A Q&A with Claire Bates on take-back programmes and what brands should look out for

To learn more about fashion take-back schemes, and to get a sense of how brands can make a real success of them, we talk to sustainable fashion expert Claire Bates. Claire helps brands develop circular fashion programmes and strategies, and currently works as a circular retail consultant.

As the world wages a war on waste, fashion brands have a responsibility to be at the frontline. In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill every year – some £140m worth of material going straight from our wardrobes to waste. This in turn fuels the production of new clothes from virgin materials, which drives up emissions, pollution, and environmental degradation.

One of the most important measures we can all take to tackle waste is to keep our clothing in use for longer while avoiding the purchase of new items. With this worthy goal in mind, brands have sought to up recycling rates through the introduction of take-back schemes: the process by which brands willingly accept and encourage the return of their clothing for reuse or recycling. Although relatively new to fashion, it’s far from a new concept. Retailers have been championing such schemes for electronics for over a decade, with retailers such as John Lewis accepting old washing machines as early as 2010.

Let’s go back to basics, what is a take-back programme?

A take-back programme – also known as extended producer responsibility – is the process of returning used goods from customers back to the retailer for reuse, resale, or recycling. Its aim is to make it easier for customers to recycle the brand’s products when they’re no longer loved or needed and offers a brilliant opportunity for brands to capture additional value from the products they put on the market.

Why should brands provide take-back programmes?

Take-back is about responsibility first and foremost. It is about brands and retailers taking responsibility for what they are putting on the market. It’s about responsible business, and being creative with new ways of generating revenue.

The product creation process frankly requires far too much social and environmental capital for those products to go on to become waste. We are making a sales margin once, when we could be recuperating products to make margin multiple times while retaining value and circulating resources.

Customers are increasingly aware of waste from consumer goods, particularly products like fashion and electronics, and are looking for leadership from brands. Providing take-back programmes is a clear signal to customers that brands are actively putting in place measures to tackle waste.

Talking of customer engagement, how can brands effectively encourage their customers to use take-back programmes?

It’s a great way to engage with customers beyond the point of sale. However, it’s important for brands to consider exactly how customers interact with the process. If customers don’t understand why they should do it, or the process is unclear, difficult, or lacking in incentive, then they will simply lose interest and the programme will be unsuccessful.

The best take-back programmes include a well-thought-out engagement strategy that aligns with the brand’s ethos and values. Whether that’s about being sustainable or the best at customer service, or both, it is important to build the messaging and engagement around something meaningful to the brand.

If a brand wants to engage with its customers and improve the overall experience then they could consider providing incentives for returning the goods. When executed properly, this can drive customer loyalty, retention and repeat purchases.

Recycling companies like Hubbub, have found success gamifying recycling by adding emoticons and light-hearted voting options to their bins. Recyclebank take it a step further and provide their members with points to get deals at local businesses and discounts on sustainable goods.

The process itself must be clear and unambiguous. Make it easy for the consumer. Brands should provide foolproof guidance on exactly what can be returned, in what condition, and how. Two good examples of companies who do this are Thrift+ and US retailer ThredUp who both provide a take-back programme whereby they provide pre-labelled shipping bags that customers can fill up with the items they no longer need and drop it off with local courier. ThreadUp are also in the process of launching RAAS (resale as a service) where customers can receive vouchers to spend with partner brands after reselling their items through ThreadUp.

take-back fashion programmes

Should brands provide a minimum requirement on the number of items they will accept?

Returning single-items, such as a lone t-shirt, can be both inefficient and costly – particularly when factoring in the price of packaging, the return and the processing effort. The most effective programmes are those that can consolidate items. This is why the in-store models are proving so successful. So, particularly for ecommerce brands, it’s important to test the minimum viable take-back options and set these as requirements for customers. It’s been good to see more effective cross-sector collaboration – with brands accepting the goods of other brands as well as their own.

What do most brands do with the goods once returned?

Returned goods should always follow the waste hierarchy for maximum value retention. Business models that promote reuse like rental and resale are proving that well-designed product take-back can provide generous financial returns for brands looking to diversify revenue streams and customer engagement.

The is also an option for brands to release re-ownership of their goods all together and allow that ownership to move to the secondary market sector. This could happen through charities such as Oxfam, private recycling companies such as I:CO, or via other resellers with various business models such as DePop, Vestiaire Collective, Thrift+ or The Real Real.

As we move down the waste hierarchy, the process of recycling clothing back into textiles is still in its infancy. This is because the current recycling methods in the sector are unable to separate dyed and blended textiles at scale. But we’re seeing a number of interesting outfits such as Worn-Again Technologies, Renewcell and Infinited Fiber, who have started building partnerships within the clothing supply chain to transform existing waste textiles into new raw materials at scale.

Can you give us a couple of good examples of take-back programmes?

In 2020, fashion rental platforms saw a sharp rise in the number of people renting their clothes, shoes and accessories with the trend continuing to grow in 2021. By Rotation, for example, has seen a 600% increase in rentals since the beginning of November.

Cocoon is luxury bag subscription service who are going from strength to strength. From just £49 a month you can tap into Cocoon‘s huge archive of quintessential handbags, from limited editions and vintage to the hottest new styles.

The best examples of take-back come from brands who take their corporate responsibility seriously. Some successful examples of take-back programmes have come from collaborations, which have allowed brands to outsource the processing or logistics which are not core to the brand’s business model, while other great examples come from brands who have embedded take-back into their core business model. Some of my favourite examples include:

ReBag Rebag is a US-based retailer of secondhand designer handbags. With the Rebag business model, customers can sell any product they have purchased from Rebag back to Rebag in exchange for a voucher they can use to ‘trade-up’ to their next bag. The voucher amounts are clear from the original point of sale, so customers know the value embedded within the bag from the onset. The value stays in the Rebag business.
Patagonia Worn Wear Patagonia buys back and repairs products from customers via their Worn Wear Program. Through the Worn Wear platform customers can buy vintage, re-crafted and secondhand Patagonia gear. This model helps build brand heritage by promoting longevity, and spurs demand through a customer-driven collector mindset.
Farfetch & Thrift+ Online fashion retailer Farfetch is collaborating with the second-hand clothing donation platform Thrift+. Farfetch customers can book a free collection service and in return proceeds from their donation go to charity, and the customer received a voucher to spend on Farfetch. Farfetch receives tax benefits for their donations.

What are the criticisms of take-back programmes?

Fashion take-back programmes have come under fire for a failure to address the core problems of our throw-away culture. Some even believe it fuels this behaviour as we’re encouraged to feel good about throwing things away and can fall into a vicious cycle of constantly updating and recycling our wardrobes. Providing incentives such as discounts or points can fuel more resource consumption rather than reducing it.

It’s important therefore to see take-back programmes as a tool to tackling waste and not as an end solution. The establishment of a takeback programme can’t be a brand’s only response to waste. Brands should not assume that setting up a take-back programme will automatically make them a sustainable brand or even instantly improve recycling rates. It needs to be part of a wider programme to tackle waste and sustainable resource consumption. They should be continuously reviewing the effectiveness of their programmes and fine-tuning them over time.

And finally, if a brand is keen to set-up a take-back programme, what is the first thing they should consider?

The first major decision they will need to make is deciding whether the company will operate the take-back system itself or whether it will outsource to a third-party. Technology and ICT also have a role to play in streamlining take-back.

Self-operated, in-house models will provide brands with more control, and are particularly useful if they can recycle the goods in their own production or resell them. Taking it in-house requires a reverse logistics infrastructure, and will require resources for the collection, sorting and processing of goods returned.

Fully outsourced models will take care of the returns process, in addition to handling the processing and recycling of the goods on a brand’s behalf. Outsourced models are particularly popular with ecommerce brands with diverse product offerings. Retailers with physical stores often opt for hybrid models, where customers can drop-off their used goods and a third-party will collect for recycling.

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