Transporting Goods in the Context of Luxury Resale

Talking about shipping clothing is long overdue. In the spirit of considering how we might make transporting goods and people more ethical and sustainable, I will be specifically considering the luxury resale market in this blog. First and foremost, it is worth noting that shipping is notoriously an ethical and sustainable obstacle in the fashion industry (which is saying a lot because the industry’s cup runneth over with backlash about the use of forced labor, environmental degradation, and the use of materials that may harm human health). Excluding the impact of shipping, The World Bank estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the transportation industry is responsible for 27% of carbon emissions. The need for more socially responsible practices in the intersection of these two industries is obvious.

It is easier to see the intersection between the fashion and transportation industries if you have a firm understanding of the current trends in each industry’s policy and regulatory frameworks. For now, let’s keep the intersection of the two extremely simple: remember that almost every article of clothing needs to be shipped to a storefront or to an online shopper’s home. 

Now, considering the fashion industry independently for a moment, we can turn to the idea of luxury resale. So, what does that mean? Luxury resale is the selling and buying of second-hand designer fashion items (a definition that varies slightly from meaning high-end name brands to meaning expensive, high-quality materials) and, though it may seem like a small venture, big players like Forbes and McKinsey & Company are devoting significant resources to study the luxury resale market. After all, the resale market was worth an estimated $25-30 billion just two years ago with a projected growth rate of 10-15% in the next decade. Thanks to a series of ambitious (and some might say risky or fanciful!) acquisitions and IPOs, online platforms such as The RealReal, ThredUp, Vinted, and similar vendors make up between a quarter and a third of the market share. If you were born in the twentieth century, you may be thinking, “Hey! This just sounds like a consignment store!” and you would be correct. Off-line, in-person consignment, thrift, and estate sales still make up the majority of the market however, as this blog post will explore, that does not necessarily mean there is no transportation component because goods still need to get to the stores and so do potential buyers. 

So why does this matter? Well, I’ve already mentioned that the production of clothing, shoes, and accessories makes up an estimated 10% of carbon emissions, and the success of the luxury resale market has the potential to severely disrupt that harm. Perhaps more importantly, extending the lifetime of a single piece of clothing theoretically creates less demand for the brand to produce new pieces. This could have some positive implications for the labor conditions of garment factories, which are notoriously full of forced laborOne in six of the world’s workers work in the fashion industry, which is considered the most labor-intensive industry in the world because every piece of clothing is handmade on a sewing machine in a very long supply chain. Notably, the majority of garment factory workers are women who work for low wages in unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Of course, this transition also means industry giants will lose revenue and that is not a fact that has gone unnoticed. Many luxury brands are desperate to facilitate their own resale platforms where consumers are able to sell back their old items to the brand, and the brand resells the pieces in a small online consignment store. Brands such as GucciOscar de la Renta, Isabel Marant, and even department stores like Saks Off 5th have started their own resale platforms to double dip on selling the same product. In the last two years, about half of retail brand executives without resale platforms have reported fearing their companies are falling behind the trend compared to their counterparts with resale platforms (and a related fun fact is that in 2021, 28% of executives surveyed said they believe someday in the future every fashion retailer will have a resale component). 

Many of these online resale platforms also publish resale reports. This is where things get interesting. Using The RealReal’s 2022 Luxury Resale Report as an example, the industry is able to track consumer trends more easily than ever, and it’s obvious consumer behavior is shifting. “Thanks to feel-good factors like sustainability and the thrill of scrolling thousands of unique and rare pieces, resale is attracting more shoppers than ever” the report offers. The RealReal president and co-CEO added, “[b]etween primary market supply constraints, inflation woes, and the acceleration of the climate crisis, shoppers and consignors alike are seeing the economic, environmental, and emotional value of resale”. About 43% of consumers of all ages say they care about consuming sustainably, while over 60% of consumers under the age of 30 consider a fashion brand’s ethics (i.e. how the brand treats its employees and the impact on the environment) before making a purchase. Over 71% of surveyed consumers under 30-years-old believe that boycotting a brand due to mistreatment of employees (including raw material, factory, warehouse, and in-store employees) or environmentally harmful practices impacts how companies act, especially if the criticism is taken to social media. Lastly, ThredUp conducted an ethnographic study of consumers to conclude that 93% of consumers in the US shop secondhand or would like to consider shopping secondhand and 74% of consumers say they shop (or would shop) secondhand for clothing.

This trend is not just reflected in surveys of consumers’ perceptions; the ordinary consumer is putting their money where their mouth is. In 2021, the resale trend replaced about 1 billion clothing purchases that would have otherwise been bought new. Secondhand, particularly luxury resale, saw record growth in 2021 at 58% growth, and is expected to grow by 16 times its current size in both number of items resold and dollar value by 2026. ThredUp alone claims to have displaced about 1.3 billion pounds of carbon emissions to date. In recent years, resale has grown eight times faster than the overall apparel market in North America, and four times faster than the overall apparel market in South America and Africa. This is a global trend, and consumers note numerous reasons for the shift such as the ease of online resale and technology, the need to save money on apparel, the ability to afford higher-end items, being more sustainable, having fun hunting for the perfect piece, and finding one-of-a-kind items.

Now that we have sufficiently covered the massive growth of the luxury resale market, as well as the ethical and sustainable benefits of consuming secondhand fashion, let’s figure out where shipping falls into all of this. First, it is not very common for an article of clothing to be produced in a single location. “It’s extremely rare for raw materials to be grown, processed, sewn, and sold all in one location”. Cargo ships handle about 90% of global trade, which the European Parliament estimates could make up about 17% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2050. These figures do not even begin to cover the impact of the trucks we load that inventory onto after the ships dock, nor the shipping to the consumer’s home or retail store from the warehouse. A truck or airplane is actually about five times  worse than a cargo ship in terms of its environmental and human impacts when completing the same task. All this to say that, though it may sound unbelievable, cargo ships are the most sustainable method of transportation for the fashion industry without passing the cost of logistics onto the customer in a way that makes the products frankly inaccessible.

The transportation industry does have a few tricks up its sleeve to match the ethical and sustainable contributions being made by the luxury resale industry. Many experts recommend tools such as centralized distribution and full truckloads. Zero-emission trucking is well on its way, too. Earlier this year, The U.S. Department of Energy released a study predicting that by 2030 about 50% of medium-to-heavy-weight vehicles would be cheaper to purchase and operate as zero-emission vehicles than diesel-powered combustion engine vehicles. This may include hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or electric vehicles, which is a shift many companies including Toyota have invested in heavily. Though this study is exciting, there are still several ethical and sustainable questions to answer about the transportation of all goods, including those belonging to the fashion industry. Perhaps most importantly, the increase in zero-emission vehicles will mean an increased demand for raw materials needed to build lithium-ion batteries such as cobalt, copper, and lithium. The mining industry is not only bad for the environment, but is also rife with forced labor (as well as unhealthy and underpaid working conditions for employees whose jobs do not meet the threshold of the forced labor definition). Moreover, electric vehicles require electricity to be charged (duh!) and the grid in the U.S. is powered by fossil fuels. Relatedly, pure hydrogen does not exist naturally on earth and has to be produced in a lab, many of which are also powered by fossil fuels

Ultimately, both the luxury resale industry and the transportation industry are beginning to acknowledge the ethical and environmental consequences of shipping clothing. Though there is an overwhelming amount of work that remains to be done, I think it is fair to be both proud of the incremental progress we have made and optimistic about the potential for progress in the near future. Though we are still waiting on the mass production and distribution of zero-emission shipping options (particularly ones that are produced without forced labor and with renewable energy from start to finish), the resale industry is getting creative to pick up the slack in the meantime. ThredUp offers bundled shipping to reduce the packaging and consolidate orders. The RealReal has briefed Congress on the importance of circularity as a tool to combat the climate crisis as well as the disproportionate economic hardship placed on low-income consumers. While transporting goods remains the least socially responsible part of the luxury resale, it is obvious the fashion resale industry is here to stay, and the innovation of the transportation industry is right on its heels. For now the more sustainable way to participate in luxury resale continues to be in-person thrift shopping which eliminates the shipping component (especially if you have the privilege of walking or biking to the shop, though there is very intense discourse among the thrifting community about the most ethical way to participate), but shopping online resale is undoubtedly less resource and labor intensive than online shopping for new items and The Department of Energy’s report suggests that zero-emission shipping will be the more practical option in just a few short years. Though a few years is a long time to wait in the face of the climate crisis, I am convinced that the next time I write about the relationship between luxury resale and transporting goods you may hear me mention a hydrogen fuel cell flying truck complete with an espresso machine. 

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