When it comes to today’s serious fashion shopper, a secondhand Banana is becoming preferable to a first-hand fad. And that’s increasingly a good thing.
Banana Republic, Burberry and REI are among a lengthening list of mainstream retailers that are finding a receptive market in re-used apparel. They join a number of secondhand- and consignment-focused startups, many of which are “re-commerce” only, including ThredUp, Reformation, PoshMark and The RealReal. The mainstreaming of secondhand clothing is in fact among the 2019 retail predictions by Global Retail Alliance.
Their motivation to follow Goodwill and consignment shop customers — as well as customers of rental retailers such as Rent the Runway — is driven in part by revenue growth. The size of the apparel resale market is estimated at $20 billion, according to the online fashion reseller ThredUp.
However, the consumer values that trigger that spending extend beyond cost. Retailers are tapping into stigma-erasing factors such as offering alternatives to wasteful fast-fashion with affordable style options that can’t easily be duplicated yet don’t scrimp on quality.
Circular Fashion Helps the World Go ‘Round
For many merchants, the chief motivation for refurbishing and reselling used clothing is waste reduction. But it’s also good business: 62% of shoppers said they are attracted to companies that want to improve the environment and reduce plastics, according to recently released research by Accenture Strategy.
If everyone bought used instead of new clothing for one year, it would save the equivalent of 165 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, according to ThredUp, which cites GlobalData research as well as its own 2018 consumer survey results. That’s what all the cars in Los Angeles produce in four years.
In response, many brands appear to be making long-term commitments:
The North Face, in its bid to change what it calls the “linear model” of use into a “circular model,” refurbishes and resells clothing that has been worn, returned, damaged or is defective. The goal is to prevent good clothing from ending up in landfills, and The North Face is backing up the effort with a guarantee: The lower-priced refurbished items in The North Face Collectionare covered by a one-year warranty.
Women’s apparel designer Eileen Fisher, through its Renew line, gives customers who return their used clothing a $5 gift card for each item. If the piece is too threadbare to be worn, Eileen Fisher will remake it into a one-of-a-kind design and save the scraps for future use. About 800 items of clothing are donated to its recycling centers daily, and a portion of the profits from the sales support programs for women, girls and the environment.
On the very upscale end, Banana Republic offers lightly used luxury vintage accessories, including watches, jewelry and handbags, on its online Luxe Finds page. Brands include Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel, and the prices run way north of the thrift-store range, proving that resale is not limited to price-conscious shoppers. A Chanel medium camera bag, for example, recently listed for $2,950.
The retail co-op REI has recently expanded its year-old Used Gear site to include additional brands and categories of apparel, shoes and equipment. It’s goal, like that of other brands, is to reduce waste but also to get people to spend more time outdoors. All returned pieces are inspected for quality and prices are frequently about half of what each item would cost new.
And in September, the designer brand Burberry announced it would immediately end the practice of destroying “unsaleable” products and expand on a year-old goal of reusing, repairing, donating and/or recycling the pieces. This include turning leather offcuts into new products through a partnership with the sustainable luxury brand Elvis & Kresse. Burberry also has banned the use of real fur.
Something Old, Something New
Sustainable secondhand clothing cannot exist, however, without firsthand production. Retailers feeding an eco-friendly merchandise stream for conscientious shoppers must still make product. Here are a few ways to keep old and new shoppers.
- Farm the service out. Many apparel brands may be interested in reselling their returned goods, but do not want to invest in the back-end systems. In 2019, ThredUp will begin offering its technology and infrastructure to brands that want to offer their own apparel recycling programs. Others can do the same.
- Blend firsts with seconds. Brands can appeal to the secondhand curious, while maintaining sales of firsthand clothing, by combining pieces of new and repurposed items on their websites and in marketing. An image of a refurbished jacket with a first-run cocktail dress could appeal to those seeking one-of-a-kind looks on a budget.
- Promote future value. A resold item could be resold again, either to the original merchant or to others. Brands that recycle their clothing can implement systems that encourage shoppers to pay it forward by donating or reselling the secondhand items they buy. Merchants can look into partnering with third parties, such as Goodwill or charities that work with women’s shelters to help women get ahead in their new lives, to generate enthusiasm.
- Reward shoppers. Eileen Fisher thanks those who turn in used clothing with gift cards. Other brands can formalize such efforts with rewards programs that give customers points or other rewards that accumulate as they return (and buy) recycled clothing. A program can, for example, offer a set number of points for every returned item, to use toward future purchases or to donate to a favored charity.
Lastly, and importantly, retailers should be as serious about sustainability as their customers. Fashion is a fad industry, but sustainability is not.