Every week, The Interline analyses up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

The secondary market emerges as a key tool for backing up sustainability commitments, but technology will be the key to going further.

We are now a week on from Earth Day 2021, which is precisely the kind of timeline within which the headline commitments begin to fade, and the reality of making a change (or most likely changes, plural) starts to set in.

But while the shape and scope of a true, systematic overhaul to the way fashion designs, develops, and manufactures new products might still be hard to define, this week’s stories demonstrate that milestones are still being reached – especially when it comes to the secondary market.

UK supermarket Asda – part of the Walmart group, which operates the George clothing brand – yesterday announced that it would begin selling pre-owned clothes in its stores, under a new brand name. In one sense, this is not an especially revolutionary move; Asda will sell what it labels “vintage and retro” clothing from a range of different brands, rather than being constrained to its own private labels. So practically speaking this is akin to moving the long-established charity / thrift store concept into a new location, rather than doing anything too radical.

But the last ten days also saw lululemon announce that it would be introducing a “Like New” trade-in programme in its stores, where the clothing traded in for store credit will be resold in-store, with the profits (what constitutes an overhead in this situation is unclear) being reinvested in growing sustainability initiatives company-wide.

This is a more sweeping change for two reasons. First, it’s being introduced by a brand that has no other revenue streams – unlike a supermarket within which apparel and footwear are only two of many product categories – and the programme is confined to lululemon’s own products, hence the “recommerce” label. Second, it’s being backed by a white label technology platform, Trove, that will presumably manage the intricacies of shoppers trading in lightly-used garments that subsequently become, for all intents and purposes, new SKUs with complex second lives.

The Interline does not know for certain, but the expectation is that the recommerce platform will integrate to lululemon’s stock-keeping and ERP systems, and will hopefully also feed into the next cycle of design and development – since trade-ins could offer valuable market intelligence and field testing data if the brand collects the right information at the time of trade-in. Raw data on the durability and timelessness of its products that would traditionally have been lost (the resale market is mostly opaque from a brand’s point of view) can now enter a closed loop of sale, resale, and quality / fit improvement.

So while Asda’s initiative is probably better characterised as a footprint extension for a mega-retailer that already has broad operations, lululemon’s is something different: a brand staking its claim to a market for second-hand sale, recycling and upcycling that is gaining considerable ground among the vital 30+ demographic in China – and a market that is pegged to explode in Europe in the near future.

The idea of brands and retailers wanting to remain close to their products (and their customers) as they’re being used is, of course, nothing new. Patagonia has had a repair programme for its clothing for a long time, and also sells pre-worn items in some countries. While the origins of that strategy are earnest and altruistic – designed to avoid waste – we cannot overlook that it also likely leads to stronger consumer loyalty. And the opportunity, when the customer comes back into the store, is to cross-sell and up-sell while their garment is being repaired – whether that is a conscious strategy or not.

This is also week in which footwear brand Veja – which recently collaborated with Rick Owens – announced its own repair initiative, and other brands are sure to follow, if they haven’t already, since this secondary opportunity to bring shoppers back into stores could prove to be just as valuable as the secondary resale market.

Image courtesy of Adidas.

Let’s consider a different example: within the last ten days, Adidas’s first “made to be remade” shoe became available for wider purchase. This is a dye-free, glue-free shoe specifically intended to be recycled at the end of its lifespan – bearing a QR code that the owner can scan so that the sneakers can be returned to the brand and used to create new styles. On top of adding weight to the brand’s sustainability commitments – and educating consumers on the practicalities of recycling materials – this initiative reframes footwear as a closed loop product, and brings the wearer into that loop. It’s unclear at this point what incentive the consumer is given for returning the shoes, but it seems probable that a discount on a future purchase – closed loop or otherwise – will be offered at the point of return.

And the promotion of more sustainable material sources is not exclusive to end consumers, as evidenced by LVMH’s recent unveiling of Nona Source – a marketplace that sells surplus materials from the various houses that operate under that luxury umbrella, including exotic hides, to boutique brands and designers, and offers a “digital sampling” experience.

But sustainability is about much more than material sourcing and secondary sales: from supply chain labour to social impact, brands are now being judged on a broader set of criteria than ever before. This comes at a precarious time, though. With non-essential retail now open in the UK, USA, and some parts of Europe – as well as remaining open in China – organisations are being presented with the combined challenges of needing to quickly reclaim their pre-pandemic revenues, at the same time as needing to avoid reclaiming their legacy methods of sourcing and production. Put bluntly: under the traditional model, greater volume means greater ethical and environmental harm.

An article published this week suggested that these two goals are mutually exclusive, but The Interline does not necessarily agree. It’s certainly fair to say that scaling back up to meet rebound demand at the same time as reshaping long-standing processes will be difficult, but this is where technology could come to the rescue.

Throughout April, we have published numerous articles making the case for tech-enabled supply chain transformation, and we have more to come next week, when our supply chain focus comes to an end. Across all our coverage, though, the theme is consistent: bridging the gap between market demand and sustainability goals is going to require a different approach – one that goes beyond the secondary market and shakes up the tools and processes that are no longer fit for a future where planet and people are just as important as product.

And the best from The Interline this week:

Since our last new analysis, we have published an exclusive op-ed from footwear expert Ross Authers, which examined the different approaches the sector has taken to digital product creation and 3D visualisation.

Yesterday we also published a new, exclusive collaboration with Cotton Incorporated, which explains how revisiting the building blocks of sourcing can enable brands to build smart, more sustainable supply chains.

Next week our supply chain focus concludes, and we will turn our attention to B2B and B2C digitisation. Expect more exclusive op-eds, editorials from our staff and contributors, and tech vendor collaborations.

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