Fashion, one of the world’s most wasteful industries, is warming to recommerce, but any business adopting this approach to shift stock will attract sceptical scrutiny regarding its motives
When athleisure brand Tala first opened its shop on online fashion marketplace Depop in July 2020, its collection sold out in minutes.
Comprising only surplus stock and samples, all available at a discount, the offering was part of the London firm’s commitment to keeping its products out of landfill, according to its MD, Morgan Fowles.
“While we take every measure to buy only the required volume of stock to meet demand and to put all non-faulty returns back on sale again, we needed to find a way of giving clothes a second lease of life and a good home,” she says.
Tala isn’t the only fashion business to have joined the burgeoning second-hand clothing market. In April 2021, supermarket chain Asda began selling pre-owned items in stores alongside its George collection, while in the same month JD Sports teamed up with SoleResponsibility. Founded in 2015, this family-owned business buys branded apparel that’s been rejected at the factory or returned by customers and resells them through its eBay shopfront.
It’s all part of a growing appetite in the industry to get involved in recommerce, says Allison Sommer, senior director of strategic initiatives at TheRealReal, an online marketplace for second-hand luxury goods that also operates several physical stores across the US.
“We saw a significant spike in demand from brands and retailers last year,” she reports. “From opening a dedicated shop to sell pre-loved items in partnership with Gucci to giving new life to pieces lent to celebrities by The Vampire’s Wife, we’re driving brands to consider resale as part of their sustainability efforts.”
There’s little doubt that finding a new home for deadstock is the sustainable thing to do. Deadstock – fabrics and garments that have been unused and unsold for several months – is a major contributor to waste in the fashion industry. It’s estimated to be worth £85bn.
But, while Tala is selling one-off items that have been used in photo shoots and other promotional activities, is it just a matter of time before other labels start using the same approach to shift new stock while appearing to act sustainably?
Leaving recommerce open to misuse?
The motives of any fashion company that goes down the recommerce route need to be judged on a “case by case basis”, says Jemma Finch, co-founder and CEO of Stories Behind Things, an online retailer of sustainable apparel and homeware.
“With different brands you can gauge whether they’re doing it for the right reasons or just trying to jump on the bandwagon and shift more product,” she says.
Tala, for instance, “is inherently a sustainable brand that has pushed those credentials from the start. If a huge luxury fashion brand were to do the same, people might be a little more sceptical.”
Joe Hearty, associate creative director at marketing consultancy R/GA London, agrees. “Any brand that’s very bad for the world won’t be able to flip the narrative by doing this one recommerce initiative,” he says.
In any case, Hearty adds, selling deadstock on the likes of Depop would be suitable for only a small number of players. “It’s unlikely that a luxury brand would want to engage in this, as it would invert a dynamic that’s dictated by perceived value and lack of accessibility,” he explains.
TheRealReal has put measures in place to reassure customers that the vendors in its marketplace are using it for the right reasons. “We have sustainability criteria built into our contracts with them, including one stipulating that the products we’re receiving are true overstock,” Sommer says.
Another online market for used luxury goods, Rebelle, has a “tight two-level qualification process for all B2B partners”, according to its co-founder and CEO, Max Schönemann.
Rebelle will “ensure that a partner’s offering meets our requirements regarding brand, category and price”, he says, adding that deadstock from retailers “is not our focus. We do not plan to extend this segment.”
Extracting the real opportunity in sustainability
Finch has asked numerous fashion brands to donate deadstock for a series of clothes-swapping events in London. While they didn’t make money in doing so, they did at least cut their inventory costs and free up warehouse space.
“Looking at this within the wider trend of anti-consumption, if you’re trying to be more sustainable as a business, then why not donate your surplus stock to charity, rather than seeking to make more money from your collections?” she says.
Shoshana Kazab is the founder of Kidswear Collective, a marketplace for pre-worn children’s clothes that works mainly with private sellers such as parents, social media influencers and stylists. She believes that recommerce presents a far bigger opportunity to “extract more use from what’s already there”.
Kazab doesn’t have a problem with brands trying to make some money by shifting deadstock. “After all, if it isn’t bought, it will end up in landfill. But isn’t the more important concern about not producing as much stock in the first place?”
Hearty echoes her sentiments. The reality is that fashion needs to be more radical if it’s to clean up its “dirty pawprint”, he argues.
This could even entail discouraging consumption. That might seem too much of a stretch for an industry based on selling the next big trend, but outdoor brand Patagonia already encourages its customers to repair worn items rather than replace them, for instance.
“At first glance, that sort of decision doesn’t feel like a good one from a business point of view,” Hearty says. “It would be a bold move, but it is the kind of change we really need.”