terror attack in Israel and looking for a deeper meaning in my career.

Alex Kogan, my former colleague and Alessia Gotti, our sustainable textile expert happened to be wonderful and inspiring partners to embark on this adventure.

Today we are piloting our Material Platform, which enables fashion designers to discover, explore and source sustainable material.

Arie Katz and Alex Kogan partnered to create Roundrack and help fashion brands source more sustainable fabric
Arie Katz and Alex Kogan, founders of Roundrack

Which stakeholders are key to disrupting the fashion market and shifting it to more sustainable practices?

It was clear that the industry as a whole has a problem.

But it was key for us to discover which stakeholders are tied to this problem, if at all. Unfortunately, due to COVID travel restrictions, we were unable to conduct observations on these stakeholders in their own environment. So virtual interviewing was the only method we had available.

Despite coming prepared, we still managed to fall into the interviewer-bias pitfall, connecting the wrong dots and arriving at the following conclusion: It was the lack of sustainability measuring methodology that crippled the brands from improving (It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?).

For obvious reasons, we fell in love with this solution and made sure to validate it by ’selling’ it to everyone, from industry experts to investors. It didn’t sound far from ‘This is a good idea, right?’ And to our pleasure, everyone agreed. I mean, who wouldn’t agree with a solution claiming to better the planet? Especially when you don’t have to commit to anything – Positive feedback is free!

Having the right mentors at Ellen MacArthur foundation and at IFA Foundry, the leading fashion tech laboratory in Paris, stopped us before starting to invest in development. With their help, we learned to reframe our task: It was about uncovering a pain point preventing a customer from completing his daily task, which forced him to hack solutions with no success.

So how would we go about it now?

The market is extremely fragmented and it is very difficult for fashion brands to easily source sustainable fabric

Based on the “Mom Test” methodology we set out with a new interview strategy. The methodology is exactly what it sounds like – how would you get objective feedback from someone, like your mom, without getting her unconditional support for your endeavour? 

As the interviews went on, it was difficult, yet essential, to detach ourselves from the assumptions we already had made, and from the product we were in the process of building. The goal should always be to fall in love with your customers and their needs, rather than your idea.

That’s easier said than done. Having said that (that was easy), as a startup it’s as crucial, if not more so, to stay attuned to your vision and remember why you’re in this in the first place. In our case – we were on a mission to save the planet, and we were not willing to solve just any pain point that we happen to uncover on the way. It was as much of a challenge finding the customer, or the MVS (Minimum Viable Segment) related to the material sourcing (aka ‘the problem’), as it was uncovering the precise pain point.

Asking the right questions, we started uncovering what seemed like a genuine pain point: It was logistically difficult to source quality sustainable fabric. The market was extremely fragmented between middle-man, trade shows and micro-suppliers.

This was a somewhat satisfying discovery, but If we stopped here, a sufficient solution might have been to simply create a digital fabric library of some sort. Fact of the matter was that digital fabric libraries existed for some time, and have recently been adding sustainable materials as well. Speaking to fashion designers (our chosen MVS by now), it seemed that this wasn’t enough.

There is a lack of trust when it comes to sustainable fabric

We dug a bit deeper and started noticing a recurring theme in the interviews. We couldn’t spell it out at first; In fact, many times it appeared in the shape of a facial expression or voice intonation, but we were getting a drift: there seemed to be a lack of trust when it came to sustainable fabric.

We pressed a bit more, and it became clearer to us: Designers were worried that the sustainable alternative wouldn’t be as good as their original go-to fabrics. You see, designers are in the business of creativity and aesthetics, and that is their customers’ first and foremost expectation. Sustainability, as important as it may be, might be an underlying condition, but it isn’t the reason for being. In fact, you can look at it as somewhat of a friction. Furthermore, waving the ‘sustainability’ flag, demands liability and proof. The solutions today simply weren’t good enough in that regard.

We started reviewing use cases of fabric sourcing processes, and we found the fruitless effort we were looking for: Designers were doing the legwork themselves in searching for suppliers and working with multiple agents and experts to find the right alternatives. This is where the fragmented market problem kicked in – It prevented designers from discovering and comparing materials at the standards and criteria they demanded. 

It seemed that we found what every startup looks for:  A customer actively looking to solve a pain point, and a growing challenge that existing solutions simply couldn’t tackle in the way they were built.

We then defined our ‘Leap of Faith’: Fashion designers would use a digital tool for sourcing fabric at their own standards and criteria. Sustainability, of course, would be an underlying condition.

A first snapshot of Roundrack interface
A first glance at the interface of Roundrack

Conclusion

Steve Blank once said: “No business plan survives first contact with a customer.”

And you can claim the same with product and interface. However, with a solid vision and bulletproof-testing methodology, we’re on the right track. We might be at the very beginning of our journey, but we managed to set a culture of continuous learning, iteration and improvement, and we look forward to rolling with the punches.

On a personal note, being an environment conscious UX designer, I was constantly envious of the scientists and industrial designers of the world, who seemed to be leading the charge to save the planet. However, just as the world wide web was birthed by developers, yet much of the adoption is credited to designers, there is an opportunity for us here as well, to take the potential solutions and turn them into mainstream practices.

The way I see it, it’s the only choice we have.