OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- In 2009, the iPhone 3GS was released, President Obama was inaugurated, and a company called thredUP was born. Fast forward to 2023, and Oakland-based thredUP is gracing the TIME 100 list of Most Influential Companies.
"The true story is, I was getting dressed one morning and I had a closet full of clothes that I wasn't going to wear," James Reinhart, thredUP's co-founder and CEO, said. "So, I went to a local consignment store to sell them after school that day, took these bags in and stood in line, and I got to the front and the woman said, 'Oh we don't take these things. We just do luxury.' I thought, well but this stuff has real value, it just doesn't have value to me."
thredUP is one of the world's largest online consignment and thrift stores where you can sell and buy secondhand clothes and accessories for women and kids. The company sells more than 55,000 brands across 100 product categories.
"I thought that the idea that we buy stuff and then eventually we just give it away and it ends up in a landfill at some point, just to me felt like a broken system," Reinhart said.
Reinhart admits that he didn't set out to make an environmental impact, but overtime it's become a central focus of the business.
According to FairPlanet, the fashion industry emits up to 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than the European Union. It continues to be the second-largest consumer of water and 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Fast fashion is the biggest culprit.
Fast fashion refers to cheaply made and priced clothing that looks a lot like designer items. Zara, H&M and Shein are just a few that dominate that market. According to thredUP company data, if everyone bought one secondhand clothing item instead of new this year, it would save in carbon emissions the equivalent of taking 76 million cars off the road for a day. Not to mention, thrifting has become increasingly popular in recent years.
"I think people now, especially young people, don't want what everybody else has," Reinhart said. "They want to be unique. They want to be different. It's a TikTok generation. It's an Instagram generation and resale has that unique ability for you to find that stuff that other people don't have."
ABC7 News anchor Jobina Fortson met up with thredUP's brand director, Madeline Aaronson, to see some of their items for herself. Aaronson provided samples from brands like Madewell, Levi's and Staud. All clothing goes through a multipoint inspection. Damaged items and clothing without size tags are among the criteria that would cause a garment to be rejected. thredUP accepts about half of what is sent to them. Leftover items go to rescue boxes.
"Those are sort of like bulk boxes of items that still have a little life left in them, but like aren't good enough to list one by one in the marketplace," Aaronson said. "Then, outside of rescue boxes, we also work with primarily domestic thrift stores and sell things by the pound to them."
If you're buying from thredUP, your items arrive in the company's signature polka dot boxes. The box and packing materials can be recycled.
"We like the experience indistinguishable from shopping new," Aaronson said.
Some argue that discouraging people from buying new is an economy killer. However, advocates say it supports a circular economy. ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee may be one of the most visible examples of this. She took on the "no new clothes" challenge in June of 2022 with an advocacy group called Remake Our World.
"(It is) a group that looks at not just the environmental problems within the fashion industry, but at the social issues with people being underpaid, especially women," Zee said. "It was just a challenge to take a pause for three months and just readdress how we consume clothing because the average American consumes 16 pieces of clothing every three months."
Zee is almost 17 months strong on her no new clothes challenge. She shops consignment or rents clothing to supplement.
"I am sure to every time I have this discussion, say that I am coming from a place of privilege where I have a choice of whether or not I can buy things," Zee continued.
People with higher incomes generate on average 76% more clothing waste than people with lower incomes, according to Boston University's School of Public Health. Data provided by Green Story Inc. found that returning one clothing item back into the circular economy extends its life by an average of 2.5 years. threadUP is helping other brands and retailers do that with their resale-as-a-service program.
"So if you go to Madewell.com today, you can shop all pre-owned Madewell clothing right from their website, or you can do it with Kate Spade handbags that are all pre-owned," Reinhart said. "We power the back end of all that."
Changes are coming in the name of sustainability. The Council of Fashion Designers of America or CFDA, that organizes New York Fashion Week, has pledged net-zero by 2050. Adidas is personalizing gear to cut down on returns and newer brands like For the Few Intimates and Grammar are making a splash in the market.
With an increasing interest in Gen Z and Millennial consumers, resale is expected to grow nine times faster than retail in the next four years. Those numbers are good news for resale companies like The Real Real, Poshmark and even rental services like Rent-the-Runway.
When asked what he thinks will be hard in the future, Reinhart said, "I think fighting the fast fashion fight will be real. Then I think the question is, 'What's the role of government in creating incentives and policies that help consumers make good choices and help companies be more sustainable?' We definitely want to be involved in an advocacy role."
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