the rise of sustainable fashion apps

With wardrobe hoarders taking on a quarantine clear-out, coupled with a new sense of frugality, a new generation of “slow fashion” apps is allowing people to experiment with clothes swapping and shopping secondhand.

Lauren Bravo, the author of How to Break Up with Fast Fashion, says: “Where a few years ago, buying secondhand could mean hours of trawling, tech is making the whole experience so much more efficient and more accessible.” While charity shops have suffered sales declines of as much as a third, resale sites such as Loopster, Depop and Vinted have boomed in recent months.

Loopster, a website where people trade good-quality used children’s and women’s clothes, has recorded a meteoric 700% rise in sales from the beginning of 2020. Vestiaire Collective, an 11-year-old luxury hub where people sell pre-loved designer clothes and handbags, has reported a 101% increase, year on year, in the number of items posted for sale through its marketplace.

Sojo – a Deliveroo-like service for clothes repairs and alterations – has just launched a pilot in London. It connects customers to local seamster businesses through its app and bicycle delivery service.

And apps such as Nuw and Swopped now allow people to swap items, from high-street to designer, via their mobile phones. These platforms operate under a system of “swishing,” which means you earn an equal value token for each item you swap and so there is no need to exchange directly with another user.

These platforms not only simulate the thrill of finding “new” gems but also offer alternatives to sending unwanted items to landfill or offloading donations at charity shops when they are closed. According to Wrap, an estimated 336,000 tonnes of used clothing gets thrown in the bin in the UK every year. Meanwhile, the charity retailer Barnardo’s reported that goods left outside shops were costing the charity to clear. “Charity shops need to be a two-way street,” says Bravo. “It’s not enough to use them to clear our wardrobes and our consciences; if we’re going to use them as glorified recycling bins, we have to shop from them, too.”

Nuw, which Aisling Byrne and friend Alison Kelly co-founded in 2015, was born in response to their guilt about the social and environmental costs of their favourite hobby: shopping. After seeing the devastating effects on garment workers while they were volunteering in India, the pair began lobbying for change. “At university, avoiding fast fashion was really important to us, but we couldn’t really afford any of the alternatives,” Byrne says. So they started hosting clothes swapping events with like-minded people, using empty Dublin nightclubs. Nuw’s community quickly outgrew its initial WhatsApp group. The social network now has nearly 8,000 members, with 2,500 monthly app users across the UK and Ireland.

Unlike most rental sites, where users profit – in some cases, greatly – from loaning their luxury items, Nuw members only pay the delivery cost of sending items; there’s no rental fee. The Irish startup, which is funded by “tech for good” investors, focuses less on the commercial value of clothes than on the emotional significance each garment gathers as it is passed on, and the app includes an impact calculator that lets users track the carbon, waste and water offset created every time they swap.

“Our customers get the feeling like they’re going into their friend’s wardrobes, and just picking out things that they like,” says Byrne. For Nuw members, seeing their treasured pieces reappear on social media with a new owner creates a sense of intimacy with someone they will never meet.

This is the idea behind the app Thrift+, which lets people send high-quality donations by post to be resold directly to other fashion lovers, with proceeds from each sale going to charity. The initiative, which launched this week, is designed to “power the circular fashion economy” says Joe Metcalfe, Thrift+’s co-founder and chief executive.

But the burden of going green shouldn’t lie only on the consumer, says Emily Macintosh, the policy officer for textiles at the European Environmental Bureau and coordinator of the EEB’s Wardrobe Change campaign, which urges the EC to actively reduce the footprint of textiles sold on the EU market. “We also need to put the responsibility on producers, who are making massive amounts of money from this polluting, exploitative wasteful system.”

While rental apps may present a welcome disruption to retail’s ownership model, she adds, “it’s not necessarily sustainable if the clothes that are being rented were produced using hazardous chemicals and they’re all made from polyester”.

“People are increasingly concerned about the environmental cost of fashion,” says Jane Fellner, who runs Loopster. “And this has coupled with the financial impact of the pandemic – people are counting every penny they spend. Secondhand fashion is great for people’s pockets and the planet.”