Whether in-house or through online consignment, luxury fashion brands are embracing “less is more”
  • Luxury fashion brands say they are fighting waste through partnerships with online consignors and starting in-house resale shops
  • By adopting the circular economy model, fashion can cut its massive carbon footprint and create loyal customers
  • The pandemic has led to a huge spike in online consignment, accelerating a pre-COVID trend

Luxury fashion conjures images of runways and lifestyles of the rich and famous. But it probably evokes little in the way of reducing the mountains of discarded clothing every year or building a bridge to a circular economy. 

Fashion at all prices has waste in its DNA, a fact the industry began to widely acknowledge after a 2017 report, endorsed by designer Stella McCartney, that found consumers and designers wasted more than $500 billion worth of clothing each year. Further, the 1.2 billion tons of carbon emissions produced by the textiles industry annually was more than that of all international flights and maritime shipping combined, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation study said.

“Many industries are fairly straightforward in how they mess up the planet. When I got to fashion, I was just floored, both in terms of the magnitude of the impact, but also the complexity of the impact,” Vanessa Barboni Hallik, who launched the sustainable luxury brand Another Tomorrow after 15 years as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, said in an interview with Karma.

Pivoting to a sustainable fashion industry means two things: making fewer new garments by relying more on recycling and resale, and making manufacturing cleaner and fairer. That first part is growing rapidly, thanks in part to the coronavirus: closet cleanouts by quarantined consumers sent to online consignors like ThredUp and the RealReal have spiked, with ThredUp saying site traffic jumped 31% over its pre-COVID numbers. Online resales are expected to grow 27% this year, according to ThredUp’s 2020 Resale Report, which also projects a more than 5-fold market expansion over the next five years. 

Because ThredUp, The RealReal, and other online consignors aren’t affiliated with brands, their main role is in making resales more accessible and attractive, including to the brands themselves. For example, designer Mara Hoffman recently announced a partnership with The RealReal to resell her unsold stock, around the same time that “curated consignment” site Dora Maar launched its first resale collection. 

In-house resale and recycling, in which fashion brands recycle their own unsold stock or gently used garments into new products, may be the next big innovation: a way of straddling the need to manufacture fewer garments more sustainably while helping brands build customer loyalty. In 2018, Eileen Fisher pioneered this approach, inviting customers to bring back items they were no longer wearing to be upcycled into new garments or resold under the company’s new Renew brand. 

“Owning your secondary market really encourages companies to make these long-lasting products and stay with their consumers throughout the lifecycle, which makes it a lot less transactional and more of a path to democratizing quality,” said Barboni Hallik, who pointed to Eileen Fisher as inspiration. Another Tomorrow is planning to launch its own in-house circular economy plan next year. In the meantime, they are preparing for that step by mapping the life cycle for each garment: a QR code on the tag ensures authenticity for the future resale market, and also links to detailed information about the product’s supply chain. 

Luxury items may need to be the leaders on the transition to more upcycling and cleaner supply chains — their already bespoke approach means they have more flexibility and capital to make changes. Many use the same suppliers and factories as cheaper brands; if upcycling becomes the norm instead of manufacturing more and more textiles, fast fashion may be forced to adopt better practices — especially as the pandemic encourages consumers to double down on quality and demand transparency.

“If we can really start to change consumer norms around the level of specificity to which companies communicate, I think that is going to be really impactful,” said Barboni Hallik.