Is Fashion Resale Sustainable?

Just how sustainable is the fashion resale industry? As part of efforts to improve our own practices, we looked into the ecological impact of running a resale clothing company. From packaging and carbon emissions to the clothes themselves, our findings have suggested many areas in which we – and indeed many others – could make improvements. This is what we discovered.

The Resale Footprint

Greenwashing isn’t confined to luxury labels and manufacturers. With secondhand clothing seen as the eco-friendly option, environmentally-committed Millennials have flocked to fashion resale platforms. In turn these companies have capitalized upon their perceived green advantage, aggressively pushing the environmental credentials of used clothing to a demographic that’s eager to believe it consumes responsibly. But is that really the case?

Recycled Designer Clothes

Buying pre-owned designer clothing looks to be the most sustainable option going. These are items that already exist; whether they end up in the trash or are given a second life, any environmental or societal damage caused by their production is already water under the bridge. While it would arguably have been better if these clothes were never produced in the first place, the fact is that they were. Rather than consigning them to landfill, it’s clearly preferable that they now be worn and enjoyed until threadbare.

Indeed, the longer a garment lasts, the less harm it causes. Irrespective of whether a product is well made or a trashy piece of fast-fashion, producing it by traditional industrial (i.e. non-sustainable) methods will require the same resources and cause the same amount of environmental damage. But if one of these items lasts 5 years whereas the other needs replacing after only 6 months, the environmental impact of the fast fashion item is 10x that of the well-made one. Given that gently-used quality clothing can be picked up for only marginally more than fast fashion, it’s obvious which option is more eco-friendly.

Despite the validity of the above argument, it ignores excessive consumer spending (when people buy far more than they need). Resale stores often benefit from this excessive consumer spending, as reckless shopping habits lead to a trickle down of luxury goods to the secondary market. Resale companies (ours included) rely upon unsustainable consumption. If consumers were to suddenly give up their regular shopping habits, we’d have far less product to sell.

Vintage vs Designer Resale

We all need clothes to wear. And there’s no reason why these shouldn’t be stylish clothes. What’s the solution?

Instead of recent designer clothing from resale stores, is it more eco-friendly to buy good old fashioned vintage?

Not necessarily. At Menswear Market we tend to draw upon local, regional, and occasionally national, sources for our stock. So for the most part these clothes haven’t moved too far. But vintage clothing works a little differently, usually purchased by weight from wholesalers who, in turn, source far and wide; often from overseas. And if it has traveled halfway around the world before making it to the racks of your local store, vintage clothing may not be so sustainable after all.

Although the difference in carbon emissions here likely isn’t huge, resale appears to be the more environmentally friendly choice. Aside from this, not everyone wants to dress like an extra from American Hustle, so a push toward wearing only vintage clothing is unlikely to have the mass appeal necessary to make a difference to our future.

When compared with buying new, the advantages of resale become even more clear. Fashion is a fun part of life, but mindlessly purchasing the season’s “must haves” is undoubtedly a lot worse for the environment than buying lightly-used or overstock designer clothing from a year or two ago. Fashions change; but not that fast. Grabbing a brand’s latest looks just as they drop will only encourage a doubling of the next production run – when reduction should be the goal.

If major fashion labels continue mass production (and consumers keep buying) – resulting in vast quantities of unsold or barely worn clothing – resale stores will remain necessary. In any case, outlets and resale shops are a much better solution than the alternative: incineration.

Shipping & Carbon Emissions

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Creative Commons 2.0 photos courtesy of Mark Bonica and Roel Hemkes

While resale stores can help to reduce the impact of unchecked apparel production, the precise manner in which a resale business is run will make an enormous difference to the environmental footprint left behind.

The general consensus is that most carbon emissions from the retail sector are caused by the transportation of goods – particularly over the last mile. Although it’s less clear whether this statistic also applies to fashion resale, it’s nonetheless one area where we as a company intend to concentrate our efforts toward achieving sustainability.

Unfortunately though, the current data here can be somewhat vague and/or contradictory.

According to a report by the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, the carbon emissions of a “Cybernaut” (anyone who shops online) are about half of those produced by a “Traditional Shopper.” This latter term referring to a customer who travels to a brick and mortar store; usually by car, often alone, and frequently to purchase just a single item.

However, this data is rendered less clear because people don’t always behave like the idealized people of academic studies. Those living in urban areas (our weekend customers, for example) may walk to their local store; while those located further afield may visit a store by car and then end up purchasing the item online anyway.

Meanwhile someone shopping online might buy a dozen items all in one go; or instead just order a single pair of socks, only to return them later. And if the customer isn’t at home when the items are out for delivery, the courier may have to return the next day, thus consuming twice as much gas. In short, making generalizations here can be misleading.

Although variables of this kind are to some extent accounted for in the report, the study wasn’t specifically looking at a fashion resale context, nor even at the fashion market more generally, but instead at the e-commerce sector as a whole. This can make it difficult to understand just how relevant the study’s findings are to our business.

What’s more, the MIT study to some extent contradicts one carried out by Walmart, which suggested that in-store purchases were responsible for less greenhouse gas emissions than online orders. Once again though, this claim came with the caveat that the latter was the case only if the customer purchased a sufficiently large number of items in one go, and didn’t make a dedicated journey to the store specifically to pick them up – but instead combined the trip with running other errands.

While the complicated and contradictory nature of the data can make it tricky to work out exactly where we should make changes, and how, as an online fashion reseller it’s clear that we need to improve the efficiency of our shipping service. Carbon emissions can vary greatly, depending on the type of shipping a customer chooses, and the number of items purchased. As this report by consultancy firm Bain notes, “doubling the average number of items purchased per e-commerce transaction and eliminating split shipments would reduce average per-item emissions by 30%.”

This being the case, improving efficiency here might be as simple as providing customers with better information regarding the environmental impact of their shopping habits, and offering discounts and promotions that encourage more responsible shipping choices (such as avoiding split-shipments or choosing regular shipping over expedited air delivery). If provided with clear information, and assuming that the difference in cost is negligible, many consumers would likely choose the more environmentally friendly option.

Offsetting

While the ultimate goal is of course to produce zero carbon dioxide in the first place, until the use of biofuels becomes a widespread reality, carbon emissions remain an unfortunate byproduct of much human activity – particularly where travel and transportation are concerned. And although it might not be the longterm answer we’re all waiting for, the carbon offsetting of parcel deliveries makes for an urgently-needed interim solution.

If you care about the environmental consequences of your shopping habits, be sure to choose a resale store that offsets its emissions using an independently certified method. Courier and shipping companies from DHL to UPS now offer carbon neutral shipping costing only marginally more than their regular services. So even if your favorite resale store doesn’t invest in a general offsetting program to cover all its emissions, it should at least be using a shipping company that does so on its behalf.

If you are a fashion resale business and unsure where to start with carbon offsetting, the Environmental Protection Agency provides various resources designed to help small businesses calculate and offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

Bear in mind though that many organizations campaigning for environmental issues remain skeptical of the benefits of carbon offsetting, considering offsetting programs to be a “smokescreen” permitting “business as usual” without the need for a genuine reduction in emissions.

Packaging

As we’ve seen, online shopping may (or may not) come with a reduced carbon footprint when compared to in-store purchases. And while shipping of course counts for a big part of these emissions, according to the MIT study cited earlier, almost two thirds of a Cybernaut’s carbon footprint is in fact down to packaging.

And just as the choice of delivery method can make a huge difference in terms of environmental damage, how an item is packed, and with what materials, will also dictate the quantity of carbon generated.

Cardboard Boxes, Tags, and Labels

It goes without saying that all paper-based packaging should be both made from recycled material and itself recyclable. This part, at least, appears fairly straightforward.

Tags are essential in the fashion industry.  However, the typical method of attaching tags with disposable micro-plastics is a harmful practice that should cease immediately.

Furthermore, if packaging features text, logos, or any other printed designs, it’s important to consider the type of inks used, as these can both render a product more difficult to recycle and in themselves cause environmental damage.

From what I can gather, soy-based inks present a less harmful option than those made from petroleum. However, even here available information is highly conflicting, with some arguing that the clearing of rainforest for soy-agriculture undermines any benefits gained from using non-petroleum-based inks. In any case, the soya component of soy-ink is merely the base, to which is added regular pigments and other chemical substances – meaning that these inks are not totally biodegradable.

Bags, Mailers

Plastic is undoubtedly the great evil of our age. Thankfully various alternatives to petroleum-based plastics have emerged in the last few years, making it much easier to source biodegradable plastic bags. However, bio-plastic products largely come in the form of shopping or garbage bags. Much more difficult to find are waterproof mailers. This is an area that is rapidly changing though, and with the continued growth of e-commerce more and more options are likely to come on the market.

The priority here is to find bags that are A) made from biological materials such as maize or sugar cane (for example, those produced under the brandname GREEN Polyethylene); B) are sufficiently strong and water-resistant that they will protect clothes en route; and C) which once used will totally degrade in the fastest amount of time possible. Sadly, while Europeans now have a variety of options open to them in this department, mailers that fit this description are harder to come by stateside.

What’s more, there’s also a lot of doubt and confusion surrounding the matter of biodegradable and compostable plastic bags. In one test, bags touted as biodegradable had in fact degraded so little after 3 years buried underground that they were still strong enough to carry a heavy load of groceries.

In fact a recent report by The Guardian suggested that much of the “biodegradable” plastic packaging currently used in the UK would not degrade in ordinary household compost bins at all, but in fact needs to be processed by industrial composting facilities. Sadly, very little of this packaging ever makes it to such a facility, and instead ends up preserved in landfill sites or makes its way into our oceans. While the cases cited here were all in Britain, the kinds of compostable plastic packaging available, and the recycling facilities able to process them, can also vary considerably in North America and elsewhere. In short, when choosing mailer bags, be sure to investigate exactly what advertised terms such as “compostable” and “biodegradable” really mean in practice.

Finally, while it might also be worth looking into bags made from jute or other natural materials, it’s important not to simply assume that “natural” = sustainable. It’s certainly easy to market a product made of natural fibers as being environmentally friendly, but we shouldn’t accept such claims at face value: the processing of a “natural” product may in fact involve the use of harmful chemicals, and at the very least is likely to consume non-renewable energy. Wherever possible, try to gain an understanding of precisely what this manufacturing process involves and how it really stacks up against less obviously sustainable alternatives.

Quantity

While anyone with an environmental conscience will ideally want to use packaging that’s made entirely from recycled natural materials, it’s nonetheless worth remembering that the recycling process is not impact-free, but consumes resources such as water and electricity. Clearly then, the goal should also be to use the absolute minimum amount of packaging necessary.

Note, however, the word “necessary.” Although we should certainly avoid including any packaging that is largely decorative or just meant to impress the customer, a degree of packaging will be vital if the item is to arrive safely at its destination. Damaged goods are wasted resources; likewise returned goods. So skimping on packaging would not be an environmentally sound policy either.

Making better use of resources can be as simple as having a wider choice of bag and box sizes in stock, so as to better match purchases to appropriately-sized containers.

Be Demanding, Be Pragmatic

As a resale store, we have a responsibility to run our business in a manner that does not endanger the lives of future generations. And in the longterm, fashion resale is not an unmitigated force for good. Right now though, it’s the least harmful option. Assuming it’s done right.

There’s a big difference between those stores for whom it’s still business as usual, and those actively making an effort to reduce their environmental footprint.

Meanwhile, you as a consumer have the power to encourage moves toward sustainability with your dollars. Look closely at the practices of any companies you purchase from. Do they make an effort to offset their carbon footprint? Do they recycle materials, or recklessly generate yet more waste?

Given the degree of confusion that surrounds sustainability, and the lack of clear guidelines available for businesses, it is hardly surprising that few, if any, companies claiming to be sustainable today actually are. This is the case for fashion brands, resellers, and pretty much any type of business you can imagine.

Of course, for many this is simply because sustainable practices eat up profits. But even where there is a genuine desire to do the right thing, it’s actually very difficult to achieve true sustainability right now. So be suspicious; be critical. But on the flipside, also be supportive of those who are trying to make a difference.