In the second installment of her Talking in Circles series, Salt columnist Stephanie Johnston looks at the Danish childrenswear company providing an alternative to the clothing industry’s damaging ‘purchase-and-throw-away’ culture.
“There’s something very depressing about thinking that you’ve found a sustainable solution, and then realising that actually you’ve failed to do so. Not because you don’t have a solution, but because you’ve been part of the problem all along”. Vigga Svensson speaks in an earnest tone as she describes her path into the circular economy. She is the CEO and co-founder of Vigga, a business she set up with her husband in 2014, which is based on a subscription model for young children’s clothing.
Turning things around
This depressing realisation hit Svensson a few years back now. At the time she co-owned Katvig, a childrenswear brand, and having never worked in fashion retail before that, she soon realised that she’d entered a very unsustainable industry. “We decided to turn things around,” she said, talking animatedly about the desire to focus on the supply chain and make children’s clothes in a more sustainable way. “And we were proud of ourselves”, she adds, “until we asked our customers two critical questions via Facebook: How much clothing do you have in the closet for your kids? And how much of that do your kids actually wear?”
It was the answer to these two questions that turned Svensson’s life circular. “Both numbers were really quite shocking: people have a crazy amount of clothing for their kids, and yet they use so little of it. Instead of being green superheroes we’d actually just been producing a massive pile of textile waste. Yes, our product was sustainable, but the way people were using it wasn’t.”
A viable alternative
Sheer determination (and a jolly good idea) has allowed the Danish ex-TV personality to turn a depressing realisation into an opportunity. “Very quickly we recognised that we had to change the way people consumed our clothes and offer them a viable alternative, and that’s when we landed on the idea for Vigga.”
For just 359kr (which is about £34/$53/€48) per month you can take out a subscription with Vigga for your children’s clothes and just return them and receive bigger sizes as they grow. The clothes, all made from organic cotton without the use of harmful chemicals, are packaged up and sent to you in a changing bag as you need them. The price point is not only appealing and achievable within most budgets, but it has also turned on its head the idea that ‘green’ means ‘expensive’, with the Danish Ministry for the Environment estimating £1350/ $2100/€1890 in annual savings for families subscribing to Vigga.
Beyond the monetary
However, Svensson is a firm believer that it’s vital for customers to begin realising that savings go beyond the monetary. “We’re working on a concept”, she tells me proudly, “that will enable our customers to see not only the normal account details, but also the resource savings account for their children. For every month they have been a member, we’ll be able to calculate what they have saved in water and CO2, for example. We hope that being part of this story will help people to realise how good they can feel when they avoid buying cheap clothes.”
But it isn’t always easy to convince people of the benefits of a circular approach. One issue that has proved surprisingly challenging when developing the concept, has been the subscription model itself. “People almost always love the concept,” says Svensson, stressing that Denmark is already quite a sustainably conscious market, “but still a lot of people won’t commit straight away and feel the need to go and check with their partners first. We often know very well that they have just bought other expensive items, like strollers, without checking with their partners, so we can only think that because it’s a commitment, rather than a one-off purchase, people feel they might get caught out by hidden costs. It’s a new way of buying after all, so they’re a bit suspicious.”
There’s also the sentimentality factor: after all, people love to shop for their babies and sometimes hold onto items of clothing as a keepsake. Vigga seems to have gotten around this to some extent by creating beautiful, desirable clothing and therefore a brand that has an appeal beyond the subscription model. They’ve also sought to cover the basics of children’s clothing needs whilst accepting there has to be some room left for occasional purchases and gifts. “Your Mum will always want to knit things”, Svensson laughs, “so we’ve left room for that in the model.”
Whilst the road to profit can be long for any startup, Vigga has landed on some hidden benefits from the circular model. Despite hefty upfront investment in both clothing and the online platform and logistics, Svensson notes not only a great response from investors, but also the availability of government funding because of the nature of what she and her husband are trying to achieve. The subscription model also allows for a more stable cash flow than that within the seasonal and sometimes volatile fashion industry.
And now that she has landed on the idea, Svensson is hungry to do as much as she can to further the circular economy. “We have the plans in place to recycle all of the clothing in our business when it comes out of circulation” she tells me keenly, “and we’d like to eventually be able to offer a full service baby platform based on the subscription model, so you can get everything you need this way.” Perhaps her biggest regret is that the dated transport and logistics in Denmark mean that distribution of Vigga products is still a black mark on her conscience, but otherwise the sky’s the limit for Vigga, with the possibility of international expansion to take this aspect of a circular lifestyle to other markets.
Svensson ends our lively conversation on more serious note though: her advice to other circular entrepreneurs. “People tend to be very quiet about good ideas,” she says, “but in this world it makes more sense to share them. Ideas will be challenged and some parts will fail, but that’s what you need to ultimately make the idea stronger.”
And she speaks from the heart knowing that it is the failure of one sustainable solution that has ultimately led her to succeed in altogether more circular one.
Do you know someone who’s working towards or delivering ideas or innovations taking a more circular approach? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me on Twitter @stephiejohnno or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org with subject line: FAO Steph Johnston.
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Photo credit: Neil Barnwell from flickr