The Failed Promise of Resale: Why the Fashion Industry’s Sustainability Efforts Fall Short

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Reselling does not save the image of the fashion industry, one of the most polluting on the planet. (Getty Creative)

The Fashion Industry’s Failed Sustainability Efforts

Few sectors promote their sustainability credentials more strongly than the fashion industry. Products ranging from swimwear to wedding dresses are marketed as carbon-positive, organic, or vegan, while yoga mats made from mushrooms and sugarcane sneakers dot store shelves. New business models like recycling, reselling, renting, reusing, and repairing are being sold as environmental lifesavers.

However, the sad reality is that all this experimentation and so-called “innovation” in the fashion industry over the last 25 years has failed to reduce its planetary impact, serving as a loud wake-up call for those hoping that voluntary efforts can effectively address climate change and other major challenges facing society.

The reasons for the industry’s sustainable decline are complicated. The pressure for relentless growth, coupled with consumer demand for cheap and fast fashion, have contributed greatly. Additionally, real prices for shoes and clothing have halved since 1990, and most new items are made from non-biodegradable synthetic materials derived from petroleum.

The fashion industry is one of the most polluting on the planet. Photo: Getty Images.

The Environmental Impact of the Fashion Industry

The exact negative environmental impact of the fashion industry remains unknown, but it is considerable. The industry’s boundaries stretch across the globe, and its multi-tiered supply chain remains complex and opaque.

Thanks to trade liberalization, globalization, and persistent cost pressure, very few brands own the assets of their upstream factories, and most companies outsource final production.

This complexity and lack of transparency mean that estimates of the sector’s impact on carbon emissions range from 4% (McKinsey and the World Fashion Agenda) to 10% (UN) of total global carbon emissions.

The Failure of Reselling in the Fashion Industry

Reselling has quickly become the go-to initiative for fashion brands who want to reduce their carbon, plastic, and water footprints or, at least in some cases, convince green shoppers that they’re trying. However, until now, not even expert brands like Patagonia or Shein have been able to make second-hand sales represent more than a small part of their profits.

Increasingly, other fashion brands are embracing similar “circular” initiatives, so-called because they keep materials in repeated use. Brands such as Lululemon, Vince, Express, J.Crew, H&M, or Juicy Couture have launched their own resale, rental, or recycling services in recent years, joining multi-brand resale and rental giants such as Poshmark, the RealReal, and Rent the Runway.

The concept of these business models is not new – one only has to take a look at thrift shops and tuxedo rental services to see – but traditional fashion brands are embracing them with a new intensity, often as a way to help customers not only look good but also do good for the planet.

In 2022, the resale of clothing, footwear, and handbags in the United States represented a market of 28.1 billion dollars, with the potential for double-digit year-over-year growth in 2023 and 2024, according to predictions by Coresight Research.

However, the resale programs do not generate significant revenue or sufficiently offset the production of new clothing, as revealed in a Bloomberg report. Trove, Archive, and other operators of clothing resale programs say their brand-name clients aim for secondhand clothing to account for 10% or more of their total revenue in the next few years.

The report explains that second-hand clothing only accounts for 5% of total revenue for brands that have invested the most time and marketing in their programs, and almost no revenue for programs that do little marketing, according to companies like Archive, Recurate, and Trove, which offer resale services.

The same article highlights that leading companies in environmental commitment such as Patagonia, which has a long-standing and reputable resale program called Worn Wear, generated less than 1% of its total revenue from the program in 2021, the last year for which there is available data. Women’s clothing maker Eileen Fisher, which began reselling in 2009, said it has collected 2 million items through the take-back program, representing just 5.4% of all new garments the company has produced since its inception 39 years ago. A figure well below expectations.

Should we be more patient with reselling or look for new ways to make the fashion industry more responsible to the planet? Or maybe we should moderate our consumption and be much more responsible?

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The fashion industry’s attempts at sustainability have failed to reduce its environmental impact, despite promoting various eco-friendly practices. Factors such as the pressure for growth, consumer demand for fast fashion, and the use of non-biodegradable materials have contributed to this decline. The exact environmental impact of the fashion industry is difficult to measure due to its complex and opaque supply chain. Reselling has been touted as a solution, but even expert brands have struggled to make it a significant part of their profits. Nevertheless, more fashion brands are adopting circular initiatives like resale, rental, and recycling services. In 2022, the resale market in the United States was worth $28.1 billion and is expected to continue growing.

How has the resale market in the United States grown in recent years, and what role does it play in the fashion industry’s efforts towards sustainability

The resale market in the United States has experienced significant growth in recent years. According to a report by ThredUp, the online resale market is projected to reach $64 billion by 2024. The rise of online platforms like ThredUp, Poshmark, and Depop has made it easier for people to buy and sell secondhand clothing.

One of the main drivers behind this growth is the increasing demand for sustainable fashion. Consumers are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of the fashion industry and are seeking alternative options to traditional retail. Resale allows individuals to extend the lifespan of their clothing and reduce waste by giving them a second life.

The resale market also provides an opportunity for brands and retailers to actively participate in sustainability efforts. Many fashion brands have started incorporating resale into their business models. For instance, brands like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher have created their own resale platforms to resell their own products. Some luxury brands, such as Gucci and Burberry, have also partnered with resale platforms to encourage circularity.

By embracing the resale market, brands can promote a more sustainable business approach. It allows them to reduce the amount of clothing that goes to waste and alleviate the environmental impact of overconsumption. Additionally, brands can benefit from the resale market by tapping into a new revenue stream and attracting environmentally-conscious consumers.

In conclusion, the resale market in the United States has grown significantly in recent years, driven by the increased demand for sustainable fashion. It plays a crucial role in the fashion industry’s efforts towards sustainability by encouraging consumers to extend the lifespan of their clothing and reducing waste. Brands can also participate in the resale market to promote circularity and create a more sustainable business model.

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1 comment

Bode June 23, 2023 - 3:15 pm

This thought-provoking article sheds light on the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts, revealing how the promise of resale has fallen short. It prompts us to question the underlying challenges and complexities involved in truly achieving a sustainable fashion future.


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