The full RETURE team from left to right: Christopher Williamson, Robin Williamson, Nina van Volkingburg and James Williamson / Credits: Yiyang Willamson.
As the world slowly reopens, it’s apparent that we can’t go back to business as usual. Scientists, business and non-governmental organizations (NGO) are looking at natural processes and emerging green technologies to restore the world’s ecosystems and populations. One such organization is RETURE and in this Q&A, we will hear how Nina and James created a platform that’s on a mission to make upcycling the most desirable choice in modern-day fashion.
Tell us more about RETURE and how it’s revolutionizing the fashion industry?
RETURE is the world’s first fashion upcycling platform that connects clients to world-class established and emerging fashion designers who upcycle their underused garments into unique treasures. Additionally, the platform includes an e-commerce store where clients can directly purchase upcycled fashion and accessories, inviting them to participate in the circular economy. RETURE is transforming the industry as it redefines how we perceive value—the client’s desire for a sense of newness does not mean a “new” product but it can be that dress hanging in your wardrobe that is repurposed into a pair of high waisted flares, giving them a new lease on life. Also, when choosing to upcycle your garment with a designer you are directly supporting the craft and keeping garments out of landfills by extending their life.
Our work elevates the passive transaction of buying something towards a co-creative experience, exchanging knowledge with another human being and prioritizing the meaning within our clothes. We all have pieces that mean something to us—our prom or wedding dresses, blazers that our dads passed down, the shirt you wore to your first job interview etc. Instead of having those pieces just hang in your wardrobe, let’s make the most of their tangible and symbolic value, giving it a new life through upcycling.
This year’s Earth Day theme is about restoring the earth—how is your initiative contributing to the wellbeing of the planet?
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions (United Nations Climate Change, 2018) and the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned every second (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). By extending the life of a garment by even an extra nine months, carbon, waste and water footprints are reduced between 20-30% (WRAP, 2017) which underlines that the most sustainable garment is the one already hanging in your wardrobe. However, we as humans crave newness which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Fashion reflects culture, our evolving identities and can give us joy—but instead of new fashion which literally costs the earth, reviving your own underused garments is an environmentally conscious and innovative alternative.
“By upcycling, you are not only keeping clothes out of landfills but supporting the livelihoods of incredible design talents”.
Why is it important for people to upcycle and give their clothes a second life?
As mentioned before regarding reducing garment waste and maximizing the value of the garments you own, it is important as the more we care about our clothes, the less likely we will just throw them away. Clothes hold our memories, they are part of our own personal stories and therefore we shouldn’t simply view them as disposable. By upcycling—you are not only keeping clothes out of landfills but you are also supporting the livelihoods of incredible design talents and cherishing the value within your clothes.
How did your DP experience help you with RETURE?
James: My IB experience taught me many valuable skills which I use every day at RETURE. These range from analyzing problems and doing extensive research on how to solve them (both business and technology related) all the way to efficiently iterating over solutions to those problems. The numerous presentations I did during my IB experience also trained me well for presenting internally and to external stakeholders.
Nina: The emphasis on community was such a large part of the IB experience and it really instilled in me the courage to act upon finding solutions to larger problems, as well as the importance of collaboration which is central to RETURE. Additionally, the IB taught me invaluable lessons in communication—writing, presenting and making a clear argument to a variety of audiences. Our mission is to make upcycling the most desirable choice for modern-day fashion consumption, meaning that we are very dependent on quality research, communicating in a convincing manner and delivering on a service built upon long hours and hard work. I learned each of these qualities from completing the Diploma Programme (DP) and am very grateful for my education.
“It’s never been easier to make global, meaningful connections and to solve big problems together”.
What advice do you have for young changemakers who want to positively influence the environment?
Nina: Firstly, I believe it’s extremely important to be curious about the world around you—find something you strongly believe in, question why things are the way they are and learn as much as you possibly can about related subjects. Secondly, once you’ve uncovered a particular problem, don’t hesitate in finding exceptionally creative solutions and be humble when those solutions might need to adapt and evolve—no one immediately has the answer!
The biggest part in finding a solution is indeed through collaboration and knowledge exchange, so connecting and communicating with individuals who have similar values is essential. It’s never been easier to make global, meaningful connections and to solve big problems together. Finally—and this is the most important piece of advice!—please don’t give up. Don’t be dismayed by a lack of likes, followers, funding, donations etc. We live in a world that often prioritizes immediacy but change does not happen overnight and, if lucky, can be a lifelong endeavour.
James: The best advice I could give to anyone wanting to positively change the environment is to find similar-minded people and join any collaborative projects you can. There is such a large and active community of changemakers around the globe, all wanting to help make a change. Joining any projects you can, whether they are small local initiatives or larger-scale projects, is a great way to get actively involved and do your part for the environment.
Nina van Volkinburg, PhD is a Diploma Programme (DP) graduate from the International School of Zug and Luzern and co-founder and CEO of RETURE. She has a background in fashion journalism and is a trained ethnographer after completing her doctorate at the University of Exeter. Nina lectures at London College of Fashion, Fashion Business School and many other institutions. The Austrian-American calls London ‘home’ and you can connect with her here.
James Williamson is a Diploma Programme (DP) graduate from the International School of Zug and Luzern and co-founder and Head of Engineering at RETURE. He has a background in computer science and human computer interaction. Having studied and worked across Switzerland, UK and China, he specializes in front-end development and user experience design. James is a Swiss/English living in Switzerland and you can connect with him here.
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