Helping Consumers Drive Change in the Fashion Industry

Jeremy Yao MS’20 created Changing Room, a startup that gives fashionistas a way to shop smartly and sustainably online

May 18 2022 | By Kyle Barr
Jeremy Yao

Yao designed an application in line with his twin passions for fashion and sustainability.

Jeremy Yao MS’20 loves fashion. Standard fashion industry practices—not so much. Notoriously dominated by fast fashion, the industry has become a massive source of landfill fodder, as well as reliant on overseas factories that can prioritize profits over workplace safety and environmental consequences.

For Yao, assembling a wardrobe to match his values was no easy task, and he knew he wasn’t alone. Even as many clothing companies have begun taking action to address issues like sustainable sourcing and toxic byproducts, hard facts about who’s making a substantial effort to clean up their act and who may just be “greenwashing” their garments are currently hard to come by.

So the budding entrepreneur came up with a way to empower fashion aficionados like himself, by devising a nifty bit of technology that could untangle a complicated yarn of less-than-best manufacturing practices in how clothes are sourced, assembled, and shipped around the globe to retailers.

Changing Room, the app he designed, rates apparel items of some of the biggest name brands for environmental impact, labor abuses, and more. Once customers add the plugin as a browser extension, this info appears next to items they place in a shopping cart, giving it an overall rating while also offering more ethical alternatives.

Changing Room plugin next to a model

Using the Changing Room plugin, consumers can evaluate the environmental impact of their purchases.

A native of Paris, France, Yao has long been enamored of fashion and previously worked on projects for Louis Vuitton and Rent the Runway, a platform that lets users rent or buy designer clothes. After graduating in 2020 with a dual master's degree specializing in data science and entrepreneurship from Columbia Engineering and Columbia Business School, Yao launched his startup by turning his data analytics skills toward tackling sustainability issues. In 2020, Changing Room won a $10,000 grant from the Summer Startup Track at the Columbia Business School.

This March, Changing Room released the first version of their Google Chrome extension called Eco-Index which scores products for sustainability on fashion sites, starting with brands like Zara and H&M. Yao, who recently spoke at the Columbia Business School for the first public release of the Eco-Index, is continuing to develop the product.

Scroll down to learn more about how Yao got started, his thoughts on current difficulties to bring transparency to the garment industry, his experience breaking into the startup scene, and his thoughts on the work ethic of entrepreneurs.

How He Started His Startup

Yao discusses how his project was born out of classes at Columbia University and how they brought his web plugin into reality.

What makes the clothing industry difficult to analyze

So in sustainability, there's a lot of different dimensions. You have the social aspect, the fair labor aspect, and you have the environmental impact. Within the environmental impact, you have the CO2 emissions, water consumption and you also have issues of microplastics so often used in clothes. You also have to consider If the garment is recyclable or if it's biodegradable. So it's really hard to make it easy for people to understand the impact that they're having while being a consumer for a kind of art that’s constantly evolving.

An early education in entrepreneurship

I've always wanted to make an impact, which is why I was drawn to entrepreneurship. Both my parents emigrated from China to France. The community that they were from was pretty poor in China, and they were trying to improve their conditions. When we were in France, everyone around me was hustling. They were all entrepreneurs, whether they were doing jobs in restaurants or working in different businesses. At the time, I never realized that I was growing up in this environment where everyone was hustling and it's only now that I see how much all that informed my outlook on entrepreneurship and business.

What makes Changing Room different from other companies?

I'd like to think of our company not as a technology-driven company, but as a company that's using technology to fulfill one of our purposes, which is to help people make more effective and conscious decisions. The difference between us and other technology-based companies, from my perspective, is that we're putting more of an emphasis on our mission to really try and have an impact, but only by drawing on all the technologies that are available. We're not building technology for technology’s sake.

Bringing Transparency to Fashion

Fast fashion is plagued with major issues, from environmental waste to abusive labor practices. Yao’s product gives consumers an idea of the impact of every purchase, and even offers alternatives.

How companies conceal data on practices

The fashion industry is very opaque, so it's very difficult to actually gather information on the impact of their products. So at the beginning, we tried to actually go very deep into the supply chain and quantify the environmental impact, but it was very difficult because factories are not very open to that idea. So one of our aims and missions is to really create this community and create this movement. We want to empower people with this tool so that they can be more informed and really push brands to give us more information along the way.

The role of consumers

We're trying to best inform users with all the information that's available out there, whether that’s the material used or the labor practices used to manufacture clothing. I'd like to think that by giving people more information about what they're buying, they can actually give a push to the industry–they can decide where they're going to put their money and they can signal to the market that they prefer ethically sourced garments or that they prefer second-hand products. They will say they prefer more transparent brands that put more effort in their supply chains that make products more environmentally friendly.

The Life of an Entrepreneur

According to Yao, the best way to get into the startup game is to jump right in.

Important to accept an irregular schedule

What it’s like to work in our startup really depends on the week and it depends on our focus. It depends whether we're starting to get to know our consumers, if we’re building the data structure or if we are going to talk to investors to seek new partnerships. We have some members of our team who are on the West Coast of the U.S., so some of our meetings are pushed back a bit later into the day, accordingly. Personally, I am pretty productive later at night. Sometimes I just have this rush of creativity and productivity and I just do my task where I could put some music on and just just get stuff done.

Striking a work/life balance is important

I think what I want to convey to people here is that I don't necessarily believe in working from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., or even from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. straight. We want our team members to really be able to take a break when they need to, and if it's a really nice sunny day, and they say they need to go for a walk then they should be able to go for a walk. I don't think you can always be productive because you need some time to be unproductive. You need to have some recreational time in order to actually be able to be creative and productive.

What Was it Like to Break into the Startup Scene?

Yao shares his thoughts on how best to put yourself out there to market you product as an entrepreneur.

Learning as you go

I think I've had a steep learning curve. Coming out of my master's program, Changing Room has really been my life. I've learned a lot, whether it's professionally or personally. I've learned to get out of my comfort zone and get out there. The first few times where I went to networking events I probably was one of the youngest entrepreneurs there. Originally I had this imposter syndrome, where I told myself, ‘Oh, I'm so young, what can I bring to the table?’ But I’ve since learned that I am capable and that, while I still have a lot to prove, I know how I want to get there.

Coming to understand your hidden strengths

I think that, over time, I’ve come to understand what my strengths are and what I can actually do. I realized that I'm pretty good at understanding people and managing people in the recruiting aspect of being a founder, whether it's for our work culture or understanding where my strengths lie and especially where my limits are. One of my goals in my role as a founder is to find people who are smarter and better than me at all the things that I'm not an expert at, and get them to do what they do best.

Stay up-to-date with the Columbia Engineering newsletter

* indicates required