Consumers aren’t buying fast fashion’s forays into resale just yet

Brands like Shein and H&M are experimenting with sustainability, but generally remain plagued with environmental concerns.
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· 4 min read

It’s no secret that sustainability has been a core consumer concern over the past few years, one that’s prompting several retailers to reconsider their own role in the growing environmental crisis. Fast fashion, in particular, is notorious for pushing overconsumption models alongside high carbon emissions.

  • The UN Environment Programme estimates that fast fashion is the second-biggest consumer of water. It also accounts for 8%–10% of global carbon emissions, outpacing international air travel and maritime shipping together.

So what’s motivating fast-fashion retailers like Shein and H&M to get into the secondhand game? Well, let’s call it a combination of offsetting some of the damage the industry causes and keeping up with current consumer sentiment around sustainability.

“There’s definitely a lot of these brands [that] are seeking that sustainability halo that does come with resale,” Claire Tassin, retail and e-commerce analyst at Morning Consult, told Retail Brew. “It also helps these brands take a little bit of ownership about the way that their products are positioned.”

However, brands like Shein—which recently launched its peer-to-peer program, Shein Exchange—are being slammed for possible hypocrisy. Shein, in particular, remains plagued by allegations of labor abuses and the damage it does to the environment.

“Fast-fashion companies’ business model relies on the production of cheap apparel made from cheap fabrics, so any attempt to become eco-friendly without a commitment to reduce manufacturing and daily product drops, as well as without investing in paying a fair, living wage, will be obsolete,” Anand Kumar, fast-fashion analyst at Coresight Research, told Retail Brew.

And while that might be true, it also begs the question of whether the target consumers for these brands (Gen Z and millennials) actually care if resale programs signify a genuine effort on the brand’s part or if it’s simply greenwashing.

Cheap thrills:
Tassin believes that while Gen Z is an extremely “sustainability-cognizant generation,” their age, combined with lower income, means that their primary motivation in shopping fast fashion is saving money.“If you can get products on those brands even cheaper than you can in the primary market, that’s a huge incentive for especially younger shoppers…who are not earning a lot of money to be able to access more of those products at lower prices,” Tassin said.

She further noted that 68% of Gen Z shoppers surveyed by Morning Consult said that saving money is a major reason they shop resale, compared to the 26% who said sustainability was a major reason.

This, however, does not mean fast-fashion retailers are wrong to experiment with resale models, since they can still be a big draw for consumers who are increasingly shopping vintage or secondhand anyway.

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“The majority [of people] probably don’t realize they don’t care,” Michael Olaye, VP and managing director of client services at innovation consultancy R/GA, told Retail Brew. “It’s based on price, but I think it’s the responsibility of the brands outside of what the customers care about, or don’t care, to really operate at an ethical level.” He added the growing secondhand market additionally offers an opportunity for brands “to really try and implement” their promises around sustainability.

And if that’s not enough of a motivator, brand-owned resale platforms also help solve the problem of authenticity, Tassin said. While retailers like H&M, Zara, and Primark can be found at many thrift stores, customers still want to know they’re buying the real stuff.

Winning streak: Ultimately, fast-fashion secondhand is bound to grow, with new players entering the industry over the next few months. Bottom line: The competition is high. “I feel like with the platforms, we’re getting into streaming-wars territory, where we’re gonna have a ton of new providers come in, and then eventually, people are going to filter down to the ones that they love,” Tassin said.

While only time will tell which retailers can stay ahead, experts believe it’ll all depend on maintaining a sense of authenticity and not “papering over the cracks,” as Olaye puts it.

“Overall, fast-fashion companies can recognize resale as a profitable opportunity if they can prioritize quality and longevity, and reduce production,” Kumar said.

“Without these meaningful initiatives, fast-fashion entry into resale will be, in several ways, simply a cash grab.”—JS

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.