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Unwasted opportunity: resale revs up the circular economy

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Resale sites are focusing on sustainable principles to build their businesses – bringing the circular economy into the mainstream

The concept of resale has been gaining steady momentum in the fashion industry. Established players such as French luxury resale specialist Vestiaire Collective and US site The RealReal attract vast swathes of shoppers to buy and sell their pre-loved wares online.

The resale market is set to be worth $33bn (£25.1bn) globally by 2021, analyst Fung Global Retail & Technology says. And as the market matures, a new wave of start-ups is approaching the concept from a new angle. These fashion entrepreneurs are building resale into their businesses in an effort to counteract fashion’s problem with waste.

Some of these businesses are being led by industry insiders who are seeking ways to shake up the traditional retail model in favour of a more sustainable, eco-friendly approach.

The Wardrobe Workshop

The Wardrobe Workshop

Charlie Bowring worked for luxury brands including Giorgio Armani before setting up her ecommerce site the Wardrobe Workshop, which launched in early November. It stocks a mix of new stock from independent brands, such as Mae Cassidy, Phoebe Grace and Florence Bridge, alongside second-hand items, and 30% of the site is made up of the “resale” element.

“I was so surprised by how much waste goes into fashion, especially luxury fashion,” Bowring explains. “The fashion industry needs to acknowledge the environmental issues it has. There’s so much waste. Some brands don’t have sample sales and just burn the stock [to maintain exclusivity], which is shocking.”

Bowring is applying sustainable principles across the business. The independent brands she works within have been specifically chosen because of their environmental credentials.

By integrating the resale offer into the site, she aims to create a curated, personal offer, and give products a new life, she says: “I wanted to showcase unique brands and revive these pre-loved items as well – to create a really cool platform that is selling brands from so many different places.”

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The Wardrobe Workshop will work directly with individual sellers to extend the lifespan of their clothing through resale, but Bowring is adamant that in the future, brands will need to partner with resale sites to combat waste – following the example of labels such as Stella McCartney, which has been working with The RealReal since April 2018, to sell excess stock.

“I think a lot of brands will start to do that,” she says. “They are left with so much stock and things that don’t get sold, or they might produce too much of something. I do think they need to partner with resale platforms, because there are loads of people who want to buy these things.”

Waste-reducing retailers 

The fast fashion mindset and influencer-driven shopping habits of many consumers were behind the launch of The Resolution Store, which was founded by consultants Alicia Waite and Anna Sutton earlier this year, and launched in September.

The site resells items from key Instagram influencers, industry insiders and fashion journalists, including influencers Lucy Williams, Lindsey Holland and Camille Charrière, in an effort to combat the throwaway nature of the industry and ensure clothing does not go to waste. The site works in a “pop-up, pop-down” format, and sells a limited amount of stock online for a short period at a time.

“We resell items to the public to extend the lifecycle of each item of clothing,” explains co-founder Alicia Waite. “Instagram [influencers] have such a quick turnover of clothes and outfits, they aren’t really able to give an item the lifecycle it deserves.”

There is a massive turnover of clothing and people are drowning in it all

Alicia Waite

The concept makes use of the growing importance of social media influencers and the pursuit of newness, but tempers this by encouraging a more sustainable approach.

“Sustainability is one of the founding principals and the backbone of the store,” says Waite. “Something we had seen in the fashion industry was that there was just a huge amount of waste – whether with the brands we were working with or the people we were working with. There is a massive turnover of clothing and people are drowning in it all.”

Waite also stresses that The Resolution Store aims to normalise reselling, or buying second-hand clothes – counteracting its fusty image.

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The Wardrobe Workshop

“Sustainability can have a bit of a dour rep, and it’s really important to us to show that acting in a sustainable manner doesn’t have to be boring or worthy or righteous and preachy,” she says. “It’s fun and should become completely normal, and that’s what we try to say with our visual and written tone of voice.”

The sustainable aspect of resale feeds into the creation of a circular economy, where resources are reused and recycled rather than being created anew. In using fewer resources and recycling what is already there, the approach produces less waste and is more sustainable than a linear model.

Jack Ostrowski, founder and CEO of commercial sustainability solutions company Yellow Octopus, believes resale is a smart way to encourage modern consumers to engage in a less wasteful shopping habit, without compromising on the consumer habits of a fast fashion world.

“In our opinion – everyone who is saying buy less or use things for longer or similar – it is a great concept, but within the current format of trade in the UK, it just is not going to happen,” he says.

Instead of saying ‘let’s behave how we did in the past’, we’re saying, ‘let’s find a solution for the future’

Jack Ostrowski, founder and CEO of commercial sustainability solutions company Yellow Octopus

“Consumers want to look fresh every single week – that’s just how it is now,” he says. “Instead of saying ‘let’s behave how we did in the past’, we’re saying, ‘let’s find a solution for the future’. [The circular economy] is a modern approach to solving the problems.”

The popularisation and sophistication of modern resale sites is one step towards changing consumer perceptions of recycling clothing, which Ostrowski says is key to creating a more circular and sustainable industry as a whole.

This can be through resale or through the reusing of used fabrics, which Yellow Octopus arranges through its recycling app.

“We need to be making people aware that what they have in their wardrobe and don’t need any more is not waste – it is a resource,” he explains.

Unintentionally ethical 

French resale site Patatam launched in 2013, and expanded into the UK in September. Unlike many resale sites, Patatam sells mainly high street brands, and sources its clothing from charity donations and directly from brands to recycle excess stock. In France, consumers can also resell their own clothes through the platform, a function that will launch in the UK early next year.

The motivation for buying on our website can be quite varied: from someone who is very aware of the environmental issues to someone who just wants a good deal

Marion Duplain, business development manager for the UK at Patatam

However, Patatam does not explicitly seek to draw customers in with its circular economy credentials – it uses its low prices and range of brands instead.

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“Resale is not just for people that want to be very ethical about their buying,” argues Marion Duplain, business development manager for the UK at Patatam. “We also target people that want to buy specific brands at a lower price. The motivation for buying on our website can be quite varied: from someone who is very aware of the environmental issues to someone who just wants a good deal.”

She continues: “The ecological factor is very important for resale. Not everyone in the UK would have this environmental consciousness, but anyone might want to buy these brands.”

Katie Baron, head of retail at innovation research company Stylus, believes this entrepreneurial, bargain-hunting mentality is an equal, if not more powerful driver for resale shoppers: “I think that sustainability is a positive offshoot [of resale], but not necessarily the core driver,” she says. “Much of the rise of resales comes from an entrepreneurial mindset – something that we’ve pinpointed as the ‘teen trader’ mentality.”

Nevertheless, this new wave of resale sites has sustainability at its core, and the established players are pivoting to appeal to those looking for a more sustainable way to shop. For example, in its annual resale report for 2018, US resale site ThredUp claimed to be “slowing down fast fashion” with 340,000 clothing items recycled in 2017.

Whether driven by ethics or budget, resale is fast becoming an important player in the sustainability arena – making the step towards a circular economy a desirable shopping experience for consumers and a waste-reducing tool for retailers. For those businesses looking to cut their waste, the sector is a space to watch, and a platform to consider.


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