May 21, 2024
by Karl Smith
Repair Vs. Resale: Unpacking The Hierarchy of Circularity
by Karl Smith
May 21, 2024

When it comes to fashion and footwear circularity, by this point we’re all familiar with the Three Rs. “Reuse, repair, recycle” has become something of a mantra in communicating basic sustainability values to the general public; simple things that everyone can do, challenging the idea that individual people can’t make any kind of difference.

Like all good mantras, it’s empowering. But it’s also incomplete. With a shift in messaging on the secondhand marketplace, the circularity Holy Trinity is now very much a quartet; “Resale” has effectively become the Fourth R.

Again, resale isn’t new; from yard sales to flea markets, selling your pre-loved goods is a practice old as ownership itself. Selling them online isn’t new, either: eBay was founded in 1995, after all, Craigslist the same year. Even more recent, higher-end operations like StockX, The RealReal, and Vestiaire Collective have an average combined age of over a decade. What’s new is the messaging.

Where resale – so far as clothes and shoes are concerned – used to be about clearing out your closet, making room and making some cash in the process, it’s now been repackaged (to join the original triumvirate of Rs) as a circularity effort. Passing on your previously-owneds is now about cutting down on waste and pushing back against rampant overproduction; no longer a selfish act, but an altruistic one.

And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, it’s always been true – it just wasn’t always the story that sold best. The idea that “doing better for the planet” could now be considered a more marketable draw than “selling your old things for money” or “getting quality used items at a discount” is surely a positive reflection on how mainstream sustainability has become.

Now that resale has officially entered the circularity canon, though, it does raise some important questions. Not just about that one piece of the puzzle, but about the whole entire structure.

Where the repairing, recycling and reselling of clothes and shoes previously existed as a dialogue between consumers, albeit usually facilitated by a third party, brands have now involved themselves in every part of the process with various circularity-led initiatives – even, in some cases, covering the “reuse” element with rental schemes. In just the last twelve months we’ve seen Nike and New Balance establish resale platforms and refurbishment programs while Veja and Arc’tertyx set up dedicated bricks and mortar repair spaces. Meanwhile, the British surfwear brand Finisterre and Swiss running outfit On – to name just two of many – both operate programs that effectively lend their lower-impact products to customers, undercutting the need for excessive production.

And this is all good news; every new effort is a step in the right direction.

There are valid criticisms, though; gripes about whether, perhaps, brands might be using “sustainability” as a way to involve themselves in a process from which they were traditionally excluded and, in doing so, turn further profit. But, then again, if that profit is cleaner and greener than simply ramping up production and shifting more brand new units – and if, through their involvement, they’re making circularity more accessible – does it really matter?

Yes there are worthwhile questions about decentralization and democratization, but, at the end of the day, if the Earth is benefiting, isn’t that what’s most important here? The ends surely justify the means.

And let’s talk about those ends for a moment. Veja produces 4,000,000 pairs of shoes a year, New Balance over 16,000,000, Nike 800,000,000. On doesn’t seem to have released numbers in quite the same way, but we do know that the Swiss label breached the billion-dollar sales mark in 2022. Similarly, there’s no available data for Arc’teryx’s production efforts, but the fact that the brand is doing well enough to be the revenue leader for its parent company – with 159 worldwide dedicated brand stores and a huge online fan base – suggests that, for a fairly niche concern, the manufacturing volume won’t be insignificant. (Finisterre, a micro-brand by comparison, nonetheless reported producing 450,643 pieces of clothing in 2022.)

Without even passing judgment, we can objectively say that these are Big Numbers.

To give a sense of the bigger picture, we also know that more than 23 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured each year globally with 22 billion pairs thrown out. Taking the same math and applying it to Veja, New Balance and Nike’s combined output, that’s 779 million pairs discarded from only three brands. (Granted, one of them could – without a speck of hyperbole – be described as the biggest sportswear brand on the planet, but that’s almost beside the point. Swap out Nike for any other brand and, while the numbers may not be quite so dramatic, the 95% exchange rate still produces a figure that equates to serious business.)

This is why it’s vital that brands insert themselves into the situation: with only 5% of those discarded shoes being recycled, it’s clear that those with the capability – and, dare we say, the responsibility – need to do something to address these figures. It’s absurd to shift the onus of circularity on to the consumer without providing direct access to those circular avenues.

So, while one could cynically perceive brand involvement in the secondary market as just moving in on a second revenue stream, the end result is that consumers – who don’t necessarily know how to properly fix a garment or shoe; who don’t necessarily know the best way to recycle a product; who perhaps don’t want to get involved with resale because of skepticism when it comes to issues like authenticity – now have clear guidance on prolonging the lives of the products they own, courtesy of a source that they trust.

Effectively, brand involvement in circularity assumes a level of much-needed responsibility. To offer the option of repairs, rather than pushing replacement, is effectively a commitment – as is facilitating the sale and purchase of secondhand goods – albeit a somewhat tacit one, rather than an admission of fault.

“What’s most important is that the onus must remain on the brands to make change. It’s a positive move to see them stepping up to facilitate circularity, but what we need to see more of is that ethos making its way into pre-consumer habits. Before the fact, not after.”

What’s perhaps most interesting, though, with all of this in mind, is that this reorganization of the paradigm presents an opportunity to question not the validity of the Four Rs, but the hierarchy. More specifically, separating reuse and recycle as an obvious pairing, is resale – effectively the challenger in this – a better option than repair?

In 2021, 9.2 million pairs of sneakers were sold on the secondary market while 1.2 billion new pairs of sneakers were sold at retail. That’s a huge gap and it’s one that needs to close – fast. The only way to make that happen is for brands to not only support the secondary market in the more conceptual, hands-off sense but to make it a part of their offering.

And for some this represents a huge pivot: that Nike, for example, along with a not-so-short list of other household names, was trying to ban its sneakers appearing on the resale market altogether just two years ago and now runs its own resale program is the kind of shift in attitude and action that we need to see from companies with the infrastructure at their disposal. That Nike’s shareholders benefit from this change of heart doesn’t change the fact that its customers and, indeed, the planet benefit too. Realistically, given that no business is ever likely to move in ways that genuinely counter its best financial interests, finding this kind of alignment – while likely an unsatisfactory compromise to the more militant activist wing – is necessary to making anything like real change.

An imperfect solution, sure, but a solution nonetheless.

We don’t have comparable data on repaired shoes and garments because, for one thing, repairs have always been decentralized and – other than in a few specific circumstances – decoupled from the brands. That those links are once again being strengthened represents a whole new era for circularity and perhaps a genuine challenge to status quo production and consumption in a way that resale does not.

The only way to measure the effect of increased access to repairs is to track, over time, the discard percentage on shoes and clothes and see whether that number decreases in line. Or, similarly, to watch and see whether a brand like Arc’teryx – in opening its new repairs-led Alpha Store in Toronto – or Veja, with its Paris-based General Store, see either an influx of circularity-specific custom or a complimentary drop-off in virgin sales.

The sticking point here is whether this inflection moment ignites further efforts or scares brands back to business as usual; if appropriate plans haven’t been made, there is a serious flight risk when it comes to Earth-friendlier initiatives – a genuine concern that they will row back in search of the familiar.

In this way it is not, perhaps, so much a question of Resale vs. Repair in the sense that one is “better” than the other, but rather in the sense of which is more acceptable to the industry.

While repairs will prolong the life of a single consumer’s product, resale does this – in passing the product from one consumer to the next, leaving the first empty handed – while also creating room for another sale. It keeps sneakers and garments in play for longer, yes, but it leaves a gap in the loop for fresh production to sneak back in. And, to that end, resale is always going to be an easier transition and an easier sell for brands – precisely because they’re still selling.

In the end, though, the truth is that a circularity hierarchy doesn’t make sense; each of the Four Rs is in constant dialogue with the other three; each works best not as a one-of-four option but as one step in a four-part cycle.

Reuse is great, but there is still the question of what happens at a product’s end of life; recycling is essential but (as it exists today) relies on too many variables to actually work in any meaningful way; repair is, of course, a stop-gap and a bandaid, rather than a cure for the bigger problems; and resale, well, it’s kind of just the prelude to any of the above – it doesn’t stop a product from falling apart and needing repairs, doesn’t stop it being reused, doesn’t stop it eventually being recycled, just delays the inevitable and passes the buck on to the next person.

What’s important though, is that the onus must remain on the brands to make change. It’s a positive move to see them stepping up to facilitate circularity in these ways, but what we need to see more of is that ethos making its way into pre-consumer habits.

That means more diversion and utilization of wastage; it means more forward-thinking structural rethinks like the implementation of modular design; it means more progressive processes like 3D printing and localized manufacturing; it means more, lower-impact, non-toxic and performance-viable next-generation material choices as standard. In short, it means accountability before the product even reaches the consumer – not just after the fact.

This is why “circularity” itself is something of a convenient misnomer; it gives the impression of a complete circle – a shape with no edges, beginning nor end. But, in reality, this all starts with the brands – with what they choose to do and what they choose not to.

Nothing changes until they do. And those corners, which must be turned in order to move through and forward, are very sharp indeed.