The secondhand movement is growing. And it’s not just consumers that are making more circular fashion choices. Fashion brands are joining the movement too by launching their own in-house resale platforms.
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The 2022 Thredup Resale Report predicted that the global secondhand apparel market is set to grow three times faster than the overall apparel market, which will make the US secondhand market worth $82 billion by 2026. Brand-led resale programs have also become a trend with a 275% growth in brands adopting resale from 2020 to 2021.
“Big fashion brands have rushed to incorporate resale to their business model because of the potential profit that can be made and because they think it will endear them to their sustainability-minded customers,” says Emily Stochl, host and producer of the Pre-Loved Podcast.
But here’s the catch: launching a brand-led resale platform allows fast fashion brands to generate another revenue stream from garments they created (or other garments) without making any commitments to stop overproducing — a clear cut example of greenwashing.
And to illustrate just how deep fashion’s greenwashing of “resale” runs, we need to look no further than PrettyLittleThing’s recently launched PLT Marketplace. “We’re creating a community for those who are constantly striving to be more mindful when it comes to how they consume fashion,” reads their website.
The resale marketplace created by this ultra fast fashion brand was created with the — ironic — aim to disrupt the fashion industry by getting people to “rethink throw-away fashion”.
“I have hundreds of PrettyLittleThing pieces in my wardrobe and you physically can’t wear them all and I think it is great to encourage other people to buy this off me, for them to re-wear it,” Molly-Mae Hague, Creative Director of PrettyLittleThing told Fashion United.
Admitting to not being able to wear hundreds of garments should be enough to prove that what PrettyLittleThing really needs to rethink is overproduction and overconsumption.
Instead PrettyLittleThing wants to rethink throwaway fashion, through resale, without rethinking how they overproduce throwaway fashion in the first place.
Additionally, the current resale efforts by fast fashion brands are insignificant when compared to their production levels and overall environmental impact.
Lululemon’s LikeNew resale platform does nothing to address reliance on coal in their supply chain.
And H&M’s RE:WEAR platform that allows you to “buy and sell secondhand styles from any brand” — with 12,218 results in the Women’s category, 1,077 in Men’s, and 773 in Kids — fits perfectly into their mission to capitalize on the growing population of Earth-conscious consumers while continuing to produce nearly 3 billion garments per year.
(Editor’s note: in case you were wondering, we did the math for you — the number of pieces H&M’s secondhand curation at the time of publishing makes up about 0.0005% of their annual output.)
“Companies are adding resale initiatives that run parallel to their continued overproduction of new clothing,” adds Stochl. Their resale platforms don’t change how their clothes were produced — what the garments are made from and how they treat their garment workers — and how much clothing they continue to introduce to the market.
According to the 2021 Remake Fashion Accountability Report, none of the analyzed big fashion brands with resale initiatives could “demonstrate that their circular efforts are displacing their core business of selling new products made from virgin resources.
For the circular economy to have environmental benefits, it must displace virgin production of new clothes or decrease net consumption of raw materials and resources.”
In other words, any circular fashion solution that doesn’t talk about slowing down production is just paying lip service to circularity.
Plus, fast fashion garments are not designed to last. They’re often made as cheaply as possible and are designed to follow the latest trends. These garments are meant to be discarded and replaced. While a fast fashion resale platform may prevent a piece from entering a landfill for a little while, it’s unlikely to stand the test of time and be worn for many years by different people.
And when you look at the marketing of these resale programs, we see that they’re often a way to incentivize consumers to buy even more by exchanging preloved clothing for store credit. For example, H&M allows you to redeem your earnings either in the form of a direct deposit or as an H&M gift card. But, if you choose the gift card, you will earn 20% bonus value.
The other question that fast fashion brands with brand-resale programs won’t answer is: what happens to the garments that cannot be resold? While some programs are peer-to-peer, others operate more like a take-back scheme.
A few brands with the latter types of resale programs say that the clothes are “donated” but we know that these donations that lack transparency often end up perpetuating waste colonialism with devastating social and environmental consequences.
“Incorporating a truly circular resale initiative could be a way for a big fashion brand to approach managed degrowth of new production — by replacing the production of new clothing with the resale of existing clothing,” says Emily Stochl.
But if fashion brands are unable to explain how their resale program is going to decrease their overall impact, with a planned reduction in production volumes, then all these programs are yet another greenwashing scheme.
As it stands, fast fashion resale programs are a smokescreen for these brands to continue to grow their profits while positioning themselves as champions of circularity without making any substantial changes to their business model.
Here are Emily Stochl’s “red flags” to look out for when trying to figure out if a brand-led resale program is greenwashing:
- Does it run on trade-in credit? Are you incentivized to turn over secondhand clothing to get a gift card or discount to buy a new garment?
- Is the resale program and how much they produce new operating at a volume that allows the brand to effectively transition from a linear sales model to (at least!) a hybrid linear-circular model?
- Does the brand set sales targets toward making a meaningful amount of their revenue from the sale of used products versus new products?
- Does the brand tie their resale program back to climate reduction goals, and transparently report on their progress toward those goals?
- What about the rest of the brand’s ethics or sustainability practices? Remember that your money spent with them doesn’t stay with the brand’s resale initiative — it goes towards everything else the brand stands for too.
If you would like to check out a few brand-led resale programs from slow fashion brands that truly care about transitioning to a more circular fashion system, check out this list.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.