Fighting fashion’s climate problem

By Zahra Hirji

Running shoes, lightly used

The fashion industry has a huge climate and waste problem. According to the United Nations, between 2% and 8% of global carbon emissions come from big fashion, which is also a major source of plastic pollution. That makes extending the life of existing products an increasingly popular way to stave off emissions associated with making new ones. 

This week, Swiss athletic brand On — whose holding company is backed by tennis star Roger Federer — became the latest retailer to launch its own resale site, dubbed Onward. Customers send their lightly or moderately used On shoes back to the company in return for a $35 gift card, assuming the shoes are of high enough quality to be used again and not cause injury. (Shoes that don’t meet this bar are donated or recycled.) Returned items are then sorted into three categories — near-perfect, very good and good — and priced accordingly, with a near-perfect in-season item costing roughly 75% of the original price.

“It will obviously take us years to be fully circular,” said Samuel Wenger, On’s global direct-to-consumer head, referring to a model in which On would only use recycled materials to make its products and generate little waste in their manufacture, distribution and use. Wenger described resale as “a perfect in-between step.” In addition to shoes, the company plans to start selling used items of On-branded clothing by year’s end. 

The “Roger” collection, named after Federer, for sale at the On NYC flagship store in July 2021. Photographer: Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg

To run Onward, On teamed up with the e-commerce technology company Trove, which manages similar sites for Patagonia, REI and Lululemon. So far, Trove estimates that it has helped avoid emissions of over 2 million kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent and kept more than 200,000 kilograms of waste out of landfills globally.

All of these companies see resale as an essential part of their sustainability ambitions, said Trove’s chief executive officer, Gayle Tait. Offering products on resale is also a way to reach new customers: Tait said at least 50% of Trove’s “recommerce” customers reported being new to a brand.

Compared to two years ago, US consumers of all ages have reported buying secondhand at least 33% more often, according to a December 2021 report by First Insight Inc. and the Baker Retailing Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In addition to resale sites created by apparel-makers, there are a growing number of independently-run online marketplaces, including Sellpy, Depop, The RealReal and ThredUp. The secondhand market jumped from roughly $11 billion in 2012 to $35 billion in 2021, according to a recent ThredUp report.

For customers, shopping resale is “an active choice you can make to really reduce your waste,” Tait said. “We’ve all got closets full of stuff we wear or don’t wear, frankly, and it’s really about finding the right homes for those items and getting them to the next person.”

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