Nov 21, 2023
by Karl Smith
Should We Really Ban Fast Fashion Resale?
by Karl Smith
Nov 21, 2023

Last week, preempting the Black Friday rush, high-end resale outfit Vestiaire Collective rolled out an extension its ban on fast fashion. Having first announced its plans to systematically cut ties with fast fashion on Black Friday of last year, removing products by some of the biggest and most obvious offenders – names like of Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, SHEIN and ASOS – the Paris-based company is now adding fresh names to that list and giving those brands the same dishonorable discharge from its platform.

And rightly so, of course. SHEIN alone reportedly adds at least 2,000 (and possibly up to 6,000) new products to its website every day.

In fact, as Vestiaire notes, “92 million tons of textile waste is discarded on a yearly basis” – a number that is, to put it very mildly, wholly unsustainable. (And which, astutely contextualized and taken out of the abstract, Vestiaire’s founders say, “is enough to fill the Empire State Building every day.”)

Going considerably harder than last year’s announcement, the new list of banned brands includes not just online mass-production outfits but also some more familiar high-street names – the kinds of stores that hide their fast fashion infrastructure behind the veneer of familiarity and bricks and mortar reputation washing. That this includes the Swedish fashion giant H&M and the Spanish retailer Zara is no surprise – both have long, storied histories of low-quality, high-impact, and high-volume production with poor sustainability commitments beyond gestural (read: greenwashing) collaborations. And, as Vestiaire’s founders also point out in their open letter, of the 100 billion garments produced every year, Zara and H&M account for more than a billion.

That it extends to American casual-wear stalwart GAP, which is basically an institution at this point, or to the Japanese retailer Uniqlo, might ruffle a few more feathers. But that’s a good thing.

Regardless of any other knock-on effect, one likely result of Vestiaire’s very public decision (a much-needed stocks-in-the-town-square kind of approach to naming and shaming) is to raise awareness – pushing consumers to reconsider how they think about some brands and the products they offer.

A label like Uniqlo, for example, doesn’t have the low-end pricing of a SHEIN or a Boohoo – its heat-tech apparel is even considered something of a must-have for consumers living in colder climates – and is often able to slip under the radar, escaping the “fast fashion” label. But the reality is that Uniqlo isn’t any greener in its practices than an etailer like ASOS. (The holding company that owns Uniqlo is even called Fast Retailing Co. – make of that what you will.)

In fact, a recent survey suggest that consumers actually consider H&M a leader in sustainability – along with the likes of Primark and Amazon – so, if nothing else, it’s clear this skewed perception needs a shakeup.

The ban may also have consumers asking other questions, too: that the full list of labels no longer welcome on the Vestiaire platform includes not only H&M the brand, but also other subsidiaries of the H&M Group – labels like Weekday, Monki and Cheap Monday that don’t necessarily trade on the H&M name as a part of their branding. Removing these brands from resale could have the off-label effect of drawing wider attention to questions of ownership. Could Arket or COS – H&M Group outfits, widely seen as more somewhat premium brands than their peers – be next on the chopping block thanks to their ownership? Perhaps they ought to be – this isn’t just a question of guilt by association, after all, it’s a question of shared infrastructure and corporation-wide values.

When BALENCIAGA made a widely-and-rightly-criticized decision with its marketing back in early 2023, the Kering Group stepped in to make a statement. No matter how distinct a brand identity is, that brand is inextricably tied to its parent company – in both directions. Even if a label like Arket, for example, does have better practices and better products than other brands within the H&M Group – and based on the price point, you’d certainly hope so – to tar it with the same fast fashion brush as H&M proper could have a handing in pushing the wider company to make better choices.

But, when it comes to the Vestiaire ban, things are quite so black and white.

Firstly, there’s the fact that Vestiaire is a premium resale operator: it doesn’t rely on fast fashion brands as a selling point and, in fact, the inclusion of fast fashion on its platform actually has the effect of diluting the Vestiaire USP. If you’re know for reselling premium goods, allowing your platform to fill up with low-quality merchandise isn’t going to be a sensible move. Also, given that Vestiaire has official partnerships with luxury brands like Gucci and Chloé – and even with the premium etailer Mytheresa – having the the platform consistently flooded with low-end labels like Topshop, Primark, and Fashion Nova, doesn’t make sense for maintaining those partnerships. There’s no way that Gucci would want to appear next to Nasty Gal, because what would that say about Gucci?

More than this, though, there’s the question of whether a platform like Vestiaire is really anyone’s go-to destination for fast fashion in the first place. Given the more luxury-focused clientele and the more stringent vetting process of the Vestiaire platform, it’s neither the ideal forum for buyers nor sellers of low-end labels. You’re much more likely to find the banned brands on Vestiaire’s list on a less highly-moderated platform like Depop or even a more generalized marketplace like eBay.

If Vestiaire’s ban were likely to nudge those other resale outfits into following suit, that would be one thing. But, in all likelihood, anyone selling fast fashion goods on Vestiaire is probably double-listing across multiple platforms anyway – and, if not, will just shift their sale following the ban – giving no real incentive for a Depop or an eBay, which have never claimed to deal in quality and have always focused on quantity, to make similar changes.

But let’s assume the best-case scenario here: not only is a whole swathe of fast fashion removed from Vestiaire Collective platform and culled without mercy, but those sellers who have their items taken down decide not to re-list elsewhere. Even then, there’s also the question of what good it does to even potentially take these items of out circulation when less than 1% of all clothing is recycled.

If they’re not passed on, then what? Sure, maybe some might make their way to a thrift store or a charity outlet, but isn’t it more likely that the majority will be thrown in the trash and sent to landfill? Rarely designed from Earth-friendlier materials, once those garments hit the garbage heap then they’ll spend years – decades, even – decomposing, releasing toxic chemicals in the process. Not exactly ideal, when these clothes might perhaps have had a second life with another owner.

To Vestiaire’s credit, the company makes some suggestions over on its Instagram – but, while upcycling into new clothes or recycling into household items like cleaning cloths are solid tips, they’re also time-consuming ventures for a demographic not famously time rich.

Then there’s the issue of supply and demand – something of a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, there’s the notion that consumers might think twice about buying fast fashion if there were no chance of either flipping or selling those products on once they’ve outlasted their usefulness, leading to a lower uptake in the first place. On the other, there’s the idea that – by opening the marketplace to fast fashion and creating a secondary economy for those products, rather than cutting them off – there’d surely be a necessary decline in first-hand production.

Realistically, no-one is buying fast fashion under the misapprehension that these are high-quality garments; wouldn’t it make sense, then, if they were available secondhand, still in decent condition and at a lower price point, that consumers would be just as likely to take the resale route?

Answering this question is about more than just one platform, though, and Vestiaire’s intentions are honorable: cutting fast fashion brands loose on such a major scale, right before a big-ticket event that promotes consumption over consideration – and through which, perhaps, Vestiaire might have made a tidy profit on volume sales of those thirty-plus labels – sends a powerful message about a key player’s position on the future of fashion.

Whether the right people are listening, on the other hand, is another question entirely.