Needs and Wants. There is a difference.

The first time I was introduced to this concept was through a lecture on Y Combinator’s Startup school that I attended in that phase of life when I thought I would next experiment with launching a startup (I did too. A couple. Still looking for technical co-founders with coding skills).

The next thing I learnt through experience is that when you write a genuine short email to a distinguished person in the academic field, its lucky to get a response. Therefore the first time I received a reply back from Alan Kay, a visionary computer scientist, whose Dynabook and PhD research led the foundation of Graphical User Interface and later Steve Job’s iPad; I was stunned. After a series of emails, of discussions of various subjects, we touched needs and wants, and this is what he said:

Educators also want to understand human beings, but their interest is in helping humans with what they *need* — and most humans rarely *want* what they really *need* (often because what we *need* requires a lot of work to learn)……. So making a real distinction between *wants* and *needs* is a first step. Especially for designers of all kinds.”

This created a dilemma, especially with Y Combinator’s mantra “Make something people want.” This might have been a simplification of Paul Graham’s push to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to talk to people, what we call is the empathy stage in Design Thinking. This leads us to a common sense question, is relying on people’s understanding of what they “want” leading us to the paradoxical situation of “wanting faster horses”.

Post pandemic, as the term is thus used, we are in better place to differentiate our needs from our wants. We need food, but we wanted McDonalds burgers. We need water, but we substituted that feeling of cold liquid running down our throats with a carbon and sugar laden cola. We need to travel, but we wanted cars to takes there. We need to have a comforting society, but we want to be appreciated on social media through likes and upvotes. We need to earn money to fulfil our needs, but we want money instead to fulfil our wants. This is the difference.

So what do we do? We aren’t changing society overnight, Covid is already doing that for us. I’ll try instead to create a list of some things that I wanted but never needed. I’ll be adding a comment link at the bottom with three categories. I suggest you add your unwanted artificial wants to this list as part of the comment. Then maybe we can start a conversation and get somewhere eventually.

A new year and a new decade

2020-2030 is the decade of action. The sustainability discussion which started in the early 70s, hopes to find action through the 17 sustainable development goals. Covid has been a disaster and an opportunity at the same time. It had many lessons for us. The impetus to reset, rebuild with resilience is being added into the business models of various companies. Many summits, webinars and conferences were held online in 2020 and that has opened the floodgates to transparency in discussion and governance. Never before has the world come together at such as pace. Lets build on this.

Deciphering McKinsey’s Future of Fashion report. A“Use-more-buy-more” fashion economy?

Today I’m going through “The Next Normal” a 17 page guide by McKinsey and Co.  titled “ The future of fashion”: sustainable brands and “circular” business models.

The first indication I get that the authors are still trying to understand the meaning of circularity, is evidenced by their use of inverted comma ….“circular”. What does it really allude?

At the first glance, the report seems developed society-centric. I still read it to gauge if anything can be applicable to India, one of the largest growing apparel market in the world.

This is some of what was stated:

  1. Circular business models will not be an option any longer, but a necessity.
  2. Sustainability would be led by consumer awareness
  3. Pre worn clothes
  4. Pre worn luxury designer clothes
  5. Digitalisation as a sales enabler

Some of the suggestions given by Miriam, Anna and Karl-Hendrik are absolutely superlative. It demonstrates an industry understanding of the heavily promoted R’s : Resale, Rental, Repair and Refurbishment. Karl has accurately pinpointed the importance of consumer awareness in circular business models.

He says: “What will really move the needle on circular business models is the circular consumer experience.”

It resounds a lot with what an industry person in India, I was recently chatting with commented :“but…would customers be willing to pay for sustainability..”

What Miriam predicts (a style advisor; who knows exactly what you have in your cupboard and offers it for a resale for you) might work in developed countries, but I have difficulty visualising this scenario in India. I’ll explain why.

Anyone who has opened an average middle income household clothing cupboard in India should know and understand the problem. Taking two barometers of clothing purchasers when I think fashion: My mother and my daughter (I skip myself, because I’m an aberration, strictly following Marie Kondo when it comes to clothing). Both their cupboards are overflowing with varieties of styles. They don’t wish to repeat their clothes, but would they want to buy pre-owned clothes? I guess never. Hygiene issues are too important here. Would they like to offer their clothes for sale? Maybe not. It would be sacrilegious. Yes, they do hand over clothes between family, at my mother generation; and exchange clothes between friends, in my daughters. But frankly, I suspect great apprehension if a style advisor were to take stock of my mother’s closet. A closet is a highly personal set of belongings, akin to your gmail inbox. Would you, for example, like Gmail to decide which emails to delete for you? So, would rental, resale of pre owned clothes, even by expensive brands, ever work in India?

Some other industry specific interventions suggested by the consultants are:

  1. Cutting industry emission
  2. Cutting overproduction of garments
  3. End producer responsibility of end-of-life management
  4. Established players to take a lead
  5. Opportunity for entry of new players to the market

This summary is then followed by the transcript of three interviews; H & M, Yerdle and Vestiare.

H & M


  1. Algorithmic commerce : AI to understand consumer needs in order to produce only the right products in the right amounts and allocate them to the right place
  2. Looop: garment to garment recycling machine
  3. Renewcell: Renewcell is developing a new material called Circulose, made by gently recovering cotton from worn-out clothes
  4. Product ID: they plan to embed tags into your clothes to “swap, share, show”
  5. Post consumer waste refurbishing into new products
  6. Regenerative farming

After listening to this interview discussion, one can clearly ascertain that H&M’s future business model is still favouring buy-more , make-more, sell-more philosophy. They plan to do this through digital and technological interventions and in future might be actively looking for consumer markets which  are open to purchase of pre-owned goods.

(Would they survive in India with this model? Probably not. Their current romance with the Indian consumer might be short lived. Soon the cupboards would start overflowing and consumers would not know what to do with the excess garments. They are also a tad too fashionable to be passed down to the household help who’s social sphere might frown up on such styles. As the garments are not really meant to last,  would any self-respecting memsahib be pleased enough to hand these down? And> is the Indian consumer aware of the “bring back your clothes for a discount coupon at H &M”? )


Next Andy Ruben of Yerdle, seems to have a great business model which can be best described as  fashion-brand-resale-aggregation. He predicts a $50 B expansion in this market in the next 3 year in US with 33% of Gen Z favouring this mode of purchase. He does however illustrate with example of an outwear garment, the Jacket.

IMO, for outerwear and outgrown garments, resale might just work, and seems to be working pretty well for Yerdle.


Max Bittner the CEO of Vestiare, a pre owned luxury apparel ecommerce company, makes some interesting points:

  1. Changing attitudes of consumers: He is of the opinion that if a 15-16 year old is doing something today, then chances are that the older demographics will be doing that in future. Like buying and selling pre owned clothes.
  2. Huge opportunity: “There is somewhere between half a trillion and a trillion dollars’ worth of luxury goods in people’s closets, and probably half of it is unworn.”
  3. Consumer Awareness: ”No one will want to wear new clothes if the process of making those clothes causes people to suffer or to lose their lives.” Max does compare the car industry with the fashion industry citing example of resale of 50% in cars. But again, clothes are not cars. They are highly personal.
  4. Durable clothing: He is however correct to estimate that people would be drawn to durable long-lasting clothing leading to the boom in the luxury industry. He justifies that one can reduce carbon emissions “by extending the life cycle of the products that you wear by nine months, you can help reduce the industry’s carbon emissions by 30 percent.”

If we have to distill the learning for the Indian Market, we could adopt some of the following:

  1. Resale/ Rentals
    • Celebrity or high-end luxury pre-owned fashion. Both the buyers and sellers would be vastly different demographics.
    • Outerwear garments such as Jackets, or rarely worn garments such as sports or hiking wear.
    • Outgrown garments/shoes, especially for growing kids
  2. Durable clothing. We have always been a society traditionally preferring durable and long lasting clothing that can be passed over generations.

There is definitely a big opportunity here, especially for startups. Circular Business Models are the way forward in the fashion industry, but I still prefer my own model, of Regenerative product lifecycle.

My Climate Story

As a part of the Leadership training at Climate Reality, we came up with a story defining why we took this path. Here is mine shared below:

When she was 13, Bhawna really wanted to be in the field of Fashion. By 17, she was enrolled in India’s top fashion institute learning Accessory Design. After 10 years of working with jewellers she went back to teach Design. After being promoted as the youngest Associate Professor of Design at her college, she decided to move on.

I took a break to be with my family, travelling and living in over five cities in various parts of India. Simultaneously,I pursued an MBA, went back for a stint as a group product manager and later as a Business Design & Innovation Faculty, in a Management School in Mumbai.

Throughout, I gathered experiences and also some questions. Why was Delhi’s air so hazy and Goa’s so fresh? Why does the water flood Mumbai after a simple downpour? Why were people so kind but nonchalant in other places? Why can we identify the make of a car at a glance, but not our birds? Why are they mining in Goa? Why don’t leaders listen to the needs of the people?

To find answers I’ve decided to pursue a Phd (Business & Sustainability). I seek to understand Circular Business models, taking Fashion industry and India as the core focus.  This year I have presented four papers; at the 3rd International Conference on Business, Economics and Sustainable Development (ICBESD 2020) and at the 8th International Conference on Sustainable Development.

Note(added in 2022): in 2021, I stopped the Phd mid way. I take the learning to create an enterprise :