Fashionista Environmentalists Shop ‘Recommerce’ Instead of the Mall

by Diana Drake

On the cover of the January 2020 issue of British Vogue, Taylor Swift is wearing a tweedy Chanel jacket that’s about to celebrate its 15th birthday.

You might assume that pop star Swift chose this jacket as an homage to one of her biggest-selling songs (“Cause when you’re 15 and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them.”). But other factors actually influenced her fashion choice. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, picked the jacket from one of the fashion house’s 2005-2006 collections because he wanted to make a statement: Fashion is no longer disposable.

“With the global climate crisis, we all have to do what we can to contribute to the conversation around sustainability,” Enninful told the magazine. “Buying better and buying less is what I believe in…. The best clothes can be worn time and time again….”

While most of us won’t ever get to shop Chanel’s closet, it’s easier than ever to build a wardrobe from items that are “new to you.” Online retailers that focus on used clothing and accessories, including Depop, Poshmark and ThredUp, are redefining a sector that used to be dominated by catchall websites like Ebay, small vintage and consignment shops or Goodwill. And much of these “recommerce” sites’ popularity is being driven by younger consumers who want to make a statement with their fashion while also being sustainable.

“It’s so easy as a shopper to pick and choose what companies you’re going to buy from,” says Rachel Bang, 17, and a senior at Valencia High School in Placentia, California. Bang, a self-proclaimed fashionista who for years spent hours getting lost in her Project Runway Design Sketchbook, has made it a personal mission in high school to mitigate the waste produced by the fashion industry by shopping at thrift stores and at all the online recommerce sites. “If that decision is in my power, I’m going to support the brands I know are selling used clothes, which is more sustainable than new clothes or clothes that are made cheaply by exploiting labor.”

The New Face of Thrifting

Recommerce has been able to grow due to a series of Gen Z-inspired changes in technology, retail and customer mindsets, including a push to be more environmentally friendly.

Ten or 20 years ago, consumers would buy and quickly discard trendy styles from “fast fashion” giants like Forever 21, Zara, or H&M and very little information was easily available on how doing so impacted the environment. ‘Going thrifting’ often meant having to dig through unorganized piles of clothing at a local vintage store or Goodwill.

“Ebay was probably the first major consumer-to-consumer platform for reselling items and vintage items, but it’s fallen out of favor with younger consumers,” says Keith Niedermeier, an adjunct marketing professor at Wharton. “The platform is just not super appealing and it sells everything. These newer platforms are designed in a much slicker, social media-friendly way.”

Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn credits Rent The Runway, with removing some of the stigma around used or borrowed clothing. “Rent The Runway has actually made the process cool,” Kahn says.

The vintage or older items many recommerce sites carry are also very on trend, says Niedermeier, who is dad to a 15-year-old and 18-year-old. “Nirvana T-shirts are all over high schools again,” he points out. “The value of actual old-school Guns N Roses and Nirvana T-shirts is hundreds of dollars.”

And thanks to the internet, these days it’s easy to unearth sobering stats like this one: The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing, linens and other textiles every year, with most of it ending up in landfills, according to USA Today.  And H&M, Madewell and The North Face are just a few of the brands that offer customers rewards for bringing clothes into their stores to be recycled.

“Customers maybe 10 years ago were not aware or concerned [about what happens to textile waste], and now they clearly are,” says Wharton marketing professor Santiago Gallino. “Even if you’re a fast fashion brand that sells primarily new clothes, you need to think about how to communicate what happens to the garments that don’t sell.”

Gallino says consumer interest in slower fashion and the success of recommerce may also lead mainstream retailers to start rethinking their strategies.

“It’s possible some retailers will take a path of moving into a less fashion-oriented, higher-margin and more expensive product,” Gallino says. As an example, he pointed to Patagonia, which expects people who buy its clothes to pay a little more, but wear the items for years. “This is a business model that resonates with customers. The question is whether fast fashion can migrate, not the extreme of Patagonia, but to a cycle of less following the trends week by week and if so, can they do it in a way to still make reasonable profits.”

“Gen Z compared to earlier generations is definitely very price conscious. They’re digital natives and they’ve always been big price checkers…Resale sites are catering to buyers who want to get cool higher-end stuff at a lower price.” — Keith Niedermeier, Wharton Adjunct Marketing Professor

However price consciousness is another factor driving consumers to think about buying used clothing or accessories. It’s easier than ever to compare prices of different items, and unlike older consumers, Gen Z has never had to wonder if they could get a pair of sneakers or a coat cheaper somewhere else – they can find out quickly and easy with their mobile devices.

“Gen Z compared to earlier generations is definitely very price conscious,” says Niedermeier. “They’re digital natives and they’ve always been big price checkers. It’s very easy for them to access price information on anything they buy. Resale sites are catering to buyers who want to get cool higher-end stuff at a lower price, so this aligns with that part of their consumer behavior.”

In addition to wanting to be more sustainable in her choices, Bang’s evolution from avid mall shopper to dedicated thrifter was in part due to a need to find more affordable clothing and in part because she wanted to find items that were more unique.

“When I was around 13 I loved shopping at PacSun and Brandy Melville, but all the clothes I was buying looked the same as every girl around me,” she says. “I didn’t really like that. When I go thrifting, no one else is buying the things that I buy. Everything is one of a kind. That’s what makes it fun and I know it’s like that for me and for my friends.”

Two Customer Bases

Each recommerce site works a little differently. For example, ThredUp sends sellers a cleanout bag in the mail and pays for them to send it back. The RealReal works similarly, but has added a layer for authentication to make sure the designer goods sent by prospective sellers are the real deal. Poshmark and Depop are built more like social platforms, where sellers create their own digital storefronts and build a critical mass of followers. All of the sites keep a cut of the profits from sales.

“These companies have been savvy about trying to integrate everything we’ve learned in the last several years about creating a rewarding customer experience,” says Gallino. “These companies have two customers: The customer who brings the clothes to be sold and the one who shows up to buy them. They need to be conscious about both.”

Shoppers in the United States spend about $3.8 billion at retail stores each year. While recommerce counts for just a tiny piece of that — $24 billion last year – sales are expected to more than double to $51 billion by 2023, according to research done for ThredUp, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Consumers’ interest in recommerce is driving investors to take notice as well. The RealReal, which focuses on luxury goods, debuted as a public company on the stock market earlier this year and has a market value of more than $1.3 billion. Depop raised more than $60 million from investors in 2019 that it plans to use to expand in the U.S., its second biggest market after the site’s base in the U.K., and to ramp up its technology with better recommendations and image-detection algorithms, according to TechCrunch.

In addition to sites dedicated to recommerce, social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are also getting in on the act by making posts more “shoppable” so users can buy something they like without leaving the app.

The integration of social features also points to another big thing that’s driving the recommerce and clothing rental trend: Customers just don’t care as much about owning things, Kahn says. “What matters is the photograph and the posting on social media; you don’t have to own it if you took a picture of it,” she points out.

Bang’s favorite sources for recommerce are Depop, Instagram and Poshmark because the sites are more curated and usually have real people modeling the items for sale. She sells vintage items through an Instagram site and notes that, “if you just put up pictures of the clothes, they won’t sell.”

“… On the flip side of that, I think one reason why Thredup does so well is that it does appeal more toward older generations,” Bang says. “My mom really likes using sites like Thredup or Goodwill’s online site, but she never uses Depop or shopping through Instagram. It’s just a generational thing.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Do you shop recommerce? Why? Share your story in the comment section of this article.

Recommerce sales are expected to more than double to $51 billion by 2023. Do you think the mall is going out of style? Why or why not? Debate this issue in a group and with your classmates.

Research suggests that the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing, linens and other textiles every year, with most of it ending up in landfills. Have you thought much about this issue? Do you believe that it’s possible to be both fashion-forward and sustainable at the same time? What needs to happen to change or reform America’s throw-away mentality?

4 comments on “Fashionista Environmentalists Shop ‘Recommerce’ Instead of the Mall

  1. No the mall will never go out in style because the mall will constantly have customers in and out and worst comes to worst they wont even have to buy anything if the shops are repairing. A lot of people like to just go to the mall when their bored and want to go do something with their friends to have fun. And yes i shop recommerce because thats how i like to shop and how I manuever my ways to get things for the better of myself and ways to handle my responsiblities.

  2. It depends on the market, whether the malls are going out of fashion or not. For instance, in US it is predicted that about a ‘1000 malls’ (as mentioned in CNBC) may be shut in coming years. In other markets of the world, the situation is slight different, for instance still many developing countries like India are seeing boom in malls, while some other countries like UK may have altered, repurposed or reduced to something like open-space malls. On the other hand some countries still have less malls. In conclusion US has faced saturation in terms of mall building and slowly other markets are also facing competition from online retailers but still will take time for mall demise.
    Shopping through recommerce is an excellent idea, and it existed before some years when the things were durable and people used to use it for long. But in last 20 years people have moved towards a use-and-throw model, which is creating waste at exponential rate. Thus, moving back to recommerce is not a bad idea. Though it may take time to be in mainstream, but it will be there soon. It should not be just fashion goods, but all other goods which can be a part of recommerce. Thus, it’s ‘quite possible to be both fashion-forward and sustainable at the same time’. To change American mentality, the consumers need to take a step forward to show willingness for recommerce and then suppliers need to move forward to make long-lasting products which are eco-friendly. This idea needs to be promoted on every forum possible, and I believe that since youth has adopted it, it will make a change definitely.

  3. Why do some people pay so much for wines of older vintages? Oftentimes, greater value is assigned to these wines as the age is supposed to make them more special: heightened aromas, smooth flavors and a strong heritage that newer wines cannot match. However, how does this relate to the world of fashion?

    This article delves into an analysis of a few concepts which led to the prevalence of recommerce, ranging from an increasingly price-conscious Gen Z to the impact of social media, though the concept I will mainly focus on is that of the thrifting experience and what makes these vintage/secondhand garments so unique. In my opinion, the thrifting and recommerce experience is so special because it provides a more curated approach to fashion, whilst providing a platform for individuals to find pieces which allow them to develop their own self-expression. Your clothing is a marker of who you are, however, the confines of fast fashion, which has dominated the market for decades, often encourages young consumers to stay within the limits of what is considered at the moment to be ‘trendy’ by catering to specific designs and styles.

    When I was younger, the concept of where my trendy clothing originated from was something that I never even considered – I simply wanted to fit in and wear what everybody around me seemed to be wearing. In order to achieve this conformity, fast fashion stores such as GAP and Brandy Mellvile became like second homes to me. However, this perception began to change when a new term was introduced to me a few years ago: thrifting. Each article of clothing on the rack held its own unique story: a t-shirt commemorating a graduation in 1997, jeans covered in paint splatters, and aisles of dress shirts. While the dress shirts may all seem the same at first glance, a solid white or pale blue, perhaps lined with stripes, you will occasionally find a gem. For me, that piece was a lime green dress shirt lined with small prints of toucans from the late 1980s. I fondly remember jumping for joy when I saw that initial toucan from the corner of my eye. From that first find, I fell in love with thrifting, and how it allowed me to break free from trends and instead explore my own self-expression. I strongly relate to Bang’s experience, as being able to find unique vintage pieces, like my prized toucan shirt, makes recommerce so appealing.

    As the article pointed out, consumers, especially young consumers, are now spending significantly on vintage clothing, such as band T-shirts, as Professor Neidheimer shared. But what is causing this demand, and why are consumers willing to pay so much? In my opinion, this demand is largely sparked by a wave of nostalgia, and the circular nature of fashion. Fashion designers take inspiration from decades prior and repurpose the style to fit the trends of the modern day, and this is a cycle that repeats. This can be seen through the recent revitalization of the fashion of different decades such as fashion trends meant to emulate the disco craze of the 1970s with bell bottom pants and the return of the infamous velour tracksuits of the 2000s.

    However, fast fashion giants have noticed these trends too. Starting around 20 years ago, retailers have attempted to capitalize on people’s desire to wear garments that have history and stories that speak to their own identity by producing mass produced t-shirts containing generic slogans or references to old movies, TV shows and even bands. I believe that thrifting and recommerce is the next perhaps the step, and a much more authentic step, in that direction of bringing history/stories into one’s choice of garments.

    As I’ve delved into this world of recommerce, I’ve also managed to find my own style through the unique pieces that these sources offer. Instead of opting for that mass produced shirt with a generic slogan, I’ve found more comfort in wearing my vintage toucan shirt that I purchased secondhand. As Bang stated, recommerce is amazing in how it allows consumers to get pieces that are undoubtedly unique. While it is stunning that these re-homed clothes are able to get a renewed purpose, I find even more joy in the fact that these pieces also tell the stories of their previous owners, from frayed threads to small holes. To me, being able to give new life to older items of clothing whilst also having a one-of-a-kind piece is what makes the recommerce experience so appealing in a way in which fast fashion retailers simply cannot compete.

    I don’t know where my thrift store clothes originated from, or who owned them prior. However, the charm of these items is derived from the stories that they hold in their fabrics telling the history of these garments, and how every secondhand piece, tears and all, is truly one of a kind.

  4. It’s good to hear how recommerce is taking off. Gallino makes a great point about understanding both the seller and the buyer. I think today’s recommerce clothing companies can learn from other industries like used records or video games. Companies can do more to get desired products quicker into the hands of their consumers. They can use today’s technologies to better track inventory and availability. Data mining can tell them which items or brands are trending and they can increase their buyback efforts earlier to boost their inventories ahead of the demand.

    Charging more for better quality products that last longer can meet the goals of both businesses and environmentally conscious consumers. This approach can also fit well with buyers like Bang who want more unique products. Companies can tailor their offerings for a more individualized feel by letting consumers pick and choose or mix and match. They can allow consumers to pick out various retro buttons or zippers on both pants and shirts. This increased freedom may help these new companies justify their higher prices. Recommerce can be both trendy and profitable if we provide consumers with a more individualized buying experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.