Chiru making clothes shopping more sustainable, accessible, and enjoyable

Created by two NCAD students, following an idea developed at a hackathon in Dublin, Chiuru is an app that brings fashion into the cirular ecomony by connecting retailers particularly vintage, charity and textile repair shops together with the consumers that want to end fast fashion and purchase clothes in a sustainable way. Having met the co-founders at The Dublin Tech Summit, I interviewed Roisin Marah to find out more:

Q1. To someone who is not aware, what is Chiru? How did Chiru begin?

For those who don’t know us, Chiru is a start-up app which is designed to make clothes shopping more sustainable, accessible, and enjoyable. Chiru started as a final year project, where our team was given the challenge to “make fashion circular” and to “close the loop on fast fashion.” From there, we developed Chiru – an app that would incorporate all the sustainable, textile based businesses in the user’s local area. Be that vintage or charity shops, tailors and seamstresses, even cobblers and antique or second-hand shops. The idea is to have all of these shops grouped in one place, and discoverable using the apps “near me” function. The second unique aspect of this app is the non-consumerist based reward system – the idea being you earn points every time you donate to a charity shop (based on weight/items donated), or when you make purchases in sustainable shops. These points can then be spent in your local community on non-consumerist rewards, such as a coffee in local coffee shops, event tickets to sustainable events nearby, or other such rewards depending on the businesses who participate in the area. 

Q2. What were the co-founders’ backgrounds before founding? 

The founders of Chiru were two final year students in NCAD. As product designers, the group were focused on solving a pre-existing problem and creating the most efficient and accessible solution for their target group. Together Róisín Maher and Kirsten Whelan won a hackathon hosted by Dogpatch Labs, which offered them a spot to attend the Dublin Tech Summit as a start up, and were shortlisted for the RSA Student Design Competition in 2020. Róisín was also part of a group of students that created a project called Seafloor, another Sustainable project that uses recycled plastic and sand from the beaches to make durable tiles. Seafloor was exhibited in the Trinity Science Gallery in 2019 and went on to go on tour around Ireland in 2020 until the beginning of the pandemic. Upon finishing college in 2020, Róisín went back to working in retail while working on Chiru. Kirsten went on to get a Masters in digital marketing and start a career in that field. The drive to build on Chiru was revisited towards the Dublin Tech Summit. 

Q3. What research did you do before launching the service? How did this change the business plan of the company?

 We interviewed a number of charity shop workers, sustainable store employees, avid shoppers and sustainable shoppers. This gave us our initial insight into people’s perspective and attitudes towards shopping from both sides. To get a perspective of different types of shoppers we interviewed an extreme shopper and a non extreme shopper. We asked them to count how many items of clothing they had, how often they would go shopping, what outlets they would buy their clothes from etc. We then conducted a survey with the same questions and built the persona of the average shopper from our data. Through our research and interviews we found that a big problem in the fast fashion culture is people’s behaviour towards it. Many people don’t care what they’re buying and how it came to be as long as it’s cheap. It’s easy to put the blinkers up when it’s not happening in front of you. We realised that to achieve our goal we would have to change this behaviour. We researched other loyalty and reward schemes to explore the best ways to structure Chiru by comparing existing business models that followed the principles of circular economics (i.e., closing the loop). Initially we were thinking about having a physical rewards card, but it proved difficult to get charity shops interested in such a scheme. The physical card would have been a lot harder to implement as many of the charity shops at the time would have minimal technology. With many only having a card machine for payments, it would have been an extra cost and inconvenience for them to be a part of Chiru given the installation and training requirements. As such, we decided an all digital platform would be a better route, as it gave us the freedom to create a platform where users would gain points from multiple vendors rather than one company. When we opted for the digital platform this made it more accessible for charity shops to be partnered with us with no extra cost for implementation in the shops.

 Q4. What is Chiru’s main benefit for businesses or charities using the service? 

Businesses: Primarily, Chiru offers businesses a new platform in which to reach new customers. One of the common problems for sustainable businesses is marketing and footfall. Sustainable businesses are generally small businesses who don’t have the same access to funding as some of the larger shopping outlets – as such they can often set up shop on the periphery of the main shopping areas. Similarly, any small companies hoping to advertise or promote themselves on social media platforms find themselves working against the algorithms in use on said platforms. As Chiru offers the “near me” function, it allows the user to see sustainable businesses they may never have come across, or even thought to use, before. We are hoping to build the app in such a way that all sustainable businesses will be included on the “near me” function, and participating businesses will have another platform to promote their stock and services. Charity Shops: We are hoping that the increased awareness of charity shops will encourage new customers to shop in their stores. We are hoping this will result in users donating more clothes that would be considered “desirable” for the target market, as well as reducing the amount of clothes that will end up in landfill. Even if clothes are not considered appropriate for resale, many charity shops avail of schemes which see unwanted textiles become mattresses or cleaning rags, which are then sold on, etc. By encouraging this footfall in charity shops, we are also hoping that users will consider shopping in these outlets more often than the occasional foray in to look for fancy dress costumes, etc. Ideally, increasing footfall will result in repeat custom, and increased community engagement – whether that be in shops, with local businesses, and sustainable events. 

Q5. What were some of the main challenges you had while developing Chiru? 

The biggest challenge we faced in the beginning was how we were going to change the behaviours people have towards shopping. We weren’t trying to cut out all consumption as that’s near impossible in today’s world, but we wanted to encourage people to do it in a more ecological way. Researching the effects the fast fashion industry has on the world really changed our outlook on the industry overall, and we figured it made sense to simply show people what we had seen in the hopes that it would change their minds too. However, the problem remained that people don’t want an app that simply tells you about the doom and gloom in the world, or chastises you if you do go and buy something fast fashion for ease. After all, these changes in attitude and behaviour take time. We moved towards going down the route of encouraging sustainable behaviour whenever it is practised, to give people that same feel good factor they get from buying new clothes, but as a result of shopping sustainably. As such, we decided an app that rewarded consumers for making the everyday changes towards sustainable living was the best way One of the biggest challenges after finalising the concept was our lack of expertise in technology – we had no idea where to begin! We were fortunate to have been invited to the Dublin Tech Summit to showcase our start-up, which allowed us to interact with people in the field and gain an understanding of how we might go about getting the app built. We’ve also received a lot of interest from software developers who are incredibly enthusiastic about the concept of Chiru, and are eager to work with us. 

Q6. You were recently at the Dublin Tech Summit. What benefits did this have for the company? 

The DTS was an incredible opportunity for Chiru. We were surprised by how many like minded individuals we met that were enthusiastic about the app – across all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. We got to meet a lot of people who had businesses or start-ups in sustainability. They offered us a lot of great advice, and some wonderful ideas to potentially incorporate in the future. We also met people involved in the investing, developing, and marketing side of running a business, who have offered to keep in touch with us and offer any assistance they could. It really inspired us, and gave us the idea that, when Chiru has been developed and rolled out in Ireland, that we could bring the app to the international market. It was an invaluable experience, and really helped us to figure out where we wanted the app to go, and how we might get it there, and even how to build on it in the future! 

Q7. What impact did the pandemic have on the service? 

The pandemic really disrupted the trajectory of Chiru. We needed to do a lot of work on the ground to see how viable Chiru was, but this relied on businesses being open. Due to ongoing restrictions, and the impact of online shopping, many of the businesses we would have approached for market research or collaboration were unsure if they would still be around post pandemic. As such, progress ground to a halt during those two years. While this was a devastating blow for many of the businesses we would have promoted on Chiru, there was the unexpected side effect of the “shop local” initiatives. During the pandemic, shopping local became hugely important, and many shops began to flourish with the increased footfall. Similarly, making sustainable choices became more important to the average consumer, along with the increased awareness of our precarious climate situation. While the shops were closed, a lot of the ethos behind Chiru (which was to shop locally and sustainably) took centre stage. Fortunately, we had an outstanding invitation to the Dublin Tech Summit from winning the Dogpatch competition, which allowed us to really kickstart the project again. We gained new team members who worked tirelessly to make our showcase at the summit a success! 

Q8. You and your co-founders are working while launching the service. How do you divide your time between your job and the business?

To be honest, with great difficulty! Róisín has taken point on this project and collected a team of enthusiastic volunteers from all kinds of backgrounds to help make Chiru a viable business! Since the Dublin Tech Summit, Róisín has moved to part-time in order to bring the project to fruition. We are hoping to get enough funding to have a small dedicated team who can focus their full attention on making Chriu come to fruition. The ultimate goal of Chiru is to make shopping sustainably as convenient and beneficial to the user as possible. 

Q9. Are there any other businesses in the sustainability market in Ireland that you are big fans of?

My all time favourites are Big Love and Collected Treasure! They are Vintage shops that recently partnered up to open a store in The Design House, which is located on Temple Lane South in Temple Bar. The Design House rents space to local designers and smaller businesses – giving them a wonderful opportunity to sell their pieces and begin a business in a competitive market. Big Love and Collected Treasure have a lovely little shop with handpicked vintage pieces for all shapes, styles and sizes. The staff are welcoming, kind, and ready to help with any fashion query or emergency that may arise! Reuzi is a great shop that was up in Foxrock village but now operates online, but you can still avail of a click and collect service! The staff are lovely and very knowledgeable about sustainable living. You can find a range of products in Reuzi that are great for gifts, your own household and everyday living. It stocks everything, such as products for food storage, to baby products, to sustainable art supplies for children, along with stock for health, beauty and hygiene and many more. These products make living a sustainable life that bit more attainable. Planet A Zero Waste in Bray is a wonderful zero-waste store where you can fill up on a number of things, from food and snacks, to oils and cleaning products. Customers can bring their own jars and containers from home or avail of ones provided by the shop. The staff are also extremely pleasant, helpful and encouraging! Just weigh, fill and pay!