Helen Riley, fashion acquisition manager at Ebay UK, says fashion brands must think carefully and responsibly about stock levels after the coronavirus crisis.
When I started writing this article, I had no idea that within days we’d be working from home, shops closed, on a lockdown. It’s a desperately difficult time for everyone, including the retail industry. However, GlobalData research shows it is fashion and footwear that will be the hardest-hit retail sector: it predicts an £11.1bn decline in sales for the year.
And that’s bad news not just for the companies and employees, but for the environment too. Because if you think we have an overproduction problem now, the post-coronavirus fallout, after weeks of shops being shuttered, is bound to dwarf it.
Of course, fashion has always been at the mercy of unexpected events – from unpredictable weather to political shifts. Indeed, it would be impossible for any business, apart from those who make to order, to avoid having at least some buying mishaps, whether it’s too many big coats for a warm winter or too many sandals during a wet summer. How brands dispose of all that excess stock, from incineration to landfill, has caused plenty of scandal and embarrassment for the industry over the last couple of years.
And while some companies have been able to leverage the burgeoning sample-sale market or outlet villages such as Bicester, the effective closure of the bricks-and-mortar high street during the current crisis seems likely to create an overstock mountain this spring and summer. If it goes to landfill, that’s a lot of revenue being trashed, but – more importantly for society – it’s a troubling environmental problem.
For some, the only truly effective way to tackle fashion’s sustainability problem is re-using and recycling old clothing to radically reduce manufacturing. And of course, at Ebay, we do have a strong legacy in the vintage fashion world. We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for second-hand clothing as consumers look to shop more sustainably. In fact, we call it the “Blue Planet effect”, coinciding as it did with Sir David Attenborough’s extraordinary BBC series in 2017.
But we also believe in the fashion industry: in its creativity, in the people it employs, in its economic value to the country, and in its collective power to drive change. The fact that it’s now commonplace for customers to be able to search for organic cotton or Fair Trade clothing is because the industry saw the benefits and importance of taking a stand – and giving the customers what they wanted – and acted on it, with fast results.
While our reputation was built with pre-loved goods, 80% of what gets sold on Ebay is actually new. We think that giving brands a place to sell their deadstock and end of lines is just as important to the circular economy, eliminating the problem of disposal, and helping companies recoup some of their costs at the same time.
And this isn’t just an exercise in convenience. Because when it’s done well, within a carefully branded space, selling through online marketplaces can actually help to build buzz. Think about the excitement that rare deadstock from sports brands causes among sneakerheads, or the fact that a best-selling blazer from a previous Joules collection caused a bidding frenzy when it was listed on Ebay, and ended up selling for more than its original price.
There’s also the consideration of brand image. Because while an online marketplace such as Ebay does create an alternative form of distribution with typically cheaper prices, it has the advantage of taking Sale stock away from the main website and stores. It helps to protect the full-price label and reaching a whole new customer base. And that means it’s not only more sustainable for the planet – it’s more sustainable for brands, too.
As a result of the current crisis, fashion brands are going to need to think carefully and responsibly about the near future when it comes to stock. As an industry, we’re going to need to support and rely on each other more than ever before.