Fashion is not very sustainable

One way the resale industry can help fashion is by making it more sustainable. // Image:   Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

One way the resale industry can help fashion is by making it more sustainable. // Image: Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

Fashion is the second largest industrial polluter in the world and accounts for 10% of all carbon emissions. There has been a concerted effort within luxury to create better tools for quantifying impact, the most notable example of this being the environmental profit and loss (E P&L) methodology pioneered by Puma and Price Waterhouse Coopers. The E P&L aims to put a dollar amount on the natural resources that are used in operating a business. If we consider the most recent E P&L statement from Kering as being representative of the industry, the production of raw materials accounts for approximately 50% of fashion’s total environmental footprint. This is not surprising – materials like cotton and silk consume staggering amounts of water, animal fibers like cashmere and wool require large herds of animals that occupy millions of hectares of land, and leather tanning often involves toxic metals that contaminate water supplies.

The issues associated with production are made worse by a trend among consumers to see fashion as disposable rather than a long term investment. All sectors of fashion (luxury included) have been relentlessly pursuing the idea that consumers should buy more clothes more frequently. This is reflected by the increased number of collections being output each year, which has both pushed creative directors to their limits and shrunk the useful lifetime of products. According to the Fashion Revolution, the average consumer wears an item only four times before it becomes an idle feature in their closet. This kind of wastefulness leads to overproduction – last year 150 billion garments were produced (enough to provide every person on earth with 20 new articles of clothing).

The goal of the resale market and the circular economy is to replace the purchase of new products with pre-owned ones. This approach promises to reduce the burden of overproduction and limit the amount of waste being created. Data from the Waste and Resources Actions Program (WRAP) indicates that increasing the useful lifetime of products by 9 months can reduce carbon emissions, water consumption, and waste by 30%. It also promotes the design of high quality and robust products. As resale becomes more mainstream, buyers and sellers will start to purchase items that will retain value so they can subsidize a future purchase. That kind of shopping behavior has already been reported by Julie Wainwright (CEO of The RealReal) in an interview with TechCrunch. One of the greatest parts of this model is that it plays into the short attention span of younger consumers. They know they will bore of a product relatively quickly. What they do with that product afterwards will ultimately depend on its resale value.

The circular economy is subtractive. A pre-owned product must replace the purchase of a new product for these environmental benefits to be realized. Does this mean brands will start selling fewer clothes? In some cases, yes. Fast fashion retailers in particular are at risk of being disrupted. Luxury brands that focus on making durable and high quality products will likely be safe. Nonetheless, brands should start to think about how they can position themselves to benefit from the resale of their products. The circular economy will continue to grow regardless of their willingness to accept it.


  1. Forbes, 2015.
  2. Kering, 2015.
  3. MIT, 2015.
  4. Business of Fashion, 2017.
  5. Waste and Resource Action Program, 2012.
  6. TechCrunch, 2017.