The New Thing in 2019 is for companies to implement an environmental twist to their marketing. In the fall, clothing retailer Everlane promoted an expansive social media blitz around a new coat made using recycled plastic. Versace has a sub-page on its website declaring its commitment to the environment—the brand stopped using fur and opened a “Sustainable Boutique” in London. There is an entire genus of direct-to-consumer company that uses targeted social media advertisements to sell ethically sourced products. A toothbrush made eco-friendly, a blanket made from “plant-based materials,” Tampons made of organic cotton. One wonders if more sinister motivations aren’t at play. The growing public concern for the environment, though not enough to compel governments to act on climate change, seems to have taught corporations new ways to get us to buy stuff. For a price, you can purchase carbon offsets that, at least psychologically, neutralize your contribution to the earth’s constant and accelerating decay.
Cynicism aside, people have a much-heightened awareness of the consequences of their consumption. Beyond brands using sustainability as a sales pitch, a growing segment of shoppers are buying and selling used clothes. The apparel resale market is expected to reach $41 Billion by 2022. It is in some ways an existential crisis for fashion and retail as we know it.
Oddly enough, it might be streetwear-obsessives, sometimes derided as hypebeasts, that we have to thank. The fiendish collector culture that has surrounded brands like Supreme and Stussy since the early aughts has transformed into a robust online ecosystem that’s all but eviscerated the once-taboo idea of buying someone’s old clothes. Marketplaces like Etsy and eBay remain power players in the resale market, but they are joined by apps like Poshmark, Depop, and Grailed, all of which have turned trading, selling, and buying used clothes into a social affair.
“I started out selling sneakers on eBay a while ago and over time trends and styles changed which is when I switched to the more clothing side of fashion,” Dru, a 19-year-old reseller who uses the website Grailed, says. “A friend actually recommended I try out Grailed to buy and sell since it was a marketplace that you could find older sold-out items.”
He tells me that he sells, on average, five to eight items each month on the platform. Usually, they’re items he bought that no longer fit, or don’t match his new interests. He often buys clothes on Grailed and puts them back into the marketplace if he doesn’t like them, a closed loop hype system. “I believe that sites like Grailed are more or less the future of shopping to an extent. I rarely buy items retail nowadays,” he says. “Let’s say the store is selling a shoe for $500, but someone is selling the exact same shoe worn one time for $300, are you really going to pay an extra $200 just so that it’s brand new out of the store?”
The idea of an “enthusiast” might be a marketing invention, but it goes to explain a growing norm in the way we buy things. A long winded argument could drone on about how social media has given us more incentive to present a perfected version of ourselves online, and part of that has trickled into how we shop. We need to look distinct in order to stand out in an environment where, quite literally, the entire world can see us. Like with the subcultural cues of skaters and punks, our taste must set us apart. Except, instead of standing out in the midst of bourgeois society, we strive to stand out in the face of the algorithm.
“I think that this push for archive fashion has been the result of people wanting to look more unique and wanting to harken back to what has inspired today’s designers,” Lawrence Schlossman, Grailed’s brand director, says. “Also a backlash to the fast fashion world where everything looks generic.”
It is true that a defining social media-friendly aesthetic appears to have our collective psyche in a chokehold. Big logos, “good vibes,” Helvetica. It’s the saturation of the “Instagram look” that has propelled more unique options forward. Now more than ever, it seems, people want to exist outside of the boxes afforded them online. An esoteric T-shirt from the ’90s; a rave-inspired tracksuit; one-of-a-kind Japanese New Balances. Today the most coveted fashion items are the ones that already exist, that are actually imbued with the spirit they hope to conjure.
John Nagiecki, Communications Director for PlanetAid, an environmental nonprofit, sees clothing waste as a major element of the bigger picture surrounding climate change.
“To start, it’s important to recognize that the volume of clothing that consumers throw away in the United States has more than doubled in the last 20 years from 7 million to 16 million tons,” he says. “Aside from the demands made on landfill space, a key impact of this surge is in terms of greenhouse gasses.”
According to the EPA, only about 15% of the U.S.’s 16 million tons of unwanted clothing is reused or recycled. The EPA estimates that the savings in greenhouse gas emissions from that 15% is about 6.2 million metric tons of C02. Equivalent to taking 1.2 million cars off the road
in one year.
“The more secondhand clothing that is purchased and reused, the less that ends up in the waste stream. There is value in secondhand clothing, and the thrifting industry is helping capture that value, diverting it from the waste stream, and making it available to consumers,” Nagiecki says.
Jake Metzger, Grailed’s director of marketing, is humbled by the implication.
“I think that just giving them an option is a powerful tool,” he says. “From a very practical sense, if you can sell something and get money from it, that helps. But then even from the more altruistic sense, I think that more and more people are seeing this as an avenue to be helpful.”
This spring, in New York City, American Eagle will host a pop-up sneaker resale shop in its flagship store in SoHo, an apparent nod to Gen Z shoppers looking for rare gear. It might mark the beginning of such efforts from major retailers hoping to adapt to young shoppers becoming more resounding in their belief that there’s already enough stuff.