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Product, Service & Design Innovation
What Makes a Resale Company Truly Sustainable?

With the resale market for apparel alone estimated to grow to $77B billion by 2026, sustainability is sure to become an increasingly important factor for consumers to consider when debating where to sell and buy their used goods.

We’re in something of a resale renaissance. Having been in the industry for 30 years, I can say with confidence that the demand, cultural attitudes and interest in buying & selling used items has never been stronger. This fuels our mission to provide resale for everyone. Across all of Winmark’s stores — Plato’s Closet®, Once Upon a Child®, Play It Again Sports®, Music Go Round® and Style Encore® — we’re recycling 432,000 items per day or about 5 items per second.

What’s most exciting for us is that demand isn’t driven by a single factor. Gently used or slightly flawed clothing continues to be in style and in demand. The average person has more interest in sustainable lifestyle habits than ever before, which is amplified by current inflation and supply chain issues; but the degree to which a resale company is sustainable varies.

Resale is a great start to sustainability

Resale is nearly always more sustainable than buying new product off the rack. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year, while the lifespan of these pieces has shortened by 50 percent in the past 15 years. As far as clothing and apparel are concerned, consumers are buying more — and it’s just not lasting as long.

That’s where resale plays a key role. Every item you buy via a resale business is, in effect, kept out of a landfill.

Let’s go a bit deeper

In a circular economy, all resale is not created equal. To understand what can make a resale business more or less sustainable, let’s look at the resale business models out there.

  • Consignment: In this scenario, a consumer lists an item with an individual/business and retains ownership of the item until it is sold — at which point the consumer receives a commission.

  • Direct to Consumer: Usually online-only, these websites let a user list an item for sale or auction, keeping a cut of the proceeds.

  • Donation-based: A mission-driven, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization collects items that were given to the business for free, then sells them.

  • True resale: A business purchases an item outright from a consumer; then, sells that item later.

In a nutshell: if you’re trying to discard something via resale, you have four options: You can give it away. You can consign it. You can sell it to a company. You can sell it to someone else.

There are plenty of great companies that can provide each option. Some are online; some are brick and mortar, and some even offer both. Each of these approaches has its own benefits and drawbacks — including risk, convenience and, yes, sustainability. For example, without generalizing too much, an online-only approach to resale will usually end up being less sustainable than a brick-and-mortar approach. Whether true resale, direct-to-consumer or consignment, an online sale means shipping, and shipping means CO2. When looking at the transportation aspect of the transaction, donation-based and true resale models usually are the least environmentally impactful.

Extending the value, and life, of fast fashion

When it comes to fast fashion, plenty of people have valid concerns over the negative environmental and social externalities. Even so, fast-fashion brands do have a place in a circular economy.

Winmark brands and other companies have been able to interject and extend the fast-fashion lifecycle by finding value in these low-quality goods. At Winmark, we make a positive impact in this space by buying and selling many ranges of clothing — including fast-fashion brands. If it already exists, we want to keep it circulating and keep it out of landfills; and there continues to be strong customer demand at these price points.

That said, not all resale models can support these kinds of transactions. When it comes to online resale platforms that operate as agent not principal, buying fast-fashion brands isn’t always profitable when you consider not only the value of the item itself but also the shipping cost, emissions and packaging footprint. In this case, being community-minded and locally owned means stores minimize the quantity of touchpoints, packaging, fuel, resources, carbon footprint, etc that go into buying and selling. This is one place Winmark excels — as our distributed model, 1,270+ stores in local communities, has a positive impact locally and is inherently more sustainable than any other model with centralized facilities and excess shipping requirements.

Giving back to the community

To be sustainable, a company must go beyond environmental impact to also consider how its operations affect surrounding communities. Many donation-based resale businesses give back to the community through philanthropic endeavors; while others, such as those involved in online resale, participate in community engagement activities such as providing skill workshops.

For Winmark, this translates to buying clothes from consumers where each franchise location pays out $350,000+/year to its local community — reaching over $445 million in 2021. Some Winmark franchisees even go a step further in engaging with the community. For example, Los Angeles-area Play It Again Sports stores partner with the Kings Care Foundation to collect quality, used hockey gear and other pre-owned sports equipment to provide to underserved youth. In doing so, they extend the life cycle of these goods, keep them out of landfills, and begin educating the next generation on sustainability issues.

So ... what makes a resale company truly sustainable?

There will always be something more that can be done when it comes to minimizing a business’ environmental impact. With the resale market for apparel estimated to grow to $77 billion by 2026 (up from $36 billion in 2021), sustainability is sure to become an increasingly important factor for consumers to consider when debating where to sell and buy their used goods.