Interview: Estonian startup Reverse Resources on receiving the Global Change Award with a €150 000 grant

Reverse Resources is the first online marketplace to enable industrial upcycling for global fashion brands. It offers waste inventory service to large textile manufacturers and deliver information about their leftovers to brand designers. This idea got recognised by H&M Conscious Foundation that favours innovative thoughts that can save our planet by closing the loop for fashion. Ann Runnel, the visionary behind Reverse Resources shared her story with us.

What kind of new possibilities will rise from this kind of recognition?

Of course, this kind of recognition opens up a lot of doors. The problem we are trying to solve is two-sided – we must convince the manufactures to sort their materials more thoroughly and at the same time share information to make sure clothing and textile brands would take more care of waste materials in their designs. The award gives a very clear market signal that it is time to put bigger emphasis on material circulation issues in textile industry.

What kind of change do you hope to achieve with your service?

Our aim is to introduce the approach where the textile and fashion industry must acknowledge what kind of existing materials could be used before choosing and purchasing new materials. The more materials we can effectively save from incineration or landfill, the less we spend natural resources to fulfill our daily needs. We believe that when we want to make these kind of changes, it’s not the question of “raising awareness” but more about offering convenient solutions that address the problem well and give extra value beyond that. We hope that we will be able to develop an effective and user-friendly tool for the manufacturers and brands to cooperate in moving towards zero-waste production.

Where do you see Reverse Resources in five years?

H&M network of contacts gives us an opportunity to access thousands of factories and through that many brands. Of course, it takes time to develop the service. At the moment it’s difficult to evaluate how scalable our product is but if after a year we have established our business model and figured out how exactly we will distribute the service from plant to plant, we can talk about where we will be in five years. We plan to reach the point where we can say that we did everything we could to use this incredible opportunity wisely. We know that our idea has some great potential! 

How would you describe the process of starting a company in Estonia? Would you say it was easy or rather difficult? Where did the support came from?

I can’t say it was very easy to start for us, since our company is from a field where Estonia lacks significant competence. I don’t mean textile or clothing industry per se because we don’t work in the design or fashion field as many would say. What we do is that we develop IT solutions, work on international supply chains and optimise the industrial manufacturing. We are still making baby steps in so called circular economy. Green economy is talked about in energy and construction sector but what other kinds of solutions could appear in circular economy is not much discussed yet. Estonia has a long way to go in this field. 

That has been one of the reasons why it has been quite difficult to introduce our idea – we have to start from the theory behind the story. Many eco-innovation ideas are difficult to get started with because there are numerous reasons why they can’t compete with other ideas in the common startup scene. The question really isn’t about profitability, because circular ideas can be very competitive in terms of profitability, but… You know, it’s kind of like the story behind Google – they had to face 100 investors saying “No” because the idea did not “seem” new. Why invest into something that’s already there one might ask. I believe that we wouldn’t made it this far if it wasn't for the Climate KIC accelerator and Climate Launchpad programs that focus on supporting cleantech startups. Again, seemingly we have enough accelerators but if the program does not focus on circle economy topics, it’s very tricky to compete with ideas that are already familiar to the market. 

Who are the people behind this?

Our team consists of four people from four different fields – entrepreneurship, IT, Asia studies and clothing manufacturing. Each one of us has a long-term experience from each speciality and the team is well balanced. That was one of the reasons why we stood out among others teams in the competition as well.  

What advice would you give to rising startups?

I think I could give more insights when we already have a working solution, I mean, currently we ourselves are a rising startup. :) What I can say is that before developing a product or a service with a great hurray, test the idea among your target audience as profoundly as possible taking smallest steps you can take! How to do it? Read books like “The Mom test!” and “Running Lean”.

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