Fashion brands are launching buy-back programs in increasing numbers, but shoppers need to take a closer look

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau made headlines with her support for a

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau made headlines with her support for a homegrown label on Sept. 21, in Montreal.Dave Chan/Getty Images

In September Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wore a vivid green mini-dress from Birds of North America, a Canadian designer, to the Liberal Party’s election victory party. Her support for a homegrown label made headlines. But if Grégoire Trudeau really wanted to set an example, she’d take the next logical step in the sustainable Shop Canadian ethos by selling the $259 dress back to the company. Designer Hayley Gibson would happily welcome it back into the indie brand’s new ReNesting program, where it would fetch about $15 in store credit on its way to a new home.

Back in March, when she first put out the call for second-hand items in any condition, Gibson was surprised to receive about 250 pieces spanning 15 years of past seasons. Customers who dropped off or mailed in garments received Birds dollars in exchange, a credit from $5 for a top to $15 for a dress. “We’ve tried to make this as easy as possible,” she says. “Primarily it’s really a service to our customers and to extend the life [of the piece]. As long as it’s a Birds garment, we’ll take it.” The first batch of ReNesting items – about 130 listings, averaging $80 each – was released online in mid-September; most have already sold. The next drop will be on Dec. 9.

Birds of North America is an active participant in the buyback economy, the growing environmentally conscious circular product lifestyle. The McKinsey & Company’s 2021 State of Fashion report looks at the cultural dynamics shaping the global fashion economy and has predicted that more consumers will see an increasing proportion of their wardrobes made up of pre-owned or rented products. As a result, brands and retailers are inching away from the linear business cycle – create, buy, dispose – to a more circular one, which is theoretically endless, and means deferring the final destination of landfill almost entirely.

The North Face and Patagonia have been repairing and reselling pieces collected from customers for years. Other companies also help facilitate the circulation of their gently used goods. Canadian shoe brand Fluevog, for example, has hosted an independent peer-to-peer marketplace for the resale of its shoes called FlueMarket on its website for nearly a decade.

But other brand resale platforms and programs aren’t entirely altruistic. In October, L.L. Bean sold select vintage apparel through its Instagram Stories. Called L.L. Bean Pre-Loved, the sale consisted of just a few dozen items, making it more of a social marketing initiative than a meaningful exchange.

Though a step in the circular direction, facilitating second-hand sales is not the same as buying back directly. “The problem with a circular economy has been how to create users and participants in the resale economy from the retail industry side – to create a resale economy at every step of the consumer economy,” says Alberta entrepreneur Lauryn Vaughn, founder and CEO of Calgary-based luxury consignment site The Upside. “There’s a pushback from brands and department stores to involve resale.”

Until recently, traditional retail – and according to Vogue Business, luxury brands in particular – has been resistant to enter the resale market because it ostensibly steals sales from the primary market. As brands see that strong resale values actually drive sales of firsthand, or new, goods (as, for instance, luxury consignment website TheRealReal experienced when they partnered with Burberry to encourage consignment) the hostility has thawed.

Indeed, if brands want to foster a following and develop a base of loyal customers, embracing the second-hand economy will be essential.

The digital classifieds platform Kijiji, for example, is a dominant commercial channel in Canada’s second-hand economy. On the eve of the pandemic, the last time it did its annual Second-Hand Economy Index report, the overall resale economy in Canada had been on a steady rise and was already worth an estimated $27.3-billion, with 2.4 billion items exchanging hands – up by 250 million from the 2014 figures stated in their inaugural study. The average number of items Canadians granted a second life to each year was 86 products, up from 76 in 2014, and clothing, shoes and accessories represent 30 per cent of that figure.

The number of second-hand items acquired or disposed by every Canadian in a year is also growing. The average number is 82, of which roughly half were purchases. And apparel is the top resale category, representing almost a third of second-hand products overall. Kijiji claims 88 per cent of people under the age of 45 participate in the second-hand economy in some way. And according to the McKinsey report, three out of five of consumers consider environmental impact a factor in their buying decisions. Wisely, brands are now actively helping to close the loop.

In the spring, Vaughn launched ReUpp, a new software that seamlessly integrates with partner retailer web stores and generates a guaranteed buyback price for the original purchaser on their new goods. By including primary retailers and brands as partners, she now has direct access to garments for her consignment business, while for partners the circular system reduces returns.

ReUpp’s first circular-economy partner is Smythe, whose coveted tailored jackets command a premium price even secondhand. The brand’s webstore now hosts ReUpp’s transparent and guaranteed buyback pricing and terms at the time of initial purchase.

“You’re not obligated to sell it back at any point and we certainly hope that you want to keep it,” co-designer Christie Smythe says. “But in case you’re the kind of person who purchases new styles every season, by all means let’s make it easy for you.”

When the wearer is ready to part with a Smythe piece, they simply activate the buy-back within the set time frame; ReUpp deals with the rest of the transaction. This means engaging with consumers so that they have a more sustainable mindset during all parts of the consumption cycle and become stewards rather than owners of garments. “It extends the life cycle of our product in a different way,” Smythe says. “We stand by the longevity, whether it’s in your closet or someone else’s.”

Actively entering the resale market is something more luxury brands are doing. Stella McCartney’s partnership with the RealReal offers shopping credit in her online store. And Gucci recently launched Vault, an online hub of previously worn Gucci wares, from clothes to handbags, though there’s no buyback intake mechanism – the goods are all sourced and reconditioned in-house. In this case, it’s more of a way of controlling image in the increasingly lucrative designer resale market.

Gucci recently launched Vault, an online hub of previously worn Gucci wares, from clothes to handbags.Gucci

But when buyback and resale programs are launched by unexpected brands, one has to wonder if it’s any more than theatre.

Fast-fashion behemoth H&M, for instance, the world’s second-largest clothes retailer, claims to recognize “both the role [it’s] played and the responsibility [it has] to turn things around.” The chain has since 2013 had a garment collecting program that accepts textile items from any brand in any condition for re-use or textile recycling. In September, H&M Canada also became the first market to launch Rewear, a consumer-to-consumer resale vertical hosted on its website. The issue, however, is that by profiting both from the problem it creates and the so-called solution, this faint attempt at circularity seems like just another green-washing marketing tactic.

We are in the early stages of a radical transformation in retail. The resale disruptors who have positioned themselves as conscious alternatives to vapid consumption have turned circularity into a major consideration for shoppers and their primary purchases.

In the long term, circular is the only means of achieving a sustainable fashion economy. Whether it’s new or new to you, we must take a closer look at what is motivating these corporate forays and assess if the circularity effort makes a meaningful difference or if it’s just spin.