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Fast Fashion is Making a Play for Sustainability—But Will it Work?

If Boohoo cannot shake off its reputation as one of the fashion industry’s least sustainable retailers, it won’t be for lack of trying.

Just last week—on Earth Day, no less—Boohoo subsidiary PrettyLittleThing debuted its first clothing range made from recycled materials, including castoff plastic bottles and factory offcuts. It’s “one small step,” the fast-fashion brand said, to “make the world a better place.”

Earlier in the month, PrettyLittleThing announced it was partnering with ReGain, an app developed by England-based sustainability firm Yellow Octopus, to help divert unwanted garments from the landfill. ReGain works with companies like Boohoo and its “faster fashion” rival Missguided to incentivize clothing drop-offs at 20,000 sites across the United Kingdom. In exchange, customers unlock discount codes that can be applied to their next purchase.

“We’ve partnered with [Regain] to encourage you to send back your old clothes in return for some amazing discounts,” Umar Kamani, PrettyLittleThing’s co-founder, said in a statement. “Let’s start making a difference together to protect our amazing planet.”

If Boohoo, which also owns Nasty Gal, and its ilk are trying to reframe their narratives, they’re likely to have their work cut out for them. The U.K. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee recently named Boohoo among U.K. retailers “least engaged” with prioritizing sustainability in their company policies. (The others were Amazon U.K., Missguided, JD Sports, Sports Direct and TK Maxx.)

“Our research found that Amazon U.K., Boohoo, Missguided, JD Sports, Sports Direct and TK Maxx participate in few industry sustainability initiatives,” the committee wrote in a report in January. “Recycling waste and complying with the government’s carbon reduction commitment is not sufficient to offset the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry. None of these retailers have signed up to [the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan’s] targets to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint. Use of recycled materials in products is limited.”

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All of which is to say that capsule collections and take-back programs, though commendable on paper, are no substitute for robust systemic change.

Other names on the high street are also experimenting with end-of-life management, perhaps with the same kind of image rehabilitation in mind.

Beginning this month, & Other Stories, which is part of the H&M Group, will be trialing the sale of “pre-loved” items on Sellpy, a secondhand platform for the Swedish market. The pieces are browsable on their own dedicated channel on the website, “making it as smooth as possible to pass them on to their new owners.”

“We’re exploring different ideas on how our long-lasting designs can find their way to new owners,” Sanna Lindberg, managing director of & Other Stories, said in a statement. “With that in mind, we decided to do a small second-hand test project with Sellpy. For us, it’s such a compliment to see our pieces find new homes and get a second chapter.”

Plus, there’s the fact that resale’s explosive growth is threatening to flip the traditional retail model on its head. Not only has the market for secondhand clothes grown at a rate 21 times greater than conventional retail over the past three years, but it’s also poised to more than double in value from $24 billion today to $51 billion in 2023, according secondhand e-tailer ThredUp and analytics firm Global Data.  Moreover, 40 percent of consumers now consider the resale value of an item before buying it, or nearly double what it was five years ago.

“The resale customer is no longer somebody else’s customer, they are everybody’s customer,” James Reinhart, co-founder and CEO of ThredUp, wrote in the introduction to the company’s 2019 Resale Report. “Mass market or luxury, if people can find a high-quality product for much less, they’ll choose used.”