A Recap of Fashions Secondary Markets
Via Loafie May
Published in Elle Arabia, February 2020 Issue
Upcycling, rentals, resales, vintage and thrift: in the wake of environmental scares and scandals, the fashion industry’s secondary market is apparently booming. Large polluting fashion conglomerates have begun experimenting with the recent wave of sustainable textiles and investing more and more in the mechanics of recycling and upcycling, testing the ground for potential innovations to streamline the process of repurposing fashion waste. Consumers that have never before set foot in a vintage market are suddenly scouring Google for that covetable, pre-loved designer bargain and proudly declaring on their Instagram’s that they are pro-sustainability. As mass information on the deceptive and harmful practices of the fashion industry enter mainstream culture, the market has flooded with online micro-traders of thrift and second hand, ready to cater to a nascent but steadily growing customer base irresistibly attracted to the notion that you can source unique, one-off pieces that set you apart from the rest at unheard of bargain prices.
Millennials and Gen Z’s relentless demand for sustainable and ethically produced clothing has energized a growing culture of buy-wear-sell-repeat, which coupled with the recent rise of the sharing economy spelling an end to final ownership and spawning hundreds of rent-the-runways and efficient designer resale platforms, appears to have lent the fashion industry all the right ingredients to lay the foundations for a future dictated by the circular economy. Finally, the stigma associated with wearing someone else’s old clothes, one of the last remaining obstacles to mainstream second hand consumption, is quickly losing its sting. Everyone, it seems, wants to do good, look good, save money and buy second hand.
And the statistics seem promising. In the US alone, the resale market has grown 21 times faster than any other retail sector in the past 3 years and is now forecasted to reach $51 billion by 2023. It’s not hard to see why – unlike vintage and thrift markets, which remain mostly offline and are visited only by a dedicated purist niche that lives and breathes the authentic, resale platforms are convenient, user-friendly, and most importantly, online, opening them up to a global audience. Even mega retailers such as Farfetch are catching on, many of which are opening channels for old purchase take backs in order to re-sell. Repurposing old materials to create new garments, once a charming characteristic of niche, emerging labels, now almost seems common place given the sheer number of prominent global brands launching upcycled limited edition capsule collections in the name of saving the planet.
But if the biggest players in fashion are substituting new raw materials for dead stock fabrics and upcycling non-biodegradable waste such as plastic and synthetic textiles into reusable resources as they pretty much all say they are doing, then why don’t the numbers add up?
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the global fashion industry still produces a whopping 53 million tonnes of fiber every year, 70% of which ends up in landfills or on fire, and only 1% of which is actually recycled. It would be naïve to suppose that an industry guided primarily by theatre and perceptions would have suddenly turned on its head after decades of systematic deceit. Waste may be trending, but even though the secondary market is growing, absolute numbers rather than percentages show that only a fraction of the industry is taking any real action. So far, upcycling efforts play on the outskirts of the core issue, and product take backs are nothing less than an easy way for brands to claim a sustainability stance whilst exploring fresh ways of making a profit. Even consumers that have championed the sustainable movement thus far, fall heavily short of their words. Business of Fashion’s 2020 The State of Fashion found that only a very small percentage of the generations spearheading sustainability is actually willing to spend more for an ethically produced garment – the very same consumer base that ransacks retailers for Gucci’s latest overpriced drop.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that in the business of second hand, luxury is the largest growing consumer segment: people simply want to get their hands on designer goods for less. Righteous proclamations that sustainability is the future of mankind stop at the act of reselling used goods, a financially sensible act whether or not the heart is in it for the environment. With revenues reinvested back into the purchases of on trend and less than ethical fashion products, the question remains as to whether the secondary market offers an adequate solution with long term potential for the industry.
Whilst key fashion stakeholders are busy playing DIY, the level of waste produced is showing no real signs of slowing down. It’s a systemic issue that runs throughout the entire supply chain, with waste built into every stage of the production process. Before even reaching the consumer, an average of 35% of all materials are discarded, comprising leftovers, half finished goods and fully finished garments that don’t make the cut due to small defects in construction or last minute changes in design. It doesn’t help that most manufacturers have hefty minimum order quantities, forcing a vertical absorption of excess that makes it all the way down to retailers. Clearly, although the secondary market seems to coincide perfectly as the antidote to the industry’s biggest problem, it does nothing but distract from tackling the issue of why so much waste is created in the first place: overproduction.
There was a time when fashion seasons ended at two. But for the latter half of the 20th century, corporate greed gave traction to the consumerist notion of perpetual novelty, spawning a toxic, well-oiled machine of endless, back to back fashion seasons running on the winning formula of fabrication of desire and built-in obsolescence in order to induce an insatiable addiction to consumption. In its drive to perpetually reformulate the new, warehouses have filled with roll upon roll of deadstock fabric and millions of tonnes of unsold inventory, not to mention the raw material waste that accumulates at every stage of the garment construction cycle.
There’s a reason why second hand has taken off so quickly; the market is simply inundated with unsold or cast off garments, making it relatively easy for companies to dabble with a few upcycled garments here and there and claim the crown of sustainability. There are exceptions of course; companies like Oxfam and Patagonia have developed sophisticated in-house facilities for product take backs, recycling and reusing clothes – but for all their good will, the sheer volume of discarded clothes that piles up every year makes their efforts akin to building a dam to stave off a tsunami. Eventually, most of what cannot be thrown to landfill ends up in underdeveloped economies throughout Latin America and Africa, a deplorable silent practice which undermines the development of their own garment industries.
The problem is compounded by the fact that any effective recycling solution depends on the quality of the inputs, and with industry standards at an all time low, not much of what is attempted to be repurposed makes it past insulation fodder. The ineffectiveness of repurposing ventures is revealed by the recent shut downs of textile recycling factories that have been running in the UK for over 30 years. Compared to a couple of decades ago, most of what comes in is now sorted in the unusable, lower grade junk category – a fate that will befall sustainably produced clothing not too long from now: the market has already begun to drive down prices in order to match high street alternatives and encourage purchases. How can we hope to close the loop, the last stage in achieving a legitimate circular economy, if most of what is produced is both significantly less durable and too sub-par to make it back into the system?
Amidst the oceans of waste left behind in the wake of an insatiable fashion machine, a string of breadcrumbs points to one of fashion’s dirtiest open secrets – what high profile, brand sensitive labels actually do with their unsold inventory. Over the past few years a number of prominent brands have been outed for the shameful practice of burning hundreds of millions of dollars of perfectly wearable excess inventory rather than recycling, re-selling at discounted prices, or even donating to charities. In 2018, Richemont admitted to destroying $563 million worth of watches, and it isn’t the only one - Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Nike, the list goes on, and shockingly, it doesn’t end at fashion. In Germany last year, Amazon was found to have destroyed tonnes of returned household and electronic items. The rise of ecommerce has certainly had a hand to play, aggravating the problem of unsold inventory through industry-wide open return policies, but this little detail reveals an important factor characterizing consumer goods markets of the 20th century: an immense disconnect between the price and the actual value of a product.
Although no brand will readily admit it, the entire cost of production is but a fraction of the retail price – especially when it comes to luxury. What we are paying for are simply disproportionate marketing expenditures, fueling a vicious cycle whereby sky high prices are justified through a theatre of storytelling imagery and subtle emotional manipulations such as the misleading practice of fabricating an illusion of scarcity in order to create the covetable perception of exclusivity. There’s a reason that brands prefer to set old stock aflame rather than slash prices in post season sales; not only is it cheaper to do so – which speaks volumes of the sub-par quality fashion has sunk to – but making their products available at discounted prices risks damaging the polished brand image they fight so hard to maintain.
Whilst nurturing a highly developed secondary market should remain a key strategy in plans to transform the industry, it is clear that no solutions it offers are able to address overproduction, the root cause underlying wasteful fashion business models. At the moment there are simply too many conflicts of interest between the rare existing effective sustainable fashion initiatives capable of bringing about real change and the way fashion stakeholders operate.
Clearly, the fashion industry has a long way to go before it stops simply covering the cracks in the wall and begins to address important problem areas such as high-volume cyclical novelty. What this boils down to is a simple question of design: resources need to be funneled into re-inventing the fashion wheel so to speak, taking apart current archaic production processes and piecing them back together in a way that is both cost effective for brands, and sustainable in the long run. The only feasible solution lies in overhauling the entire production system in a way that is tailored to the way we consume. Incredibly complex, yes; but fundamentally necessary in order to do away with a self-feeding network that rests on inherently wasteful values.