Used Clothing: Changing the Paradigm for Business and the Environment

Leading apparel brands are tackling the challenge of recycling used clothing, helping to solve a major environmental issue while capitalising on a growing business opportunity.

Too often, the argument that companies must do what’s right for the environment has been juxtaposed with the claim that it’s bad for business. As consumers become less willing to accept that tradeoff from brands (see the number of Super Bowl ads for electric vehicles), disruptive brands are driving meaningful change that helps to address a major environmental issue, broaden their brand positioning and, in turn, attract new consumers and business.

In the United States, 26 billion pounds (12B Kg) of clothing are thrown away annually, taking up 5% of the total landfill space. US consumers own an average of 93 pieces of clothing, 70% of which are never or rarely worn. Despite the fact that 90% of textiles could be recycled or reused, only 15% of clothing is actually donated.

clothing consumption US
(Source: US Department of Labor)

Fueled by the rise of fast fashion, mass merchants and e-commerce, the consumer is trained to expect the latest trends at a very low price, to be thrown away in 1 or 2 seasons.  The 2019 State of Fashion report by McKinsey states, “in the UK, a survey found that one in seven consider it a fashion faux-pas to be photographed in the same outfit twice. Simply put, young people crave newness.” Whereas Americans used to buy fewer, more expensive pieces of clothing, today they are buying many more units at lower prices. The reality is that brands need to sell more units to drive growth, which fuels a large and growing used clothing problem.

Market Shifts From New to Rented & Used Clothing

Traditionally, the used clothing market has largely been an afterthought, relegated to vintage clothing shops or community-oriented outlets like Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul. However, a growing number of US consumers, especially Millennials, are now buying used clothing for both economic and environmental reasons. The clothing resale and rental market is one of the fastest growing segments and is expected to reach over 13% (US$ 50 billion) of the total US apparel market by 2027, larger than department stores and fast fashion.

used clothing resale
(Source: ThredUp 2018 Resale Report)

A few major apparel brands, such as Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, are making circularity a key business strategy, not only for the benefit of the environment but also for their business. Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative recycles, resells and repairs used clothing, extending its life and keeping it out of landfills. The Worn Wear repair truck travels across the US, Europe and Japan, fixing tears and holes in used gear while also strengthening the community of loyal, like-minded consumers.

used clothing repairs Patagonia
(Source: Patagonia)

What Can You Do?

Buy Less Clothing

Patagonia famously stated in their Black Friday ad in 2011, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” They have been on the forefront of urging consumers to “…keep our gear in use longer and cut down on consumption.” A privately held company, with an extremely strong environmental and socially conscious brand position, Patagonia has been able to take non-traditional marketing approaches with little negative impact to their business. At an estimated US$ 1 billion in revenue, one might argue that consumers aren’t heeding their advice to cut down on buying Patagonia gear.

Patagonia 2011 ad
(Source: Patagonia)

Create Consumer Friendly Resale Shopping Environments

The typical choice for consumers for used clothing have been small vintage stores or second hand warehouse outlets, like a Goodwill store, that are stuffed with racks and racks of merchandising. Neither offer a scalable, nor that friendly of a, shopping experience.

A few brands are starting to actively open their own resale stores to sell used clothing such as Eileen Fisher’s Renew, which has a brick & mortar and online presence. And Nordstrom, a premium department store, just announced last week that they will be opening their own resale store called See You Tomorrow, a sign that ‘traditional’ retailers are seeing the potential of the resale segment.

Another sign that resale is moving into the mainstream, E-Commerce retailer ThredUp, which calls itself the “largest fashion resale marketplace,” has raised over US$ 300 million in funding. The company recently announced partnerships with Macy’s and JC Penny to sell secondhand clothing in a select number of doors.

Choose Natural Fibers

Closed loop apparel recycling, i.e. ensuring that used clothing is reborn as a new piece of clothing, is an extremely complex and costly process for manufacturers. There are some interesting smaller brands such as Reformation, who create about 15% of their clothes out of dead stock, the excess material from the mainstream manufacturing process. Or Cardato in Italy,  who recycle wool sweaters into new yarn.

Yet, 60% of all clothing contains polyester, such as the spandex that give your jeans some stretch. Despite the efforts of many firms, clothes with even a modest amount of polyester cannot be recycled into yarn, limiting the potential impact of truly creating a closed loop apparel industry.

While the apparel industry is working to identify new solutions and more brands are taking an active role in creating a closed loop system, consumers can have the most meaningful impact today: buy less stuff from brands that support circularity, choose natural fibers wherever possible, and donate or resell the clothes you’re done with. This will not only be good for the environment but also for your wallet.

About the Author:

With 25+ years in the sports and fashion industry across the United States, Europe and Asia, John Ensminger, has worked with leading brands including Nike, The North Face, K2 Sports and Carhartt to develop breakthrough, actionable strategies that strengthen their brand position and drive growth and profitability. Read his posts here or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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