The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By Brandy Davis-Balsamo
Wandering through a used clothing store, Jane pushes her way into a rack so tight with clothing that she can barely get a view of the item in front of her. Good thing the articles have tags that indicate the brand and size. The clothes that make it here are the lucky ones – approximately 68lbs per person ends up in the landfill every year. Only around a quarter of Americans donate used clothing and of those donations, the majority end up being sold overseas for cents on the dollar. Fortunately, there are a few companies that are disrupting this inefficient model and there is plenty of room for more.
Patagonia is a technical clothing company that started in the early 1970’s. The company commissioned a study on the environmental impact of its business back in the early years. That study proved to be an eye-opener for Patagonia for it revealed that a natural fiber - cotton - was more harmful to the environment than oil-based polyester and nylon, which will live far beyond our lifetimes. At the time, cotton farming used 25% of all toxic pesticides thus surpassing all other fibers in the scale of negative impact. Patagonia used this information to implement positive change and since 1996, its garments are 100% organic cotton. The company has since launched the Footprint Chronicles, an initiative to provide consumers with transparency in regard to each product’s resource consumption, projected environmental impact, and journey through the production cycle. Patagonia also offers consumers the ability to recycle their clothing when reuse is not a possibility and as of 2005, the company has taken back 45 tons in clothing to be created into new pieces.
ThredUP, is a new start-up that helps parents exchange children’s pre-loved clothing and toys. According to ThredUp, the average American child will have outgrown 1,360 pieces of clothing by the age of 17 at an estimated total cost of $20,000.00. Although clothing swaps have come in and out of vogue throughout the last 60 years, a web-based platform facilitating the exchange of clothing is a novel approach. The online platform allows parents to search for boxes of clothes by gender, age, and size thereby ensuring a good match. Descriptions of boxes are also provided so that prospective takers are aware of the contents. ThredUp went live in 2009 and since then has helped recycle 35 tons of clothing via direct exchange.
These laudable initiatives are not the sole fix to the fashion glut, but they do point to an untapped market for clothing retailers. One of the big problems for the recycled clothing industry is lack of good service design. Clothing brands figured out a longtime ago that shopping is mostly a social activity and have devised all sorts of ways to present the articles in a more inviting, inspiring manner. Contrast this with your local second-hand shop and you’re in for quite a shock. Jane will tell you that the musty odor permeating piles of clothes lumped together by color is a big obstacle in her desire to be part of the sustainable solution. Herein lies the untapped potential for big brands to open their own pre-loved, sustainable stores or host swap events. By grouping outfits together, repairing damaged clothing, and heightening the in-store experience, brands could take ownership of clothing waste and turn it into big opportunity.