Rethinking Fast Fashion’s Approach to Sustainability: Resale Programs vs. Supply Chain Innovation

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In the quest for sustainability, fast-fashion giants such as Zara, Shein, and H&M have turned to resale platforms as a means to reduce their carbon footprints. However, a recently released study has raised questions about the effectiveness of these programs in significantly curbing emissions. This analysis suggests that redirecting efforts towards their supply chain, embracing sustainable materials, and investing in recycling innovations could yield more substantial environmental benefits.

Resale Programs and Carbon Emissions

Fast-fashion brands, known for their rapid production cycles, currently produce about 11.5 kilograms (25.3 pounds) of carbon dioxide for every item they create. Surprisingly, the study indicates that implementing resale programs will only lead to a minimal reduction of 0.7% in their emissions.

In contrast, premium apparel brands like Tory Burch and Ralph Lauren, with a higher carbon footprint of around 16 kilograms of CO2 per item, could achieve a more substantial 14.8% reduction through resale programs. Outdoor brands like Patagonia and the North Face, with 12.5 kilograms of CO2 per item, could reduce emissions by 15.8%.

These projections consider the decreased production of new items, offset by revenue gained from reselling previously owned items.

Resale Programs as Sustainability Initiatives

Many companies, including apparel retailers like Gap and home goods companies like The Container Store, have been quick to adopt resale programs as a strategy to capture sustainability-focused consumers and meet new ESG reporting requirements. While these programs do promote sustainability by encouraging the purchase of used items, the study suggests that their scalability and true impact on fast-fashion companies’ sustainability goals may be limited.

According to Andy Ruben, founder of Trove, “It really comes down to how many people want your items after you’ve sold them the first time.” The profitability and effectiveness of resale programs largely depend on consumer demand for secondhand goods.

Challenging Fast Fashion’s Status Quo

Fast-fashion retailers, often criticized for their environmental impact, are indeed taking steps towards sustainability. H&M, Zara, and Shein have begun to partner with resale platforms and have disclosed efforts to reduce water consumption and incorporate sustainable materials. H&M, for instance, aims to increase its use of recycled fibers to 30% by 2025.

A Call for a Holistic Approach

The study’s findings emphasize the need for fast-fashion retailers to reevaluate their approach to sustainability. Rather than focusing primarily on resale programs, redirecting investments towards recycling innovations and sustainable materials can offer a more comprehensive solution to reduce emissions.

Gayle Tait, CEO of Trove, underscores this point, stating, “What the research is underpinning is that brands have to demonstrate meaningful investment into shifting their model. They’re not actually shifting their model by doing a branded peer-to-peer site or working closely with a marketplace. They’re continuing to do the things that got their carbon emissions.”


While resale programs have gained momentum as a sustainability initiative in the fast-fashion industry, this study challenges their effectiveness in significantly reducing carbon emissions. It highlights the importance of adopting a holistic approach, incorporating sustainable materials, recycling innovations, and supply chain improvements. To truly make a difference in the sustainability landscape, fast-fashion brands may need to reconsider their priorities and invest in long-term solutions.