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SUSTAINABILITY SPOTLIGHT: WASTE REDUCTION WITH CULT MIA
Founded in 2019, Cult Mia is a unique online fashion marketplace building the leading platform to discover sustainable and conscious independent designers from around the world. Cult Mia has rapidly onboarded the international fashion community with more than 350 brands in its assortment. Its mission is to give access to limited edition, unique, global fashion, safe in the knowledge that all products and brands align with the values customers care about.
The platform’s approach to sustainability, developed with Positive Luxury, is tied to its unique curation – supporting the brands that align with at least one of the four key values, and rewarding brands as they make improvements along their sustainable and conscious journeys.
Cult Mia is one of three retailers that have undergone the Positive Luxury ESG+ assessment and it gained the Butterfly Mark Certification in June 2022, and has recently been shortlisted as Breakthrough Business in the 2023 Positive Luxury Awards.
We catch up with founder, Nina Briance, on all the latest innovations at her platform, touching on how Cult Mia is working to reduce overproduction through its made to measure and made to order initiatives, the platform’s strong anti-Black Friday stance in collaboration with Loop Generation and more…
Hi Nina! Congratulations on being shortlisted as Breakthrough Business of the Year. Can you tell us about Cult Mia and how it all began?
Thank you! When I look back (now that we’re three years in) there are really three key lightbulb moments that sparked Cult Mia.
First, when I was working at Moda Operandi, it became very clear to me that the model for online luxury fashion that had been so successful in the 2000s and 2010s was starting to lose steam. Growth was stagnating and customers just didn’t seem as satisfied with the traditional curation. More than that, the value systems of shoppers weren’t being supported – and with that big platforms lost the real reason why customers wanted to shop with them to begin with.
Simultaneously, the more I spoke with designers, the more I realised that many brands that were on the cusp of rapid growth were looking for space on a platform that can really tell their story, with proper global visibility, but were unable to access existing platforms (for a wide range of reasons – for example, complicated inventory requirements, working capital challenges or unsustainable marketing spends).
Second, at the UN, I noticed that when we were vetting the unique products that our independent fashion designers offer, we noticed that often incumbent luxury brands either purchase or replicate these original designs. The opportunity to lift up independent fashion designers was glaringly important and obvious to me. Through Cult Mia, I’m excited to build on this mission and provide the platform to shop independent brands locally, directly, and online with ease.
Third, whenever anyone asked me about what I was wearing, it was never about my high street boots. It was always about my handmade enamel earrings from Mexico. I used to have to disappoint and say that you needed to travel to Oaxaca to get them.
Now, I can point you to Cult Mia: we connect designers to our global and engaged audience seeking exactly what the designers offer from a values perspective, as much as the product they sell. Our curated, accessible, discovery shopping experience solves the process and the pain points for independent, emerging designers and for customers who are starved of unique fashion.
Fashion contributes to a considerable amount of waste each year, at Cult Mia how are you combatting this?
At Cult Mia, we see circularity is key to solving one of the most important problems the fashion industry is trying to solve – waste. Waste comes from a wide range of sources, but the two main contributions that we see are 1) overproduction (failure in demand planning) on the brand side and 2) overconsumption or mindless consumption on the customer front.
Our platform from the onset was set up to support designers who operate via no waste and demand-led models via our made-to-order and made-to-measure offerings, which today represent close to 50% of the products that you can shop on Cult Mia. Moreover, as a marketplace, we don’t buy or hold inventory, meaning we don’t have end of season excess stock that we have to markdown, or even more concerning destroy.
However, key to our sustainable journey is encouraging brands to join us on this agenda. Waste was particularly topical for Cult Mia’s brand partners last quarter, as we took an important stance together in promoting a Green Black Friday – both in person and online for our customers. Black Friday always puts us and our brands to the test, as we never hold any brand damaging markdowns. We want to ensure that we are protecting brands’ value and doing our part in mitigating mindless consumption. Cult Mia has never participated in Black Friday, even if any of our brand partners do. Having said this, we know how important it is to offer an incentive to shop during this competitive season, and how equally important it is to reward our loyal customers. So last year, we hosted our first sample sale giving unmatchable prices on the bestselling pieces from our brands assortments – supported by a zero-waste mission via a partnership that launched with Loop Generation in November and is now planned to be repeated seasonally.
You offer a Made To Measure service, when did you implement this and how are your customers responding to this?
As of May 2022, our made-to-measure offering was introduced as a new way to shop on Cult Mia that enables shoppers to submit their measurements and receive bespoke tailor-made pieces. The made-to-measure initiative builds on ourCult Causes mission, further fostering our inclusive culture, enabling shoppers of all shapes and sizes to wear their favourite sustainable brands, knowing that many brands do not cover the full size range. This zero-waste approach (demand-led, no dead stock, and no returns) is one of the reasons why Cult Mia earned Positive Luxury’sButterfly Mark this summer.
The biggest challenge with this offering is educating both customers and brands in communicating how measurements should be taken (on the customer side) and respectively measuring garments appropriately to match (on the brand side). The customer feedback to date has been extremely positive – who doesn’t want a perfectly tailored dress for their next event at the same retail price as a standard size!
It’s important to highlight that while items are made bespoke for you, 98% of Cult Mia orders (including made-to-measure items) are fulfilled within two weeks. This sustainable offering delivers quickly enough for customers to not feel like the wait is too long, especially compared to certain platforms’ 3-6 month pre-order / made-to-order lead times. The value that a bespoke piece brings to a customer significantly outweighs this lead time.
Another key initiative part of your service is Made To Order, why have you chosen to implement this and are the brands you are working with open to this slow fashion alternative?
Given we have zoomed in on made-to-measure, it is important to first clarify the difference between made-to-measure and made-to-order. Made-to-order relates to production starting on an item only after a customer has purchased it, following the brand’s standard size chart, whereas made-to-measure is also demand-led, but is produced post customer purchase following the customer’s individual measurements.
This made-to-measure model is beneficial for both brands and Cult Mia as the platform (in addition to the huge waste benefit discussed previously):
On the brand side, emerging designers frequently face inventory and cash flow challenges, which are mitigated by only investing in production for what is purchased. Many independent designers are not able to join the incumbent luxury ecommerce platforms for this very reason of not being able to pre-produce high volumes of inventory or not being able to wait 3-6 months for wholesale payments to be made after delivering the inventory. In this light, we’re excited to be able to support brands at the earliest stages in a way that aligns with their business needs to be able to come to scale.
On the platform front, the upside in working with a made-to-order brand for Cult Mia is uncapped, meaning that we aren’t limited to selling only a certain number of units, as the made-to-order model is set up to meet the full customer demand (no selling out of bestselling items!).
As a retailer you have to rely heavily on supplier relationships, how do you ensure that your sustainability ethos translates to third parties?
When the business launched, we were focused on identifying the brands that deserve to be known from around the world. We knew that there was a growing appetite for independent fashion, but we also knew that it takes a lot of time to find new brands and when you do, how do you go about vetting the quality? Even more challenging for customers is vetting a brand from a values-perspective. This is one of our key value-adds to shoppers: ensuring the sustainability ethos is met via our brand partners.
We handpick our assortment in two steps. The first is passing the brand vetting process. We care about operational excellence and finding the perfect product for our community in terms of price, quality, and exclusivity.
The second is meeting our sustainable sourcing strategy that we developed alongside with Positive Luxury. We wanted to support values that both we and our community care about, but more importantly, values that we could properly assess, monitor and reward. We developed a rewards system to incentivize our brand partners to make improvements in their scores across these core four value pillars that are established at the time of onboarding.
Via our Cult Causes onboarding strategy, we highlight our platform values, demonstrate our commitment to encourage customers to make more conscious purchases, incentivize brands to make internal improvements, and work towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with our brands.
Looking forward, what is your immediate focus for creating positive change as a retailer?
Retailers have the power of choice in what brands and products they sell. The immediate call to action for other retailers in our space is to use that power of choice for positive change. Slim to no retailers make compromises from a sustainability standpoint in the products that they list – incorporating a sustainable sourcing strategy would have an immediate impact and set the right foundation for positive change in the short, medium and long term for retailers. Retailers are naturally concerned about limiting the types of brands and products they can sell, but from a business perspective, I really like the message in a book I’ve just started reading, Net Positive by Paul Poleman (ex CEO of Unilever): the overall message I think is key: businesses should focus on being sustainable as it’s good for businesses as much as the planet. And everything we’ve seen to date at Cult Mia really supports this and our trajectory.
Finally, how has working with Positive Luxury and earning Butterfly Mark certification changed or informed your approach to your sustainability journey?
As an early stage business, without a dedicated sustainability team, but with a clear sustainable journey from the onset, we needed a strategic partner to bring our sustainable journey to life in a reliable, transparent and credible manner. Positive Luxury has given us the expertise to cement our sustainable and ethical values across the platform, ensuring that we don’t just talk the talk, but we have the base to walk the walk.
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