Why we need better clothes take back schemes

If the second-hand market is to grow faster than fast fashion we need better take back or clothes collection systems.

In the last decade, the resale market (commonly referred to as the second and third-hand market) has grown by 3% and is projected to account for 11% of the fashion market by 2027. Actions taken by key figures in the industry suggest that resale might, in fact, have a bright future. At the V&A’s ‘Fashioned from the Nature’ conference, Claire Bergkamp, Worldwide Director of Sustainability and Innovation at Stella McCartney noted that the company is committed to encouraging the resale of their products. The luxury brand’s partnership with resale site, The RealReal, forms a part of the brand’s circular economy strategy and shows its commitment to the resale market. Other brands are hoping to do similar things. As part of the Global Fashion Agenda, 25 companies including Espirit and Zara have signed on to ‘increase the volume of used clothes sold’.

The benefits of reselling clothes

Diversion of market share to resale can have several positive implications for retailers, as well as the environment. For retailers and brands, it can introduce them to a new demographic of customers and grow their market share. Research shows that the second-hand market provides customer with opportunities to access brand that they would typically not be able to afford. Usually, this is thought to be true for luxury labels such as Stella McCartney, Gucci etc, however this is also true for mid-range products from the likes of Reiss and Whistles. Second-hand purchases from companies which are new to consumers can also act as a test of a brand. I was at the Workspace Business Insight dinner when a table mate told me about how her introduction to Cos came via second-hand buys. She reminded me that that was how I, too, was introduced to many brands I now buy at full price.

The secondhand market also has the potential to minimise brand’s, as well as the fashion industry’s, environmental footprint, as the reuse of clothes is a less energy and resource intensive process than production. In October 2018, The RealReal estimated that consignments (i.e. sale of its second-hand goods) undertaken between 2012 and 2017 has offset the equivalent of emissions from cars travelling “65 million  miles”.

Resale and recycling of clothes go hand in hand

Although the steps being taken are positive and give an early indication that fashion might truly be serious about the circular economy and the resale industry specifically (Don’t quote me on that), more needs to be done. For the resale market to reach its full potential, we need better collection systems that ensure clothes return to retailers to be resold. Improved collection will help tackle inconsistent availability of second-hand clothes, one of the key issues facing the market, as highlighted by the Global Fashion Agenda’s garment collection toolbox.

With over 123 million clothes sitting unworn in Londoners wardrobes and 300,000 tonnes ending up in UK landfills every year, there should be ample resources to support resale of clothes by the fashion industry. We simply need to collect it.

Improving garment collection…communication, transparency and collaboration

Our work developing the Impact Fashion app gives us the opportunity to speak directly with people who use and benefit from garment collection. These conversations have shown us that varied communication about garment collection services, that cuts across all aspects of your business, is needed. These communications should cover the following:

  •  The availability of this service
  • How the service works
  • Who benefits from the service
  • Why customers should be interested

It is important that consistent messaging is used across your business, but especially to customers. Your marketing, sustainability and front-line staff such as store assistants should all have an understanding of the four previously mentioned areas. I often speak with people who shop at H&M who weren’t aware they offered clothes recycling, this is following a global marketing campaign launched by the brand which features British pop star, M.I.A. If you are interested in finding out how you can engage your customers on recycling their unwanted clothes, get in touch.

Extending transparency into clothes end of life

In recent times, transparency has become a key talking point within the fashion industry. Organisations like Fashion Revolution have made it easy for consumers to ask questions about how our clothes were made and by whom. This growing demand for transparency has led retailers like H&M and Tommy Hilfiger to publish lists of their tier 1 suppliers. At the same time, what happens to clothes that is unsold or collected by shops and charities is becoming of interest to customers. This is driven by news stories around clothing waste being burnt and reports on the impact of Western second-hand clothes on other country’s fashion industry.

Interest in what happens at the end of life highlights an opportunity to drive the amount of unwanted clothes collected. By extending your transparency policy to include the garment collection aspect of your business, you make your customer the hero of the story. As more people look to endorse brands with integrity, showing them how their efforts contribute positively to the environment and society at large can foster customer loyalty and increase the amount of unwanted clothes collected (and ultimately drive sales –that’s a different side to this story we won’t be covering in this blog).

Collaborating for change

Collaboration is the final element which can be used to improve current garment collection. At present, these programmes are primarily run in store and rely on customers bringing in clothes (usually to shops which are far from their homes). This approach needs to be rethought and changed, particularly as footfall declines. If the fashion industry is truly interested in harnessing the circular economy, it should utilise existing recycling infrastructure, i.e. textile bring banks and kerbside collections. There are ample opportunities for collaborations to support this transition. Fashion brands could, for instance, partner with local authorities and waste collection and sorting organisations to get access to clothes which can be upcycled and sold.

Without improved unwanted clothes collections we might never achieve a circular fashion industry.

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