Inside fashion's resale market

We take a look at how the secondhand apparel industry has evolved, from buy-back schemes and in-house marketplaces to more sustainable models.
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Thrifting used to be pretty DIY, with shoppers rummaging through bins and racks of secondhand clothing hoping to hit the jackpot. But, these days, you're more likely to find gold via a search bar. Recommerce – the economy around buying secondhand – has exploded in the fashion world in recent years and is set to grow even more; the resale market is growing 11 times faster than traditional retail and is set to be worth $84 billion by 2030 – more than double that of fast fashion. 

But there are still major pain points in the process. As the number of sellers on online marketplaces like Depop and eBay grow, brands have started to take aggressive measures to protect their intellectual property in the secondhand market, while there's little visibility on how clothes are handled if they're returned (and, as US magazine The Atlantic recently uncovered, many items end up discarded). Proposed solutions are far from perfect: fashion rental has a surprisingly large carbon footprint, as we recently reported.

 Now, a handful of services have sprung up to implement buy-back programs for brands, allowing companies to capture more value in the life cycle of their products, while offering a more transparent option for people who are shopping with sustainability in mind.

Misaligned incentives

Mark Dowds sees circularity as a financial issue. That's the driving idea behind Responsible, the Belfast-based business he co-founded that provides a platform for streetwear brands to resell their clothing. Using a proprietary algorithm and data scraped from resale sites, Responsible estimates the resale value of an item and displays it alongside its regular retail price, allowing customers to sell it back for credits. Responsible cleans and refurbishes the clothes and sells them via its platform, with both the clothing brand and the platform getting a cut of the revenue. 

Responsible allows customers to rotate through trends without creating waste, while incentivizing brands to make pieces that have more longevity (and, therefore, more resale value to capture). ‘We thought that if we were to rethink how the money flowed and how the rewards were shared among the various players, then we could drive circularity,’ Mark says.

Luxury brands have been cautious in approaching resale, particularly as scarcity and a carefully curated brand identity are key to maintaining exclusivity. However, high-end consumers, particularly in streetwear, have started to see sustainability as a status symbol.

‘Customers are becoming all the more wise to the impact fashion has and, in turn, are making savvier purchase decisions to reduce their impact,’ says Christopher Raeburn, founder of London-based RÆBURN, a streetwear label and one of Responsible's first partners.

Sustainable loyalty

But, for some brands, it's less about the sales. Even for companies that have always put sustainability at the heart of their lines, there'll come a time when people can't wear an item of clothing any longer, due to a change in lifestyle or size. But, up until now, there were few options that brands could offer customers for post-wear. And building a used marketplace in-house can be too expensive and time-consuming for small brands. 

That's why Shivangini Padhiyar, co-founder of Bangalore-based sustainable women's clothing brand The Summer House, implemented a buy-back option via resale startup Relove. People can log into their account on The Summer House and resell one of their previously purchased items, and it'll be listed on the site under the Relove tab. In the first month of reselling (it kicked off in December), there were around 100 items listed and 75 sold.

At this point, The Summer House doesn't make money off the partnership, but it's considering adding credits as an option for resold goods. It's more about adding another eco-friendly feature to its line. ‘We're hoping that, if a customer truly cares about sustainability, they can see The Summer House as a brand that they can rely on and trust in the long run,’ Shivangini says.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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