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In a World Where Every Brand Is a Reseller — What Would Fashion Look Like?

The mainstreaming of resale fashion is changing the retail landscape, and it has cause to be a reigning figure in the decade ahead — even taking on fast fashion.

According to America’s Research Group, a consumer research firm, about 16 percent to 18 percent of Americans will shop at a thrift shop during a given year. Market research firm First Research puts the U.S. resale industry at $17.5 billion in annual revenue, but for-profit thrift chain Savers, on its own, averages $1.2 billion in revenue. The National Association of Resale Professionals believes the market share of resale to be much larger than current estimates, as does online reseller ThredUp, which projects the resale market will be worth $77 billion by 2025.

With a remarkable 39,492 used merchandise stores in 2021, up more than 100 percent from 19,669 in 2018, according to Census Bureau data, thrift is here to stay. This compares to roughly 20,006 U.S. department stores — once the crown king of physical retail — according to The North American Industry Classification System.

With the plethora of resale players emerging and brands getting in on the action — it raises the question, what does the industry look like if every brand and retailer becomes a reseller (with at least a portion of its business focused on resale)? And what’s to come of fast fashion?

“Overall production will shrink, but not evenly,” said Andy Ruben, founder of Trove, a re-commerce service provider for Patagonia and Eileen Fisher that just inked an additional $77.5 million in funding (bringing total funding up to $122.5 million).

“Fast fashion serves a consumer’s desire to own something that’s ‘new to me,’ but it’s a wasteful model that should, and will, see its market share decrease over time — mainly due to social stigma,” he added. “It’s the middle market that has the most to lose, though, because mid-market items are neither incredibly cheap nor as high-quality as the premium options that a much wider consumer audience can now access via resale. The premium brands that realize this is the future and take control of their own secondhand markets will be the real winners.”

In the long term, Ruben — who helped spearhead early sustainability efforts at Walmart prior to Trove — thinks circular fashion will be the fulcrum from which shoppers make decisions.

With greater access to fashion, “the focus will be more on the enjoyment that quality products provide. Circular models are redefining what “new” means in fashion and adjacent categories. It can now mean a pre-loved Gucci handbag that a consumer couldn’t afford to buy brand-new at full price or an REI tent that has had one previous owner and that has 100 more nights in the wilderness left in it,” he said.

Michael P. Londrigan, associate professor at LIM College, adviser to the Provost and co-author of “Fashion Supply Chain Management” (published in 2018) raised many questions on this future fashion landscape.

As with Ruben, he doesn’t think fast fashion is going away “unfortunately,” because the industry trained consumers for fast fashion in the way discounts and coupons became habitual. Although resale will continue to steal market share away from fast fashion and new products, the death knell for fast fashion would have to arrive in the form of a “major consumer uprising,” according to Londrigan.

In the ’80s, Londrigan worked in industry on an eco-friendly line for Burlington, Inc. At the time, some retailers remained cautious, he noted, asking: “If we put environmentally friendly products in the store — what does that say about the rest of the product in the store?”

Certainly, it explains the hesitancy with all-out sustainable assortments in favor of capsules, but now the evolution of sustainability in fashion is warranting a shifting landscape where all must embrace resale or risk irrelevance.

Today, sustainability in fashion isn’t just about the product, Londrigan stressed. Packaging, manufacturing, water use, carbon footprint — the entire value chain is under the microscope as consumer demand heightens the stakes for CSR.

Yet, the nuances of resale and fashion’s circularity efforts are still rather complex in the broader supply chain view.

When Supply Goes South

Supply is a differentiating factor among resale leaders, yet no one wants what doesn’t sell in U.S. or U.K. markets — where resale reigns. When excess supply is outsourced to countries like Ghana (a major recipient of used clothing), new problems emerge.

Londrigan believes inventory is a pertinent issue in resale, forecasting a “peak where there is not enough inventory on the resale side.” This leads to the dark potential that resale was never going to be applied as a way to help fashion decouple from volume-based growth — but rather a justification for producing ever-more goods to fuel the fast-growing resale market.

It’s exactly what happened to outlet stores. The intention behind factory outlets turned out to be just another way to stoke production — and poorer quality at that.

Some experts argue that the disparate view of old versus new (clothes and supply chains, for that matter) means the social and environmental burdens are still being outsourced.

“For us, the end of the line is the beginning of the circle,” said The OR Foundation’s cofounder Liz Ricketts. The nonprofit produces the multimedia research project “Dead White Man’s Clothes,” and traces used goods through their end at the bustling Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana. A minimum of 100 metric tons of clothing is taken from Kantamanto Market to the Kpone Landfill in Tema every day, according to the Foundation. Given her expertise in waste, Ricketts was invited to speak at nonprofit Slow Factory Foundation’s Open Education summer courses in partnership with luxury reseller Vestiaire Collective.

At first, Ricketts’ arguments seem to be in contrast to Londrigan’s thoughts on the potential for there to be a dwindling supply of used goods.

The pandemic only worsened the load of used goods piling up. “Most of the clothing that ends up in Ghana, someone probably already tried to sell it on Depop, it probably was donated and sent to multiple states, to multiple countries and then ended up in Ghana,” Ricketts said.

According to The OR Foundation, some 11 million fashion items, including clothing, footwear and accessories, are processed in a given six-day workweek at Kantamanto. Every 10 weeks, Kantamanto upcycles, resells and re-commodifies 65 million items, a staggering number that companies like ThredUp have also touted redistributing — but over a 12-year time span.

“Resale only reduces the impact of the fashion industry if buying used becomes a replacement for buying new and until I see big fashion brands commit to degrowth and lowering production volumes, I don’t see how that happens,” Ricketts said. “In Ghana, we are beginning to buy back the waste from secondhand retailers for new initiatives around recycling, decomposition and upcycling.”

And within these programs, the focus is on equity and the degrowth movement — something that stares resale’s savvy sales pitch dead in its faces and demands bolder action. It’s a call to stop making, or now importing, so much stuff. And to that, it calls on the new guard of resale platforms to take responsibility and pen legal clauses that ensure brand partners are actively moving toward degrowth.

Ricketts said holistic contracts are being drafted between The OR Foundation and secondhand retailers in Ghana, underlining how businesses cannot justify importing more clothing because languishing used and deadstock goods now signal dollar signs.

No Moral Incentive?

If new with tags and “like-new” goods proliferating any of the popular resale marketplaces seem too good to be true, it’s because they might be an environmental oversight in the long run, according to Ricketts.

A quick search on ThredUp for women’s sweatshirts, for example, drums up 1,730 items that are new with tags. This compares to 49 items with “signs of wear” meaning ThredUp’s quality team found something small, like minor pilling. ThredUp assures that “anything with excessive signs of wear doesn’t even make it to our site — which means that you can shop with total confidence.”

Competitor Poshmark ranks its lesser goods as “very used condition” and encourages sellers to extensively detail any signs of wear including fading and discoloration. Luxury platforms like The RealReal call it a “good” quality minimum, meaning items may show more prominent signs of wear or laundering such as moderate stains, snags, fading or discoloration, as per its website.

“First, this could encourage continued hyperconsumption and discourage consumers from actually using their clothes for fear that they will lose resale value,” Ricketts said. “Second, the emphasis on reselling “like-new” product means that markets like Kantamanto are expected to continue absorbing the stuff that resale platforms in the ‘Global North’ cannot profit from.”

Bottom line, Ricketts wants to see more accountability for “oversupplying the world with stuff that there is no demand for and for making clothes that are not worthy of many lives.” She acknowledged that while The OR Foundation wants to “accompany retailers out of debt by dealing with the current oversupply of goods — we do not want to create an incentive for retailers to bring in even more material.”

After all, Ricketts and Londrigan are on the same page — fearful of this incentive for more stuff.

Both contend that there are no guarantees resale leaders will “rule” more justly than fast-fashion purveyors who have stoked consumption since the late ’90s. In fact, resale could end up being a step backward if production volume and waste colonialism (where used clothing importers bear the burden of Western consumption) are not critically addressed.

Trove’s Ruben reiterated that “consumers will increasingly consider the cost of ownership over simply the purchase price,” so at the very least good clothes will endure.

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