Fashion brands are launching their own resale platforms—including some with the worst reputations for overproducing polyester clothes destined for landfills. Here’s what you need to know about the resale boom and how to keep second hand from becoming another ploy for the corporate greenwashers.
The boom in fashion resale platforms
Resale is the new black. From luxury heavyweights to fast fashion giants, brands are increasingly capitalising on the growth in second hand. Ganni, Gucci, COS, Levi’s, Nike, Adidas, and Mara Hoffman are a few of the brands contributing to the 275% uplift in brand-owned resale shops.
Certainly, some brands—especially those with proven track records for pursuing more sustainable practices—are launching resale because it makes sense. But the fact that the global second hand apparel market is set to grow three times faster than the overall apparel market (16 times faster in the US) is undoubtedly a driver too.
Resale is the new black. From luxury heavyweights to fast fashion giants, brands are increasingly capitalising on the growth in second hand.
On surface level, resale seems like an obviously ethical move for any brand. And when paired with a shift in business model away from linear overconsumption, resale can help brands become more circular and emphasise degrowth principles. That’s all while opening up new revenue potential. In both ways, resale can be a win-win when certain brands get on board.
But what happens when brands with the worst reputations for overproducing polyester clothes destined for landfills get into resale? What happens when some of the most infamous fast fashion brands launch resale without addressing the underlying symptoms of the problem they’ve created? That’s where the ethical questions of a seemingly good move become trickier to answer.
The over-producing brands want a slice of the pie
They may appear to be unlikely participants given the linear, buy-sell-dispose nature of their business model, but a wave of fast fashion resale platforms are hitting the market.
In February, Pretty Little Thing (PLT) announced via UK creative director Molly-Mae Hague that it will launch resale in 2022. “It will be an app where girls can resell their PLT pieces and pretty much anything pre-loved,” Hague said at the time.
The following month, Boohoo Group, which owns PLT, announced it will be rolling out a resale platform for all of its brands—which include NastyGal, MissPap, boohooMAN, Warehouse, and Debenhams—by 2023. This is likely a move to win back the sales that its customers have started to take elsewhere. PLT was the fifth most listed brand on Depop in 2021, behind Topshop in the top spot, Zara in third, and ASOS in fourth. Boohoo came in seventh.
With the disheartening rise of ultra fast fashion, many people have come to expect low prices and constant variety, but they also care about the environmental footprint of their consumption choices.Erin Wallace – VP of Integrated Marketing, thredUP.
“A factor that contributed to resale’s growth during the past several years is the mindset shift that has taken place among consumers,” says Erin Wallace, VP of Integrated Marketing, thredUP. “With the disheartening rise of ultra fast fashion, many people have come to expect low prices and constant variety, but they also care about the environmental footprint of their consumption choices.”
“Many shoppers are realising that thrift offers the same variety and value as fast fashion, without the waste,” Wallace tells me. She points out that the company’s 2022 Resale Report found that nearly two in three consumers believe their individual consumption habits have a significant impact on the planet.
Will it work when fast fashion gets in the game?
While Boohoo’s plans will be revealed later this year, it is known that PLT’s offering will be app-based and designed to sync with users’ purchase history so that previous purchases can be easily listed for sale.
The sync-up may sound pretty useful and timesaving, However it may mean that there is a limit to which items users can sell. That’s not necessarily unusual. On Mara Hoffman’s Full Circle marketplace, for instance, only items purchased from 2019 onwards can be sold while further capacity is developed. However, given that Boohoo Group shipped over 62m orders in the financial year 2021/22 alone, it will be imperative to spread the service as far as possible in order to keep such high volumes of clothing in active circulation.
Also up for discussion is whether the new crop of resale platforms will offer cash—in the vein of Depop and Vestiaire Collective—or store credit. When brands offer it as the only option, store credit in return for resold fast fashion products handcuffs circularity to consumption.
When brands offer it as the only option, store credit in return for resold fast fashion products handcuffs circularity to consumption.
So far, existing own-brand resale platforms are a mixed bag. COS offers cash minus 10% sales commission, Adidas offers “rewards”, and Levi’s offers store credit. Upon the PLT announcement, Hague noted, “it is great to make a little bit of money for our girls as well”, which hints at cash, but doesn’t offer a concrete answer. We did reach out to PLT, but they declined to take part in an interview. Boohoo Group also did not respond to interview requests.
For its reGAIN recycling program, PLT currently offers discounts to shoppers who drop clothes off at recycling points or charity shops to “ prevent the unnecessary pile up of discarded clothing in landfills”. That’s despite the fact that “recycled” clothes and charity shop donations still end up in landfills or being incinerated.
The test: are brands reducing total production?
For fast fashion resale to really “disrupt the fashion industry”, as Hague said it will, it must displace production in a substantive way. Most of fashion’s emissions are generated in the production stage, so if you reduce production in favour of reselling what already exists, you reduce a great deal of fashion’s overall impact. When Hugo Boss announced it would be launching a resale platform in the third quarter of 2022, it stated that “buying second hand saves an average of 44% of CO2 emissions compared to buying new”.
Reducing production as a path towards degrowth can happen and it can be a success, albeit so far only on the luxury level. British brand Toast is set to produce 20% fewer styles than in previous seasons, while Ralph Lauren has been trying out “financial growth through degrowth of resources”, making less product but more money.
“Overproduction is a massive issue within the fashion industry,” says Wallace. “[Our report] found that second hand has displaced 1bn new clothing purchases in 2021 that would have been purchased new. The more people make the switch to second hand, the less demand there will be for new clothing.”
This is a sensible conclusion to draw for platforms like thredUP that are not contributing to the demand for new clothing. But when it comes to brand owned resale platforms, we’re not yet seeing much evidence of brands slowing down production accordingly.
One brand which plans to do just that, however, is Another Tomorrow. Resale had been on cards for the New York-based brand since it launched in January 2020, and the time was right in April 2022.
“The language I’ve started to use is treating clothing as an asset again. I think when you start to think about clothing as an asset, you start to think ‘how do you care for and service that asset’, and resale is a part of that,” says founder and CEO Vanessa Barboni Hallik. “It’s really our hope that these resale businesses do supplant the need to continuously make new products.”
When it comes to fast fashion, layering resale into the product offering is just lip service when it’s not paired with a meaningful commitment to change.Erin Wallace – VP of Integrated Marketing, thredUP
In terms of reaching an equilibrium which allows the offsetting of production with resale, Hallik says it’s difficult to model how much product customers will sell via Another Tomorrow’s authenticated resale service, but that it could take a couple of years. The plan is, at least, in motion for Another Tomorrow, but is it possible that fast fashion brands could, or would, follow suit?
Wallace is clear about what the answer should be. “When it comes to fast fashion, layering resale into the product offering is just lip service when it’s not paired with a meaningful commitment to change,” she says. “To tackle the fashion industry’s waste problem, we need to create solutions that impact both overproduction and underutilisation.”
Resale models require quality and longevity
Overproduction isn’t the only issue that resale could address. Quality and longevity are in the mix too because if brands want to enter the resale market, they need to be sure that their clothes will hold up.
As a luxury brand with quality at its core, Hallik says there is a conflict involved with resale. “We’re putting product out into the world that we completely intend to be timeless and have longevity and be held onto, so it’s a bit strange to say, ‘give it back!’” she says.
“However, as a system-wide approach, I hope it’s an incentive for companies to make higher quality products. Because if it falls apart, there’s no second bite of the apple. My hope for fast fashion is that they recognise that resale can be quite profitable if they make products that can stand the test of time.”
Material recapture, redesign, recycling, and other end of life services must make up part of a wider strategy—otherwise it becomes the consumers’ sole responsibility.
Of course, even the most high-quality clothes are subject to tears, moths, and other misfortunes, so it’s also vital that resale isn’t a one-note stab at circularity. Material recapture, redesign, recycling, and other end of life services must make up part of a wider strategy—otherwise it becomes the consumers’ sole responsibility to distribute their waste, and local access to solutions other than landfill are few and far between.
If fast fashion brands did all that, it’d mean dismantling the entire business model—and if you ask sustainability experts, that’s arguably the most sustainable move those brands could make.
What’s the verdict: circular or cynical?
Without reducing production or prioritising quality and longevity, fast fashion’s foray into resale will be, in many ways, a mere cash grab.
However, that such brands are clamouring to join in shows just how normalised second hand has become. And that could be instrumental in shifting consumer mindsets. In addition, the strides made in the industry in recent years, while still not nearly robust enough, have been significant. They demonstrate the dual power of consumer pressure and system change, and if the momentum continues it can be applied to resale, too.
It will remain important for consumers to look for meaningful action and have high expectations for true circularity and a slowing down of production. “At least they’re doing something”, isn’t necessarily a helpful position when we’re up against a tight time limit for our climate.
But citizens and consumers can use this moment as both a positive progression and a launchpad for more. “If fast fashion brands can commit to offsetting their production through resale, and creating clothes that last,” Wallace says, “we will all be better off.”