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Resale is not changing our relationship with stuff — here's why

Companies are still producing too much new stuff.

Person shopping in clothing store

Image via Shutterstock/NDAB Creativity

This month marks the five-year anniversary of the launch of Patagonia’s Worn Wear resale site. This was the first brand-owned digital "recommerce" experience in the apparel industry. Then, and still today, it operates by Patagonia purchasing used clothing from its customers, cleaning it, and reselling via a recommerce website built by Trove.

The resale portion of Worn Wear is one part of the program’s holistic approach to circularity which also includes repairing items, recycling what is truly worn out and celebrating the longevity of Patagonia clothing — all built with the intention of helping people change their relationship with the things they own. We defined this as helping people shift from being consumers to owners by offering them ways to keep their stuff in use and thus avoid the environmental damage incurred when new stuff is made.

I was deeply involved in the creation and management of Worn Wear and its predecessor, the Common Threads Partnership, for nearly 10 years. And while I am proud of Worn Wear, I worry about the trajectory of the resale trend it helped spark in the industry.

Since the launch of Worn Wear’s recommerce site, apparel resale has proliferated. According to a recent analysis, the global secondhand fashion market is worth about $130 billion, with major markets such as the United States set to continue with double-digit growth at least through 2025. Today, resale makes up about 7 percent of the apparel market and is expected to grow to 12 percent by 2030.

Most resale programs today are only getting half the equation right.

At first glance, this may seem like a good thing for the industry — and for the environment: McKinsey reported last year that by 2030, one in five garments must be acquired through a circular business model in order to limit global rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius in line with the Paris Agreement targets.

However, most resale programs today are only getting half the equation right.

Resale programs have done a commendable job of mainstreaming the purchase of used clothing. But many of these programs launching recently incentivize customers to consume even more new things. Depending on the financial structure of the resale program, brands may not be generating revenue from the sale of their used clothing at all. Rather, they offer gift cards and discount codes to motivate their customers to participate in the brand-sponsored resale program. Most of the time these incentives can only be put towards the purchase of new clothing.

The result is that while our relationship with used things has changed, our relationship with new things has not. These incentive models perpetuate our love for newness, while encouraging us to continue to view clothing as a disposable purchase.

The numbers confirm this. Despite the growth of resale, clothing consumption also continues to increase year over year. ​​And the resulting environmental implications of this trend are alarming: By 2030, the global clothing and textile industry is expected to use 50 percent more water, emit 63 percent more GHGs and produce 62 percent more waste than it did in 2015. In 2018, the industry produced the equivalent annual GHG emissions of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. At its current pace, it is on track to overshoot the global budget associated with limiting global rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius by over 50 percent by 2030.

In order for a resale program to be an authentic sustainability program, it must enable the brand to divert some sales of new clothing to the sales of used clothing. Preparing and selling a used item of clothing for resale produces about 5 to 15 percent of the carbon footprint of making a new item (according to my own research conducted for and published by clients, including Ergobaby), and can disrupt and displace the all-too-common practice of making products at the expense of environmental and social compliance.

Additionally, brands that present resale as a sustainability effort to their customers should be setting transparent goals and reporting on their progress annually. And these goals should be reflective of the principles that will make a difference — namely, displacing the production and sales of new items with the sales of used items in order to reduce the overall environmental footprint of the brand.

The world cannot afford recommerce to become another greenwashed, box-checking exercise for the fashion industry.

Resale operations and economics look different for different brands, but any brand that has a resale program or is considering one in the name of sustainability should run through this checklist:

  1. Will the operations of the resale program result in acquiring a level of inventory that enables the brand to transform its business from strictly linear to a linear-circular hybrid?
  2. Do the economics of the resale program allow the brand to set sales targets that deliver meaningful revenue from the sales of used items that support the transformation to circular?
  3. Can the resale business contribute to the brand’s climate change reduction strategy — and will the progress it contributes be reported transparently and publicly?
  4. Does the resale program offer a variety of incentives for bringing clothing back so that people can decide if they need credit towards purchasing something new? And if gift cards and discount codes are to be used as incentives, may they be applied towards the purchase of used items?

If the answer is no to any of these questions, the resale program is likely a deep shade of greenwashing. While it might be doing important work by selling used items and keeping them out of landfills, it’s also perpetuating the purchase of more new things.

With the resale market booming, it’s time for brands to build and scale their recommerce programs in a truly circular way. The world cannot afford recommerce to become another greenwashed, box-checking exercise for the fashion industry. Ensuring the true environmental benefits of resale programs will take expertise, collaboration, transparency and firm guardrails — but the benefits for both planet and business are real and urgently required. The time to course correct is now.

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