Is it time to #ditchyourstuff? How the pandemic could change the fashion industry for good

With the pre-loved luxury market experiencing a boost in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, will the pandemic give rise to a more mindful consumer?

As the old adage goes, a cat has nine lives.

But have you ever considered how many lives that T-shirt neatly folded in your cupboard has? Or that dress that you wore just once to a work party five years ago and still hangs in your wardrobe?

Trends may change with the season, but those garments, whether coveted treasures you save for special occasions, or the pilled sweatshirts pulled on during lazy weekends, have the ability to outlive us all.

Only 20 per cent of clothing worldwide is reused or recycled, with the vast majority ending up in landfills or incineration, according to a 2017 report by Anika Kozlowski, assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University in Canada.

Of the garments in landfill, those made with synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon can take up to 200 years to disintegrate, according to Close the Loop, an environmental awareness initiative in the Netherlands.

The environmental impact of the fashion industry, as well as the economic ramifications shouldered by shoppers around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, could be why a new movement has been sweeping social media.

The hashtag #ditchyourstuff began trending in China in May, with consumers pledging to embrace a more mindful approach to shopping as their financial circumstances shift.

But if less, as they say, is more, how does one responsibly ditch one’s stuff without further burdening already strained waste systems?

“We’ve definitely seen a spike in new people discovering us in the past two or three months with the Covid-19 lockdown and people becoming a little bit more mindful and decluttering,” says Sian Rowlands, owner of Dubai’s Retold boutique. The store, located on Umm Suqeim Road, only stocks pre-loved items, one of a number of pre-owned businesses that have sprung up in the region in recent years.

Donating or selling clothes, accessories and jewellery is a key way in which consumers can either liberate themselves of possessions, or make purchases in a more sustainable fashion.

At Retold, which opened its Dubai store in 2018 after years of operating as a pop-up, demand from sellers increased following several weeks of restriction on movement in the emirate.

“We always see a bit of a cycle throughout the year anyway, with supply aligning with the school calendar, but this April, we saw people getting back in touch, saying I’ve been home for three weeks, I’ve had a clear-out, [and] I’m ready to donate my stuff to you,” explains Rowlands.

For Retold, which is typically stocked with around two-thirds high-street items, with the rest designer labels, the concept of pre-loved fashion isn’t simply about lessening the environmental impact.

“The business concept for us is about sustainability in fashion, but it’s also about the economy and people being able to earn a little bit of money and shop for cheaper, too,” she says. “Our resale price point is about 20 to 25 per cent of the item’s original cost. So people really are making their money go a lot further.”

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This new mentality is led by millennials, who think differently, have a louder voice ... and who have the power to affect their family's decisions

While the concept of thrifting is predominately seen as a cost-saving device, the pre-loved market is certainly not limited to those after high-street finds. The pre-owned luxury market not only allows shoppers the chance to lighten a bulging wardrobe, but also proves a valuable tool for keen collectors looking to source limited-edition pieces.

And, business appears to be booming in the wake of the pandemic, courtesy of itchy-fingered shoppers. “Sales have been increasing drastically in recent months due to the consumer’s change of behaviour towards e-commerce retail,” says Kunal Kapoor, founder and chief executive of The Luxury Closet.

The online boutique, which first launched in 2012, is one of the region’s most recognised platforms for buying and selling high-end pieces, with Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Rolex among the labels on offer.

“Consumers’ luxury-shopping habits are changing; taking into consideration what ownership really stands for and its definition, along with the impact this has on the environment, too,” says Kapoor. “This new mentality is led by millennials, who think differently, have a louder voice with all of the social platforms that are available to them now, and who have the power to affect their family’s decisions, too.”

According to The Luxury Closet’s sales figures, the site has welcomed a 150 per cent increase in new buyers in the past year, as well as a 300 per cent growth in sales in Saudi Arabia from the past year, despite the platform removing cash on delivery as a payment option.

“Typically, our consumers are looking for investment pieces and our bestseller list has remained consistent during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he explains. That aforementioned list includes Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermes when it comes to handbags, and Rolex, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels in the fine jewellery and watches segment.

The site has even introduced a new series on Instagram Stories, TLC Guru, to help followers through the closet-decluttering process, which, Kapoor says, can have “an impact on clearing negative space in their lives”. The Luxury Closet, which has 40,000 items in its inventory, has also adapted to recent demand by introducing a previously superfluous category.

“We have introduced masks on board as we noticed our consumers had difficulty sourcing them,” Kapoor adds. “However, we have developed this category to include fashionable masks as well, as we realised that there is also a demand for them.”

The Luxury Closet, which has an in-house team of experts tasked with verifying the authenticity of the items, charges a flat administrative fee of $25 (Dh92) to sell an item, as well as taking a commission based on the sale price.

Ditch your stuff

For those looking to donate rather than sell their goods in the UAE, a new initiative is promising to accept any item and pass on the proceeds to a charitable cause.

Thrift for Good, which launched in February, is a social enterprise that resells or recycles donated pre-loved items – welcoming everything from clothing and homeware to toys and books – with money raised going towards Gulf for Good. The UAE-founded non-profit, which works with a number of children’s projects around the world, funnels that money into its programmes, which predominately focus on providing healthcare, education and housing.

“It’s an area where money is desperately needed, so this is such a great way to convert unused items into changing lives for kids,” says Thrift for Good founder and managing director, Jennifer Sault.

“We weren’t planning to go online yet, just focusing on markets, but Covid pushed us online and the uptake has been fantastic. There are more donations coming in than we can possibly handle, especially online, with people very excited to see their stuff go to a good cause.”

The volunteer-run organisation, which has been given everything from unbranded Carrefour items to pieces by Dolce & Gabbana, hopes to eventually open a physical store.

While Sault acknowledges the likes of Retold, The Luxury Closet and fashion platform Garderobe in boosting the pre-loved market, she also hopes that Thrift for Good will bring a “widescale” option to consumers. “Not only is it good for the environment, it’s a better cost, it’s more mindful, and it’s a little more personalised and fashionable in its own way,” says Sault.

“There are 21 billion tonnes of just textiles that go into landfill every year; our planet is soon going to be covered in old clothing. Second-hand is a great way to still enjoy shopping and that feeling of a new dress or a new shirt, but making the life of that last a little bit longer to reduce the environmental impact.”

However, while a number of pre-loved stores have seen a surge in demand with people staying at home, will the apparent uptake in scaling back consumerism continue once Covid-19 is but a distant memory?

A recent survey by McKinsey & Co revealed that between 20 and 30 per cent of respondents in China would continue to be cautious, either consuming slightly less or, in a few cases, a lot less.

“Many people have learnt they don’t need as much, and they won’t die if they don’t have the latest fashion trend,” says ethical fashion activist, writer and researcher Sass Brown.

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I hope that the past few months, globally, will be an eye-opener for a lot of people and they all make small changes, because that will have a compound effect

“At the same time, I am sure some of the bigger brands and high street retailers will use the financial losses suffered through the global pandemic as justification for the abandonment of sustainability plans and goals.”

Rowlands is also doubtful that the global mindset can be so swiftly shifted. “Quite quickly [after the pandemic] we’ll go back to mass consumerism, I think – but I hope I’m wrong,” she says. “I hope that the past four months, globally, will be an eye-opener for a lot of people and they all make small changes because that will have a compound effect.

“We’re in that age of consumption and it’s not going to change overnight. We all need to talk more about slowing our lives down, slowly changing lots of things, in order to make the world a better place.”

Making the pre-loved market more accessible and visible will help consumers make valuable, small lifestyle changes, maintains Sault. “I really do believe if you build it, people will come. People will fall in love with pre-loved once they know it exists.”

Kapoor is also optimistic that the current unsustainable model of the fashion industry has to topple. “We have seen an increase in our database from millennials in recent years,” Kapoor says. “Conscious shopping is the key driver in how the younger generation is thinking and one of the main reasons they opt for buying pre-loved is because it is sustainable. And at the end of it all, it’s circular – you use something, swap, and fund something new.”

And long may that circle keep on turning.