Thrift+ is on a mission to make second-hand first choice. They help people buy and re-sell the best second-hand clothes, offering a fast, convenient service with 30 day returns and fast delivery. In 2020, they diverted 115,000 items of clothing from landfill, saving around 1,148 tonnes of CO2 by reducing the demand for new clothes. Their ambition is to impact the fashion sector, so that clothing is increasingly designed with the circular economy in mind capable of lasting through reuse and reuse. Miranda Essex is Head of Growth at Thrift+ and here she gives us a clear insight into their role in reducing the fashion footprint.

Zedify: Could you tell me a little bit about the origins of Thrift and your purpose?

Miranda: Thrift+ was originally founded to bring the UK charity sector online. Charitable donations are still an important part of our business, but over time our focus has shifted to powering the circular fashion economy. We want to make buying second-hand clothes a no-brainer, protecting the planet by reducing demand for new clothes.

Zedify: I saw a figure from WRAP which says £140million pounds worth of used clothing ends up in UK landfill each year, but that's just one part of the problem, right? We're becoming more and more aware of the social and environmental impact of how our clothes are produced- what role do you think the second hand clothes market has to play in solving these problems?

Miranda: Our role is very much to extend the life of clothes that have already been produced. However, Thrift+’s sweet spot is quality, premium clothing that maintains its quality in the resale market. We aim to provide an alternative to fast fashion, and as we grow, we hope to influence our brand partners to choose more sustainable materials for their new clothes so that they will last a long time.

Zedify: Are there any barriers that you've had to overcome in making Thrift a success, in terms of people's perceptions of second hand clothing?

Miranda: On the whole, people are pretty open to buying clothes second hand. Recent research has shown that over 70% of women are open to shopping second hand (ThredUp). However, not all of them have done it in practice. We know from speaking to customers that there are several factors putting them off: a poor shopping experience, limited range, the fear of low quality, no returns policy, and the fact that buying on platforms like eBay often demands lots of back and forth between buyer and seller. We have very deliberately built our service to tackle each of these barriers. Rather than just trying to convince people to shop second-hand because of the environmental benefits, we aim to build a service which is just as good - if not better - as the first-hand online shopping experience. It it’s better, people will want to switch.

Miranda Essex, Head of Growth at Thrift+

Zedify: Your donation process gets very good reviews. What have you learnt on the operational side, putting together this model for collecting the donations, sorting them and allowing the donor to receive credit?

Miranda: We have done a lot of work to reduce the cost of processing each bag. We have automated photography booths to make photography quick and simple, automated pricing, and a rapid upload process. For designer pieces, we also have to do authenticity checks by hand to ensure they’re genuine. Warehouse staff are our biggest cost, and we are working to get better at forecasting the amount of donations we’ll receive every week. Where we get into hot water is when we have unexpectedly high volumes to process without the staff to do it. This causes a backlog and is something we experienced last year after going on Dragon’s Den. We got lots of new customers which was fantastic, but were scrambling to catch up for a while!

Zedify: Your partnership with Farfetch looks fab- could you tell us a bit more about it? And perhaps also, about how the Thrift service has been received more widely by the retail sector?

Miranda: We’ve been working with Farfetch for over a year, and their customers have re-sold over 50,000 items, raising over £100k for charity. We also have partnerships with hush and Fenwick, and there are others in the pipeline. There has been lots of interest in working with us which is very exciting. We’ve solved lots of the operational challenges of processing second-hand clothes, and hope to collaborate with as many new partners as possible to accelerate our collective impact on making fashion more sustainable.

Zedify: How has the pandemic affected the second hand clothes market, for example with charity shops closed and perhaps people buying fewer new clothes in certain categories?

Miranda: The number of wardrobe clearcuts has been huge! With the majority of the population staying at home, we’re now processing thousands of ThriftBags every month. We haven’t noticed a fall in demand for new clothes, but where people may have reduced income due to the pandemic, second-hand is an obvious place to find fantastic quality clothes at affordable prices. We do anticipate that sales of smarter items and party dresses will grow as people return to work.

Zedify: Cities are certainly in flux right now and we've had over a year of restrictions in some form or another! Do you think bricks and mortar retail and charity shops have seen their day, or do they still provide a valuable part of a city's ‘ecosystem’?

Miranda: Bricks & mortar can no longer compete on choice or convenience - but still has a role to play if it competes in other areas. Primark is actually able to compete on price, by bringing customers into its stores and so avoiding shipping costs and ecommerce pick, pack, dispatch labour.

Charity shops are also able to offer clothes which compete on price - most charity shops sell items for less than £3. They will continue to be an important part of getting low value items back into circulation for the category of shoppers looking for low prices.

However, most high street stores will need to compete on experience - shopping there needs to be memorable and enjoyable. That could be by genuinely being somewhere people enjoy going to, or where they have great customer and added service, or where they can go to meet and be sociable.

It’s an interesting challenge for multichannel retailers, as often it seems they’re competing with themselves. The question is how you can use your high street estate to give your customers an experience that is completely different from just a transaction. For example, Farfetch's 'store of the future' has experimented with separating the transaction from the experience. When you visit a shop, they have the items you want to try on ready and help you choose, but the order itself is dispatched from a warehouse and delivered straight to your door

Zedify: As we know, one of the knock on impacts from the shift to home delivery and online shopping is more delivery vehicles on the roads, and with that problems around carbon emissions and air quality. Do you see an opportunity for home delivery logistics to have a better impact on cities? Have you experienced any challenges or learnings around efficient and sustainable logistics that you'd like to share?

Miranda: Reducing emissions from delivery vehicles and improving air quality is crucial. We’re exploring the potential of a model for Thrift+ which would set one date every month for a subscribed customer to receive new clothes, and they’d also return their items for resale on the same occasion. This would reduce congestion and the need for multiple trips. We are also exploring partnerships, for example with laundry start-up Oxwash which offers its customers ThriftBags when they collect laundry (via e-bike). Again, this saves a trip and reduces the number of vehicles on the road.

Zedify: One of the things we're seeing a lot of interest in from new customers is consolidated reverse logistics, where we do the delivery and the return collection at the same time. It's more cost effective but it's also a fantastic way to really nail freight consolidation and have fewer vehicles zipping around our cities. I saw that you're doing some interesting stuff on this already with Oxwash on the laundry side- would you like to tell us a bit about that? Do you think this model has lots of potential across the retail sector for more joined up deliveries and returns?

Miranda: Yes, absolutely. We’d love to explore further potential partnerships with subscription boxes like ODDBOX or Mindful Chef.

Zedify: With the lockdown roadmap announcement it's likely there will be an increase in office working in the coming months, at least for part of the workforce and for part of the week. We've had conversations with some customers recently where they've revealed that they've been thinking about what kind of delivery needs their post pandemic customers might have, for example chosen 2-hour timeslots to make sure they get their delivery when they've alloted to work at home. Are you expecting to see any changes in the needs of your customers as these new ways of working develop?

Miranda: Providing more specific timeslots plus better tracking functionality is something we’re looking at to make our deliveries as flexible and convenient as possible. As for people returning their ThriftBags, we partner with Collect+ sites across the UK. My hypothesis is that people might be more likely to return bags they’ve been hanging onto for a while when they go back to work - if someone is not close to a Collect+ point, they may be disinclined to make a special trip, whereas if they’re commuting and travelling more around the city, they may find it more convenient.

Zedify: Very interesting to see you've switched your Thrift+ bag packaging recently to a bioplastic. I know many of our customers are interested in the sustainability of the packaging they use- some of them are considering reusable and returnable pouches like Packoorang. Of course there are so many variables depending on the product and the model you have, but would you like to share a bit about your own journey on packaging and this recent switch in material?

Miranda: The material we use for ThriftBags is derived from sustainably-sourced sugar cane. It can be difficult for the average person to recycle bioplastics, but we have developed a closed-loop recycling system. ThriftBags that are returned to us are then returned to our packaging partner and re-cycled into more ThriftBags or other items. Our bags also come with a QR code for them to be registered, so there’s no need for paper labels.

Read the full Better Cities report here.

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