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How Dr. Martens got past the ick factor of second-hand shoes

The footwear brand’s logistics partner uses liquified CO2 to make vintage boots as good as new.

A pair of unisex Doc Martens "combat boots".

A pair of unisex Doc Martens "combat boots". Credit: Shutterstock/dnaveh

Would you pay $160 for used shoes? 

Dr. Martens has discovered that if it’s a pair of vintage leopard-hair boots originally priced at $280 and no longer available in stores, then the answer is yes. Nearly one-third of its customers have bought its footwear secondhand, Dr. Martens says.

The bootmaker is helping customers get over the ick factor of second-hand shoes with a new website, launched last month. The ReWair store opened in the U.S. in late March, following success with a resale pilot on Depop in the U.K. ReWair (a pun on AirWair, one of the company’s brands) is part of Dr. Martens’ 2040 net-zero emissions goal. 

Although Doc Martens has a rebellious image — its boots have long been the uniforms favored by punks, skinheads and anyone else trying to signal that they’re "alternative" —  making them is an environmentally unfriendly business: The production of raw materials and the crafting of apparel and footwear generates 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the fashion industry, according to a 2020 McKinsey report. Raising cattle and tanning hides is resource-intensive: The upper part of a shoe requires about 152 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square meter of leather, according to an analysis in Energy Procedia.

After that, the vast majority of 23 billion shoes produced globally each year wind up in landfills.

15% of revenue is projected to come from resales

"The purpose of ReWair is the long-term shift to a more circular, lower carbon model," Dr. Martens’ global head of sustainability, Tuze Mekik Arguedas Schwank, said via email. "We are embedding sustainability into our core design principles, which are timelessness, durability functionality and sustainable material selection."

The most responsible thing Dr. Martens can do is to maximize the longevity of each pair, she said. "It’s important to us to extend the lifespan of our products and offer a responsible end-of-life option to our wearers. We aim to make this possible through repair and resale, encouraging alternatives to disposal."

Dr. Martens sold 13.8 million pairs of shoes in fiscal year 2023. When it began hawking reconditioned footwear on Depop in 2022, CEO Kenny Wilson projected that 15 percent of Doc Martens’ sales would come through re-commerce in the next decade. That pilot sold 3,500 pairs of footwear in fiscal year 2023.

The new ReWair website offers boots, shoes, sandals and backpacks for children and adults at nearly half the original retail price. Owners of Docs can get $20 from each trade-in, limited for now to stores in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.

A sampling of secondhand merchandise on the ReWair website.

A sampling of secondhand merchandise on the ReWair website.

The company declined to share sales targets for pre-owned gear. But according to ThredUp and Global Data, Dr. Martens is entering a growing market:

  • Used clothing sales climbed by 11 percent in 2023 to reach $20 billion in the U.S., growing 15 times faster than the overall market.
  • That market could reach $350 billion by 2028.
  • Used items will comprise 10 percent of the overall apparel market by 2025, and half of secondhand sales will take place online.

Tackling the ‘ick factor’

In terms of reselling used shoes, "There's probably a higher propensity for the ick factor, perceptionally," said Peter Whitcomb, CEO of Tersus Solutions, which cleans and reconditions old Docs for ReWair.

The Colorado company evolved from a "green" dry cleaning operation. Now, 60 staff populate three facilities totaling 100,000 square feet. It also works with New Balance, Timberland and The North Face.

The company loads up to 60 pairs of Docs, packed into mesh bags, into its cleaning machines. Inside, the shoes are blasted with carbon dioxide that has been liquified under high pressure. "In a liquid state it [CO2] has a very low viscosity and surface tension, which basically means it moves through the smallest pores of any textile," Whitcomb said. A cycle uses about 1,400 liters of CO2 and 98 percent of it is recaptured in a closed-loop system. The CO2 itself is a waste product that Tersus buys from an ethanol producer.

"In footwear specifically, it's really permeating the inside of the sole and so it's deodorizing and restoring the material as much as possible," Whitcomb said.

Inside a Tersus Solutions facility where used items are refurbished.

Inside a Tersus Solutions facility. Credit: Tersus Solutions

Tersus then doubles down on stains and odors with high-pressure steam cleaners and elbow grease. "We have very high-performance equipment and machinery that allows us to move through a fair amount of really dirty, nasty footwear," he said.

The company can also repair a busted zipper or loose stitch if needed.

The result is shoes that look as good as new, almost: Shiny, clean, and with minimal scuffing and creasing. And, crucially, at a fraction of the price of a new pair. 

"It's definitely [got] a little bit of that certified pre-owned vibe where, OK, I feel good that this is good, cleaned and handled appropriately," Whitcomb said.

Shoemakers have been slow to embrace resale

Portola Valley, California-based Archive provides the re-commerce database and website for ReWair. Dr. Martens is dedicating an internal team to collaborate with the company.

"We see a prime opportunity to demonstrate the significant impact resale can have on the footwear industry, an area frequently overlooked in the secondhand market," Archive co-Founder and CEO Emily Gittins said via email. Archive also works with the resale brands of New Balance Reconsidered, Ariat Reboot and Sam Edelman Relove, and other brands.

Separately, in late March, Dr. Martens began trying to reduce its reliance on carbon-intensive leather by using reclaimed leather from Gen Phoenix, a startup based in Peterborough, England.

[Continue learning about circular business models and materials at Circularity 24 — the leading conference for professionals building the circular economy — taking place in Chicago, IL, May 22-24.]

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