Can second-hand fashion provide an opportunity for retailers?
We’re halfway through #SecondHandSeptember and how are you doing? The idea, from Oxfam, was to pledge to not buy anything new for the 30 days of September. Oxfam says every week 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill and “throwaway fashion” is putting increasing pressure on our planet and its people – it’s unsustainable and this is its way of making people think and act differently.
An already under pressure high-street isn’t taking this boycott lightly and many retailers are starting to gravitate towards selling second-hand clothing themselves. High street brands and retailers are piling into the second-hand market trying to looking like caring, sharing and responsible custodians of the fashion industry. Offering to sell not only their own, but other brands’ second-hand clothes, often for charity. This is a new take on pop-ups and a perception of giving back and closing the loop on the fashion cycle.
George at Asda has just unveiled its first in-store “Re-Loved” charity clothing shop running for 4 weeks from 2 September. Located in Asda’s Milton Keynes store it features donated second-hand clothes from a number of different brands, as the retailer looks at ways to encourage customers to reuse, repurpose or recycle their unwanted clothes. The move is part of a drive by George - the UK’s second largest fashion retailer by volume - to improve the environmental impact of its clothes and operations, following the launch of its new sustainability strategy and first range of recycled polyester clothing in the spring.
Melanie Wilson, Senior Director for Sustainable Sourcing at George, said, “By trialling our Re-Loved pop-up shop, we hope to help create another route for unwanted clothes to find a new home and encourage people to think again about throwing away that top or those jeans they no longer love.” All proceeds from the shop will go to Asda’s Tickled Pink campaign, which supports Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now.
As a whole in the UK, the average lifetime for a garment of clothing is estimated as 2.2 years. Extending the active life of clothing by nine months can significantly reduce its environmental impact. The value of unused clothing in wardrobes has been estimated at around £30 billion. It is also estimated £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfill each year.
Many brands and retailers are starting to look into the second-hand market as the world is challenged with ever growing mountains of discarded clothes and unsold inventory. It was reported last year that H&M had an incredible $4.3 billion in unsold clothes. Places like Topshop and Urban Outfitters have had vintage sections for years, and Marks & Spencer has its pioneering “Shwop” scheme, which motivates consumers with vouchers. But to be actually selling second-hand clothes, alongside new stock, is something new and the next logical step. The stigma around second-hand is changing. It’s cool to wear older clothes and a badge of honour not to buy something new. Yet, consumers still get want to get that retail fix.
So, how can brands and retailers make money from this?
Olly Rzysko, CMO & retail adviser, says: “Ultimately, every second-hand unit sold in the market is another brand new item a retailer isn’t selling. In a declining market, executive teams won’t like that and are responsible for protecting those sales. Second-hand clothing is having a surge and it proves to be a logical route on paper.”
“Retail is hard right now and a number of elements are playing a factor in the growth of second hand,” says Rzysko. “Depop and Ebay are doing very well. They are ultimately taking sales from the high street, specifically taking sales of new product away from the retail brands. These businesses are making nothing when people are reselling their product and that will be challenging to accept. Depop particularly has kept its head down and built a sizeable business with only ASOS responding in the form of their Marketplace platform,” he says.
Selfridges has partnered with young fashion resale platform Depop on a pop-up store in its Oxford Street branch with Depop's favourite second-hand clothing sellers curating the space on a rotating basis. Collaboration with experts is therefore one route to take but, Rzysko, suggests retailers have an almost endless stream of "used" clothing coming through their doors every day that could be put to good business use: returns.
“Most brands experience double digit returns and some of these cannot be sold (as new) on for various reasons. Repairing product or repurposing them enables the returns to be more valuable and not a complete loss,” says Rzysko.
“Many stores right now are larger than required (having been built for a bricks & mortar retail landscape) and filling that space with low cost stock is crucial to prevent cash being tied up with inventory. Vintage / reclaimed / second hand is a great way to fill these spaces,” says Rzysko. “Critically, it ensures the customer returns to the store at a time where footfall is in the decline.”
“I think for a lot of brands it can work for their customers. It can also bring in new consumers to a brand where pricing may have been prohibitive before and serving as a gateway into the brand just like outlet shopping does,” adds Rzysko.
Besma Whayeb, ethical fashion blogger, Curiously Conscious, agrees: “With more and more shoppers conscious of the impact that fashion has on people and the planet, second-hand fashion is becoming more sought-after, as well as fashion retailers who outwardly show their sustainable practices.”
“There are many ways retailers can promote second-hand fashion or circularity: many high street retailers already provide take-back schemes, inviting shoppers to return items when they’re finished wearing them, which they then use the materials for in new pieces or sell on to third-parties,” says Whayeb.
“But when it comes to preserving the items (rather than dismantling or disposing of them), they could look at selling them as pre-loved pieces. There are already many independent second-hand and vintage resellers, however I don’t see why many brands don’t provide a second-hand section in their own stores and resell pieces they’ve previously made. This needn’t be a full-scale or full-time operation either; pop-ups to show they’re being more circular could be a promising first step,” she says. “I believe it’s a combination of lip service, taking advantage of the growing demand for sustainable fashion, and when (hopefully) they see positive results, it will become a more permanent fixture,” says Whayeb.
George at Asda says its concept is just a trial to see how customers respond. It will take feedback and learn from the trial. But, won’t these new schemes take away from the charity sector? “It is not our intention to take away support from other charities. This charity shop continues Asda’s long-term commitment to fundraising for vital breast cancer research and support,” says a spokesperson for George.
Charities like Oxfam are fighting back though. The charity has just opened its first “superstore” on the outskirts of Oxford. About 12 times the size of the average Oxfam shop at 18,500 sq ft, and run by 150 volunteers, it also works as a community space and includes an on-site café housed in an Oxfam water tank.
It hopes initiatives like Second Hand September will convert more people to second hand clothing. An Oxfam spokesperson said: ”We are delighted by the overwhelming positive response to Second Hand September and the huge public support it has received.
"The campaign is raising awareness about the harm fast fashion has on planet and people. Clothes that too often end up in landfill are frequently made by garment workers paid poverty wages in harsh conditions. Second Hand September is encouraging people to think twice about their shopping habits. There seems to be a real appetite for change, which some brands are responding to – but more needs to be done.”
The more clothes we have, the less we’re wearing them. This makes the majority of second hand almost like new. Second-hand shopping is becoming cool and, for brands, it could be a good way of dealing with returns and old season stock while also being responsible. Fashion is addicted to volume, whether it is fast or not, so while consumers might not be buying anything new, they’re at least in your store buying something.