SupplyCompass sits down with fashion entrepreneur and Forbes ‘30 under 30’ Boryana Uzunova, Co-Founder of Kool And Konscious—a sustainable and ethical digital fashion marketplace. Kool and Konscious work with over 100 global fashion brands across menswear and womenswear, and each product sold is scored against their Impact Methodology, which looks at the CO2, water and a circularity impact of the item. Boryana and her team have also just launched an innovative new swimwear product that is setting the foundations for their new Impakt_ID technology, which is taking their impact measurement offering to the next level.
We hear about Boryana’s previous fashion technology experiences running an on-demand fashion technology startup in Hong Kong, and learn more about what brought her to launch Kool And Konscious and develop an impact methodology she hopes will transform the fashion industry.
Tech Talks is SupplyCompass’ content series spotlighting software and technology companies at the forefront of cutting-edge innovation, through the lens of fashion and supply chains. A must-read for fast-growing, ambitious fashion brands looking to invest in digital transformation.
What prompted you to start Kool And Konscious?
We started Kool And Konscious around one year ago. I started first and then had my Co-Founder, Eva Vucheva, join me a little later, as I found her on my journey. Beforehand I was working on another fashion technology initiative called MorphX in Hong Kong, which had the goal to remove mass-production and enable on-demand production in a timely and cost-efficient manner. The reason I launched this company is that the impact behind fashion started to become more and more obvious to me. I started to research and realised that the impact that one piece carries were so significant, that if we eliminate mass production this would be a huge step forward in mitigating the impact of fashion.
At MorphX, we built both the hardware and software that enables brands to build on-demand. As you can imagine, on-demand production also relies on infrastructure on the customer side, so customers need to be willing to engage, scan their body, and wait a little more for their pieces to be made. In the end, we exited the company which was a fantastic result for us, but it still hasn’t been scaled and commercialised, so we are still waiting for on-demand to become prevalent within the industry.
In the journey of developing MorphX, what became apparent to me is that producing on demand is great, yet it’s still just one piece of the puzzle. We found that every single particle—from how we grow the textiles, to how we put them together in a piece, how we shape them, how we return them—all those variables are excessively damaging as well. We thought, let’s try and look at the bigger picture and see if there is anything we can do to mitigate this impact.
We started to explore what’s already out there and research if there were conscious brands which were trying to target the problems across those verticals, that were sourcing from better farms and producing with circularity in mind. I found out that there were, and I ordered pieces from eight brands across the world that I really loved, and held a one-month pop-up store in Hong Kong. I wanted to see if customers liked it and if they were excited about sustainable fashion.
We sold out completely in a month, so it was a great test for us. People kept asking us if we were going to do another popup or go online, so we decided to build an online marketplace where we could centralise all these great brands from around the world in one place so we could make it accessible for people to find sustainable and conscious fashion options. If you ask people, a lot of them don’t know where to get a sustainable t-shirt or jeans from, so centralising this offering was the first step.
When I came back to Europe to see my family I met Eva, who is now my Co-Founder. She happened to be the Co-CEO of one of Europe’s largest fashion marketplaces, and she was in a period where she was realising the impact of fashion in her company. She wanted a switch away from this so we joined forces and ever since we have been building Kool And Konscious. We have evolved from a marketplace into other interesting projects we are working on.
What does sustainability mean to you, and how does this translate to your business?
I have to say that I’m the only non-fashionista within my team—I’m more the science and technology person. If I had to summarise sustainability in one sentence, it would be: If we were to perpetuate a practice, would it destroy the world or would it leave it as it is or enhance it? For me, sustainability is the second point and is really about being able to perpetuate a practice that would enhance and leave it better than today. This is what we try and implement within our business.
The key goal is to make a business case out of sustainability. Right now, the scale is small and it’s a fragmented and obscure part of our industry, so brands don’t always make a business case out of it. It’s such a paradox that we have—the smallest brands in the world are trying to be sustainable and show that they can make an impact on small margins, but on the other hand we have the big giants that have billions in their accounts that aren’t embracing it.
Through Kool And Konscious we try and build scale, for example by aggregating the sourcing demand of our brands, so they can source sustainable pieces at a better value and help drive down the price of sustainable fashion so it’s competitive with fast fashion. Through our Impakt_ID, we also try and built tangibility to the impact, so bigger brands can feel a bit threatened and realise that consumers are going to know exactly what is going on. We hope that this can encourage them to improve their practices and be more conscious.
What are your aspirations for the future of Kool And Konscious? Where would you like to take the company in the future?
As a fashion marketplace, we have a lot of data on what is sold, the best price ranges, what are people looking for, and more. We’re fortunate to have the data to come up with the perfect brand. Right now we are working on our first product—a circular swimwear product. We chose swimwear because we felt that this was the area where, as consumers, we have the least sustainable and conscious propositions. We are working on one single piece, one colour—we don’t want to compete with any brands—instead we want to introduce and test the technology we have been working on, called the Impakt_ID. The reason behind this is because we genuinely want to understand what brands need to go through to be completely circular. We wanted to lead by example, go through the experience ourselves and see what it really takes. This is why we created one product, rather than a line or a brand, and we want to connect every single step of the provenance of this product to a visual story that is accessible to the end customer in a way that makes sense.
Currently, we have a ton of greenwashing in the industry. Brands are claiming to be ethically or sustainably made by artisans, with less water, etc. No one has the tangible information of the impact of the piece, and what it took to make it, and who is responsible for neutralising this impact or ensuring it is really what it claims to be. This is the area we wanted to focus on and fix. The world is definitely waking up to sustainability, but now we’re in a stage where no one really knows what it truly means. Everyone wants to see it, but not everyone wants to be responsible for it, so want to make this tangible and accessible.
With our new ‘Not a Virgin’ swimwear product, each item has a unique QR code where you can access the product story. This includes information about the product covering the total impact score, broken down into materials, packaging and shipping, and more information about where it’s made, where the textile was produced, or if it was purchased as a deadstock and information about the person who made it.
We also compare our product to what the industry standard of the same product category would be—we call this the ‘status quo’. We want to be really transparent so we have shared our methodology, as well as the calculation breakdowns for the status quo product we are comparing it to. We are also partnering up with SeaTrees to neutralise the impact and plant a tree for every single swimsuit we make. We want to extend this technology to every brand we work with. the goal wasn’t to build a brand but to test the technology and make it accessible to every brand and every product.
Can you tell us a bit more about your ‘Fashion Sustainability Score’ methodology?
What we currently have in our marketplace is less advanced than the technology we are rolling out with our circular swimwear product. The simple reason is that with our current score, we don’t have perfect access to all of the value chain of the brands we work with, but with our own product we do. This is one of the key reasons we want to collaborate with SupplyCompass, as we see the opportunity to pin the impact score starting at a factory level and across the supply chain to the end product.
How our current methodology works is by calculating a CO2, water and a circularity score. We have done extensive research on the lifecycle analysis of different textiles. We don’t only try to understand the impact of cotton, for example, but we also try to understand the impact of cotton grown in different places, e.g. India, the US and Europe. These all come with different statistics, and we have started accumulating a huge database of the impact that different textiles have. These include sustainable textiles, including hemp, linen, bamboo, BSCI cotton, and more, and we measure this impact on a kilogram or weight basis in order to derive this.
As the next step, we have developed an algorithm that calculates what a status quo product would look like. To a large extent, we have found that a large proportion of status quo products would be made out of polyester and polyester blends, as well as cotton and cotton blends. Depending on what product we’re talking about, for example, if it’s a cotton shirt, we would compare it to a status quo cotton shirt, if it’s a linen shirt, we would compare it to what it’s most likely to be made out of in the status quo environment.
For more complex materials, for example sustainably sourced alpaca, we would compare it against a status quo product made out of viscose—this is the closest alternative that the status quo would use to recreate the product. Then, we are looking at the impact in the way that our brands have produced it, in comparison to a status quo product would look like, and we derive the CO2 and water savings.
When it comes to the circularity score, we need to start with the way we understand circularity. We have two pillars when it comes to understanding circularity. On one hand, we look at a product being circular within the value chain, and on the other hand, we look a product being circular within the natural system. If a product is 100% circular to nature, we consider it a circular product. If it’s 100% circular within the value chain but not to nature, we still consider it a circular product.
For circularity in the value chain, the key factors we look at are: how recyclable is the material? For example, a ‘pure’ or singular material is easier to recycle than a blend of materials. The type of textiles and how easy they are to recycle. Some textiles are easier to recycle, like polyester, whilst natural fibres like alpaca, cashmere and cotton—cotton has a significant quality decrease after recycling. Finally, we look at how easy the item is to recycle, for example, if it has details such as zippers, buttons or glues, this makes it harder to recycle, so we consider it less circular.
When it comes to nature circularity, the question posed is: can we throw this product in nature today and not worry about it being harmful to the environment? The key factors we consider are if it’s a natural fibre, what has it been dyed with and were any toxins used or was it an eco-friendly dye? We also look at the biodegradability within a natural environment.
Our strategy in the coming year is to scale our impact methodology and Impakt_ID and make it seamless for brands, factories and customers to use it and plugin information. We want to conduct a more scientific lifecycle analysis (LCA) in order to make the impact score the reliable standard within the industry that's friendly for the entire value chain to use.
We’re building our Impact Score into a separate solution of its own. Ever since we launched it on Kool And Konscious we have had a huge amount of interest from large marketplaces, from fashion brands and peer-to-peer platforms. It made sense to differentiate it and we’re currently trademarking the Impakt_ID, as we want to develop it into a separate, focused solution that isn’t diluted by our marketplace offering.
What role does technology play in your business?
Kool And Konscious is digitally based, so we are relying on all types of technology. We’re trying to automate the entire process from onboarding our brands, from communicating with our customers to ensuring everything is shipped on time. The only thing we haven’t automated is verifying our brands. We haven’t found a one size fits all approach to this, and we prefer to humanise this process. We find that brands are all so different, and they all come with their unique story, purpose, mission and focus of sustainability and consciousness. We haven’t found a convenient, one-size-fits-all formula for vetting them, so we personally have these conversations and checks.
When it comes to our Impakt score and Impakt_ID, technology will be a crucial factor in making a shift within the industry, as it’s the code and software that will really bring the actual, tangible and quantifiable information both to brands and customers that will finally enable us to identify what we need to neutralise. Technology is a key part of achieving our mission.
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, how has your business adapted?
With regret to all of the hits that the world had to take, we have been fortunate to be positively affected by the situation. A lot of spending has moved from offline to online, so our marketplace has been positively affected. What has been negatively affected was a popup we planned to launch in London in late March, which we then moved to May and now it’s been postponed indefinitely. We worked really hard to secure leading designers and create a zero-waste store in a fantastic location in London. We hoped to bring an immersive experience of sustainability, for example, we had a room where you had to walk through 2,700 litres of water to get to the t-shirt section so you had a tangible idea of how much water a t-shirt requires to produce.
The popup didn’t happen, which is unfortunate, but it has opened up so much time for our team to focus on our technology, and as a result, we were able to launch our Impakt Score a lot sooner than we had in our roadmap as our time freed up.
In terms of the brands we work with, we were very sad to see one of our favourite brands close down, and they still haven’t reemerged. They were really quick to take this decision, as the management didn’t see this working out financially, so they decided to pause for 6 months. When we heard this in early March, we acknowledged that this could also impact our other brands, so this is where we started our community talk series where we gathered our brands and supported them through their challenges. We wouldn’t have our business without our brands, so it’s in our best interest to support them where we can. We have helped them with fundraising, marketing, influencer management, amongst other things.
Most of our brands had a drop in sales for the first few weeks of the pandemic, but for most of them, their online strategies have helped them pick up. Our brands are mostly online businesses, so it’s a good time for them to gain a bit more stake in the online space.
What advice would you give to brands trying to be more responsible?
Having no experience building a fashion brand, apart from working on our swimsuit product, I would say that there are a few key factors that a newly launching brand should think about:
- It’s a super-saturated market, so make sure you have something new and special to offer.
- Secondly, think function. The world is overwhelmed with unusable products that are used once and then thrown away, so think about a product with a long-term function in mind. Make it great quality, make it timeless and think about the lifetime.
- It’s also important to bring in a special connection. For me and the new generation this would be centred around technology. For example, what we have done with our swimsuit product would excite me to buy it. This is the unique emotional relationship that I have with the product, which is knowing the history and the impact. There is still a large segment of customers that buy fashion for the self-expression emotion, so make sure you integrate this emotional connection to your customer through your unique value proposition.
Finally, think with circularity in mind – it all genuinely starts with the design. Brands are the key players in solving the equation for circularity. If they design with circularity in mind, for example by using natural materials, using less details or eco-friendly dyes, this will be crucial to power circularity.