You were probably outraged when you heard that Burberry burned $37.8 million worth of unsold clothing and accessories in 2018. Amazon and other companies have been accused of the same kind of waste — it's common among online clothes sellers in particular who often destroy returned items. (Why? "The brands do not want to deal with those returns. So they'd rather just dump them," Laura Lynch told the CBC.)
If it's not the waste that gets to you, maybe it's the huge carbon footprint of the fashion industry (more than flights and maritime shipping combined) — or the fact that almost none of us need any more clothes. We have so many items we don't know what to do with them all, and an entire movement to deal with crowded closets has arisen. (Perhaps you've heard of Marie Kondo?)
The perfect storm of fashion waste and negative impact has led consumers to heed the oft-said ethical fashion expert's line about secondhand clothing being the most sustainable: The used apparel market is growing in leaps and bounds, and it's expected to comprise fully one-third of the market by 2030.
It started with young people: "Millennials and Gen Z [are] adopting secondhand 2.5x faster than other age groups," according to this ThredUp report. But it's extended to all age groups, with sites like Poshmark, The RealReal, eBay, Vinted, Tradesy and ThredUp making it easy to buy and sell everything from vintage to designer pieces. Importantly, being able to buy and sell secondhand online means that young people who want to have "new" clothing and outfits regularly are able to indulge that idea — without participating in throwaway fast fashion. Interestingly, there's as much interest in resale at the bargain level as there is at the mid-priced (think J.Crew and Gap) and luxury levels.
And now some very big fashion companies are joining in, realizing they are leaving money (and consumer goodwill) on the table if they don't participate in the resale revolution. Patagonia and Eileen Fisher were early leaders of takeback-and-repair programs, which made sense since their high-quality garments would stand the test of time and were coveted by many who couldn't afford them new.
Secondhand fashion means clothes can be bought, repaired and resold quickly and easily, allowing for wardrobe turnover for those who want to change up their look without resorting to fast fashion. (Photo: Snapshot from video)
The Renewal Workshop has made that process even easier for apparel companies because it means the big companies don't have to do the work themselves. As the organization points out on their site: "For garments that have been produced but cannot be sold, the creative, physical, natural and financial resources invested in them are lost. This leads to massive waste problems with negative environmental impacts, significant financial losses for brands and missed opportunities for consumers."
Working with midsize fashion players like Carhartt, Toad & Co, Nau, Eagle Creek, Prana, and more, the company takes damaged or otherwise unsellable merchandise (about 50% of it needs some kind of small repair) and "renews" it via a specific process. Whether it gets repaired or not, the clothing is "certified to ensure that everything works (ex. buttons, zippers, snaps, closures, linings, water resistant coating). We also guarantee that there are no stains, piling, fading, fabric fatigue or overall signs of exterior wear. Once garments are reviewed and approved, they are officially certified as Renewed Apparel."
Whether bought-and-sold between individual resellers, via Instagram groups, or repaired and resold by a company like Renewal Workshop, secondhand clothing is becoming a larger part of the market, and we're likely to see other creative ideas like this abound.
All of these efforts turn clothing into a more valuable commodity — and less likely to become a wear-once and throwaway situation.
With 40% of clothing shoppers now keeping resale in mind when they buy, clothing will move from a make-wear-throwaway item to become part of circular fashion, wherein "clothes would be designed to last longer, be worn more, and be easily rented, resold or recycled, and no toxic substances or pollutants would be released during their production and use," according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Over the past year, we've seen in real time the ways climate change can affect our world, including harsher storms, hotter wildfires and weirder weather. Many people who previously ignored their consumption — which drives the fossil-fuel use that affects climate — are now changing, to significant effect. And that includes what we eat, how we get to work and what we wear.
It's not a moment too soon.