May 18, 2022
by Kyle MacNeill
We Take That Back > The Challenges of Renewal Programs In Fashion
by Kyle MacNeill
May 18, 2022

We all know by now the power of reduce, reuse, recycle. Returns, though, aren’t such a great fit. What’s more of a logistical nightmare than paying a customer to send back stock you’ve just paid to send out, reprocessing it, relisting it and all the other time-consuming ‘re-’ terms you can possibly conceive of? Since online shopping began and Pay Later schemes like Klarna went worldwide, the issue’s only been exacerbated, with consumers sending back stuff quicker than Gordon Ramsay on Kitchen Nightmares. They now make up 16.6% of total retail sales in the US, compared to 10.6% in 2020. Trust us – these brands have got the receipts.

Imagine the scenes, then, when Eileen Fisher actually asked for returns. It all began back in 2009, when the NYC-based designer – known for its classic womenswear – started to take back its garments from staff. “We noticed so many of our employees just had closets of Eileen Fisher clothes that they no longer wanted,” says Lilah Horwitz, Creative Lead at RENEW for Eileen Fisher. “In 2009, our employees began turning in their old clothes but we didn’t have a use for them yet. We simply knew we didn’t want them to end up in the landfill.”

By this time, they’d assembled a mound of clothes intimidating for even the most skilled climber. “We acquired these mountains and mountains of clothes,” Horwitz said. It hadn’t peaked yet, though; Fisher extended the initiative to its past customers. “Then we thought, ‘If our employees have this many clothes, surely some of our customers do as well.’ So we did a marketing campaign called ‘We’d like our clothes back thank you very much’ and were completely surprised by the reaction.”

“To date, we have collected over 1.8 million garments…we are the first in the industry to create a takeback program like this.”
Lilah Horwitz, Creative Lead at RENEW for Eileen Fisher

With this, the RENEW program was born, ambitiously inviting buyers to return used pieces for a small amount of store credit, which were then rehomed, recycled or remade into entirely new clothes.

The catch? That it caught on; an irresistible deal for the consumer, the offer became hugely successful, resulting in Fisher’s warehouse being inundated with literally tons of items and the need to create an entirely new system of circular clothing. “To date, we have collected over 1.8 million garments…we are the first in the industry to create a takeback program like this.” Fisher had inked the blueprint for an entirely novel offering: the take-back scheme.

It’s simple. First, a brand makes a call-out for customers to return worn items that have reached the end of their life. Then, they retrieve these items, either through the customer shipping them or leaving them at physical drop-off points. These pieces are sorted through and, depending on their condition, are either rehomed, resold, reworked or recycled. The customer, as a token of appreciation for their environmental gesture and supply of reusable materials, receives some form of store credit. Repeat, ad infinitum, ad Groundhog Day.

Recently, there’s been an influx of brands hopping on board this bumpy vehicle for change. Just this past month, Timberland launched its Timberloop scheme in the UK after an initial trial in the US, encouraging its customers to send back worn items or return them in store. It followed in the shock-absorbing footsteps of other outdoor brands, boosted by Gorpcore kids willing to go circular. Patagonia, for example, were one of the first brands along with Fisher to introduce a takeback scheme with their Common Threads Recycling Program, recycling worn-out gear via drop-off points in stores. This was later upcycled into the Worn Wear project, now recycling and reselling 100% of returned pieces; paving the way for similar projects from The North Face, Arc’teryx and Merrell.

The sportswear world has also been game. Last year, adidas launched its Choose to Give Back initiative, inviting buyers to return used gear in return for an eGift Card. “Choose to Give Back is the first circular service model we have invested in with the ambition of extending the life of products already in use,” an adidas spokesperson told FUTUREVVORLD. “The program is currently live in the United States, and we are to scale to other markets in future seasons.”

Denim’s in the loop, too. Relatively, it’s a simpler material than most to remix, with insanely ahead-of-his-time Margiela recycling scraps of the stuff way back in the nineties. It’s little surprise, then, that major brands like Levi’s have got involved, launching their Levi’s® SecondHand scheme in October 2020. “Denim is a perfect fit for takeback or resale programs,” Liz Lipton-McCombie, Director of Sustainability told FUTUREVVORLD. “A pair of jeans can live many lives with repair and customizing to fit different owners, it’s a timeless piece of clothing and we believe that Levi’s® denim only becomes more beautiful with age.” MUD Jeans, meanwhile, offer a takeback scheme which extends not just to their own brand, but any other >96% cotton jeans that might be gathering dust in your wardrobe, adding to their circular matrix of rental, resale and repairs.

Why, then, is everyone suddenly backing takeback? Well, for one, the world’s kind of burning. It almost seems cliched, now, to return to statistics like: eighty-five percent of all garments end up in landfill or one-hundred billion new items of clothing are produced every year. It only sounds like old news, though, because nothing is actually changing. With eighty-eight percent of consumers wanting brands to be more ethical and the other twelve percent surely reading the question wrong, retailers of all shapes and sizes are frantically writing ‘sustainability’ on recycled paper flipcharts.

“Take back programs make ‘practical sustainability’ possible for everyone.”
An adidas Spokesperson

“Take back programs make ‘practical sustainability’ possible for everyone,” adidas says. Rather than behind-the-scenes practices (arguably more important, but that’s another story) like changing up materials or shipping methods, take back schemes allow customers to feel like they’re making a difference; because, in some small way, they actually are. They loop together brand and buyer in a twin act of environmental altruism, bringing customers closer to the clothes they’re buying and highlighting a company’s commitment to refusing to contribute to refuse.

Then, there’s the threat of third-party resale. Remember when Burberry admitted to burning £28.6m GBP of unsold clothes in a single year? It wasn’t because they’d finally got sick of nova check; it was the risk of them ending up on resale sites for highly discounted prices, damaging their status as a high-end, exclusive fashion house. From eBay to Depop, Vestiaire Collective to Vinted, a string of vertiginously-growing vintage platforms are making big bucks, with the market raking in around $84bn USD a year. The utopia of the takeback scheme for a big brand is to avoid missing out on that kind of paper by ensuring that every single item of clothing it produces boomerangs back.

So, as a brand, it makes sense to start a take back scheme in house, right? Well, this vision has a few toxic-waste-fed moth holes; first, the insane amount of stock to contend with. Circular fashion might sound like a dream, but in practice it risks becoming an economical saṃsāra of sorts: an infinite cycle of stock, sales and returns with no end in sight. Suddenly, a brand has to harness the time, energy and money to sift through and process thousands of clothes; thousands of clothes it had previously expended time, energy and money to sift through and process. The whole process makes for a logistical migraine, even for established brands; to work, the system requires frequent collections, a well-briefed team, storage and reporting to prove that it’s actually working successfully.

adidas Choose to Give Back

It’s why many brands choose to outsource the operations to external agencies, taking a fabric-laden weight off their shoulders. Eileen Fisher may have started off riding solo, but when things stepped up a gear, they got Trove involved. The Californian B-Corp offers a holistic take-back and resale matrix, ensuring that it’s profitable for brands and runs smoothly. Their roster of clients is enviable, featuring many brands that began alone – Patagonia, Levi’s, Arc’Teryx, AllBirds – to scale-up early offerings like Patagonia’s Common Threads program and Fisher’s RENEW pilot. It’s a common thread: “Brands doing their own thing can offer bespoke services,” Sarah Gray, Senior Analyst for Sustainable Textiles at WRAP, tells FUTUREVVORLD, “but they have to be really committed to the durability of the product and to achieving reuse and recycling to want to invest in and do it themselves, so most partner up.”

While this might make things easier for the brand, though, the consumer still has to be incentivised. WRAP recently reported that as few as 2% of consumers are using these schemes. Sarah Gray, Senior Analyst for Sustainable Textiles at WRAP, the UK’s leading circular economy charity, notes how nascent they are. “Take-back is only just getting started and so more people may choose to use these schemes over time,” she told FUTUREVVORLD. Part of the reason, as with anything, is money.

‘Store credit’ might sound dreamy in theory, in practice, most clock in at no more than $5 or $10, likely a fraction of what was originally paid. Sure, the customer might be keen to help the environment, but with living costs right now facing a similar crisis, buyers are too savvy to strike a poor deal. Which begs the $84bn USD question: why send your clothes back to the brand you bought from, rather than sell it on a marketplace for way more? Considering that platforms like Depop only take around 10% of the listing price, you’re likely to make a quicker – and bigger – buck by selling to an actual human rather than sending it back to the brand to be remade. Plus, you get actual money, not a voucher.

“Definitely recyclability (and repairability) will help very much when it comes to enabling the recycling economy. This could mean easily removable pieces, such as buttons or even panels of fabric; also fabrics made from fibers that are suitable for recycling. There’s quite a lot of work to do still on defining standards for recyclability.”
Sarah Gray, Senior Analyst for Sustainable Textiles at WRAP

Brands have tried to get this sewn up by following the next logical step: starting their own resale platforms. Aside from investing in the generic ones, brands like Gucci, Ganni, COS and Lululemon have launched official resale avenues, attempting to divert customers away from umbrella sites, even if, like with Gucci’s team-up with The Real Real, they’re using white-label versions or blue-tick shops on those sites anyway. It’s a big ask, though, to port established Depop kids and Vestiaire fashionistas over to restricted, monobrand platforms, requiring a pretty cult community (like the Ganni Girls) to even be considered viable.

It’s why success stories, when it comes to take-back schemes, are so far pretty limited. Even the best examples like Eileen Fisher are only scratching the surface; crunch the numbers, and the take-back scheme only represents 5% of the four to five million clothes it produces annually. No shade, though: that is 5% more than about 99% of other retailers, and Fisher has ambitions to scale it up further. “I hope that take back programs become the norm and not just the new trend,” Horwitz says. “We have two Renew stores and a dedicated website to shop. What is fascinating about Renew is that we can create jobs and revenue without creating new product.”

Another glimmer of hope is that brands have started being preemptive rather than reactive, taking presale rather than just resale into account, designing clothes than can be recycled more efficiently. Timberland’s new Trekker City Hiker, for instance, has been designed with removable soles ready to be repurposed for future shoes. On a similar tip, Nike’s just-announced sneaker the Link is totally glueless, allowing for disassembly and drop-off at the brand’s in-store Recycling & Donation service when they’ve run out of life. “Definitely recyclability (and repairability) will help very much when it comes to enabling the recycling economy,” Gray notes. “This could mean easily removable pieces, such as buttons or even panels of fabric; also fabrics made from fibers that are suitable for recycling. There’s quite a lot of work to do still on defining standards for recyclability.”

Levi’s Secondhand

Whether you see take-back schemes as the future of circular fashion or a stitched-together monster, it’s reductive to knock the brands trying them out. Ultimately, their real success may come from brands offering higher incentives to customers, limiting the profits for brands. Sure, that might make the projects break even rather than make profit, but isn’t the whole point looking after the planet?

For now, at least, the key is making sure whatever ends up being remade or resold is still actually desirable. “One thing that can help when it comes to resale and trying to make sure environmental impact reduction is real, is for the products to find the right customer, so that people shopping on these platforms and channels find what they’re looking for,” Gray says. “(It ensures) that product is really something they want and can include in their wardrobe so they get as much use out of it as possible and love wearing it.” Otherwise, you know what it’ll lead to more of – deep breath – returns…