Apparel, as an industry, is not terribly good for the environment.
It uses a tremendous amount of water — both in growing the cotton that so many textiles are made from and in manufacturing the clothing itself. Plus, the wastewater discharged by apparel producers is generally contaminated with bleaches, solvents, acids, alkalis, dyes, inks, resins, softeners and fluorocarbons, according to Chemical & Engineering News.
And it leaves a lot of waste in its wake. According to estimates, there are 16 million to 26 million pounds of clothing ending up in landfills per year, a figure that has been steadily climbing in the last half-decade or so as consumers have become particularly enamored of “fast fashion” clothing items — low-cost items that are easily bought and easily thrown out.
Which leads to the part of the pollution problem in the fashion industry that is non-industrial and lies with consumers themselves. According to estimates, the average American consumer throws away about 80 pounds of clothing a year. About one-third of female shoppers report wearing an item fewer than five times before tossing it into the trash, according to thredUP’s 2018 Resale Report, and about 70 percent of clothing in the average woman’s closet goes wholly unworn, probably because 43 percent of their clothing purchases are reported to be “impulse buys.”
It is a situation that is unsustainable, and an old retail model in which consumers are showing less interest, according to thredUP CEO and Co-Founder James Reinhart.
“New apparel experiences and brands are emerging at record rates to replace old ones. Rental, subscription, resale, direct-to-consumer, and more. The closet of the future is going to look very different from the closet of today,” Reinhart said. “There is a powerful transformation of the modern closet happening and I’m proud that resale is a key driver of this transformation.”
As a company, thredUp has long been of the opinion that the best way to reduce waste in fashion is for consumers to buy fewer new things, and find new life for those 43 percent of impulse buys that don’t work out so well instead of burying them in the closet. According to the new data, buying a used clothing item extends its life by an average of 2.2 years and reduces its environmental impact by 73 percent.
If everyone bought used clothing, instead of new, for one year, thredUp estimates it would save the world 13 trillion gallons of water, 162 billion pounds of CO2 and 350 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. In context, that is enough water to cover all of California’s needs (including farming) for 14 years, an equivalent amount of CO2 saved as taking every car in California off the road for four years, and enough electricity to power 32 million homes for a year.
And, as of this month, thredUp has made a new move to make buying second-hand clothing that much more appealing to fashion-focused customers: UPcycle.
The goal for Upcycle is to bring more retailers into the fashion recycling movement, by offering customers who send their used clothes to thredUP for resale a new payment option: a gift card to a partnered brand.
“There’s a lot of retailers that want to get on board, want to participate in a circular economy, but they potentially lack the operational infrastructure to do so,” Karen Clark, thredUP’s vice president of communications and partnerships, told Fortune.
The program is meant to take a lot of friction out of the “circular economy,” a term used to describe the process of turning waste into resources by reusing and recycling products at the end of their useful life. In its program, thredUp handles intake, pricing, resale, site placement and marketing of the goods it takes in. Partner brands just have to distribute the “Clean Out Kits” consumers use to send clothes to thredUP.
So far, the program only includes a single brand, sustainable woman’s clothing line Reformation. And though their shared interest in sustainable fashion makes them a strong fit, Clark noted that the Upcycle program is targeting more than just brands that have build their business on sustainability. thredUp has plans to announce a second partner on Black Friday, and is looking forward to 10 new partnerships in 2019.
“Retailers are realizing that 'good for the planet and the good for the business' don’t actually have to be mutually exclusive,” says Clark. “They can, through a program like this — an apparel recycling program that’s essentially a sustainable loyalty program for their customers — accomplish both.”