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Episode 75: Talking Sustainability with thredUP (Transcript)

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[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

[music]

[00:00:25] Liz: Hi everyone. I want to make sure that you all know that WasteExpo Together Online registration is open. You can go to WasteExpo.com to register, check out who's speaking, and the amazing content we have lined up for you guys. We're super excited and know you will be too.

Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste 360 with Erin Wallace, Vice President of Integrated Marketing at ThredUP. Welcome, Erin. Thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:52] Erin Wallace: Thanks for having me.

[00:00:53] Liz: We usually start in the beginning, I'd love to hear about your background, how you found ThredUP and your passion for sustainability.  

[00:01:01] Erin: My story, ultimately, really started back in the '90s, where I was a really diehard drifter just because I liked being able to find unique, one of a kind of items, and really express my personal style that way on a budget that college student could afford. After college, I landed a job at Crossroads Trading Company, I'm not sure if you're familiar with them, but they're a brick-and-mortar national retail chain.  When I started, they were still fairly small. I started as a writer, I had liked working for the company because the business model made sense to me, although it was a little bit outsider still at that point. I stayed for years, it was a wonderful company, grew into a lot of different roles there, develop their training programs, and grew their stores.

Eventually, I was the Head of Marketing and Communications for the company. I've, essentially, spent my entire career in retail. When I came to ThredUP, I was really just looking up onto a larger framework where I could work at a larger company, quite frankly, and have even more impact in the area of sustainability, and second-hand, really move towards the goal of [inaudible 00:02:25] second-hand. Honestly, to the world to really scale it up, and ThredUP provided that opportunity. I started about two and a half, almost three years ago as the Brand Director. Now, I'm overseeing integrated marketing, which includes brands, and creative campaigns, email, things like that.

[00:02:46] Liz: That's great. I'm sure living in the world of the pandemic, it has had to affect your work. Can you talk a little bit about how it has impacted what you're doing?

[00:02:58] Erin: Yes. How it impacted the business it's probably no surprise to you. As we all know, sitting around at home, people have been cleaning out their homes, tidying up, so the demand for cleanup kits went through the roof, and it was already a very popular service. When I say clean up kits, I mean people going online, going to ThredUP ordering a cleanup kit, we send it to their home, they fill it up, leave it for their mail carrier, and we cover the shipping. The items are sent to our distribution centers to be processed and resold.

A pretty convenient service where you don't have to go anywhere right now, it was very, very popular. That was huge for us. In terms of how we were handling it on a corporate level, we, actually, already work from home two days a week, which is pretty unusual for a company, we're really used to that. It was probably a little bit less of a transition for us than it was for a lot of companies. That said, we're really tight teams, it's really hard not to be around everyone, but we're doing pretty well.

[00:04:20] Liz: That's great. Nice that you already were working from home, it really wasn't that stark of a transition for everyone.

[00:04:28] Erin: Yes. It's a really cool part of the culture of ThredUP, we call them maker days. Our CEO, James, actually implemented this. Way back, there was one maker day. Now, there's two maker days. Everyone at ThredUP, we're still a startup, and we work really hard.  The idea is that on maker days, you should have the ability to have no meetings or very few meetings, and work wherever you feel most productive, be able to have time to take your kids to school, have lunch with your partner, go for a run, or whatever it is that gives you a little bit more balance in your life.  That was a core value from the beginning. It just happened to be already part of our culture, to be very independently driven to deliver the results you need without need to be in the office, or expectation to be in the office.

[00:05:28] Liz: I love that. How amazing that is fostered from the top, it really is part of your culture. That's amazing.

[00:05:36] Erin: Yes. I think as we all know with company cultures, it really does have to come from the top for it to be real, and believed. Yes, it's a cornerstone of how we work.

[00:05:47] Liz: Sounds amazing.

[00:05:48] Erin: Yes. Very convenient right now [laughs], really [crosstalk]  

[00:05:51] Liz: Exactly.

[00:05:53] Erin: Very fresh on James's.

[laughter] 

[00:05:57] Liz: Little did he know, or maybe he knows more than we think.

[laughter]

[00:06:01] Erin: I know [inaudible 00:06:02]

[00:06:05] Liz: [laughs] Right. Are you able to talk at all about pre-COVID, and post- not post-COVID quite yet, but during COVID numbers for resale in general? I believe the numbers were going up pre-COVID anyway. It seems what I was reading about interest in second-hand, and things like that. Do you have anything that you could quantify?

[00:06:31] Erin: Yes. Numbers have been going up pretty crazily. I think that in part is due to the lack of stigma around buying used clothing. At this point, I think 80% of people no longer think there's a stigma associated with that. Really, that's due to the younger cohorts growing into purchasing age, they're born into a world where they're second-hand. Everyone is buying second-hand, at this point.  In terms of pre and during COVID, I don't think I can quantify the numbers. Our cleanup service, like I said, that demand went through the roof.

I think with the initial stages of COVID, when all retailers really saw a big hit, we had some dip that are mostly due to processing, and us needing to take the necessary precautions to make sure that every person who works in our distribution center could operate safely. That, actually, as you see with all retailers [unintelligible 00:07:49] down, perhaps, shipping times, or processing times for our cleanup kit. That's really been the greatest barrier during COVID that we've experienced. In terms of demand, that is remained very healthy.

[00:08:04] Liz: I bet. Do you feel it's pushed the sustainable fashion narrative into the limelight a bit more? It just seems the importance of a transparent supply chain has never been more important.

[00:08:18] Erin: Yes, I do think it has. We've got there in two different ways that it's almost like the sustainability story we were able to tell because we are not reliant, obviously, on factories, and overseas production for our supply. Therefore, we became one of the only games in town where you could go to ThredUP.com, and constantly see new items. Whereas most retailers, everything was pretty stalled, you're seeing the same things, they're not processing, obviously, brick-and-mortars were closed down.

We found, especially early on, in shelter-in-place, that our session visit was really elevated, and people were spending a lot of time on our site on a daily basis. It validated something that it was more of a hunch, was that people [unintelligible 00:09:15] is a form of entertainment because there's millions of items listed, more than two million unique items listed, and new items listed every day. People really are always coming back to see what surprising thing they might find.

We were, basically, an entertainment source in shelter-in-place, which we really fully embraced because even when people were feeling financially very insecure, not knowing what was going to happen in early days, just wanted to remain top of mind, and be there for her when she did feel like shopping again. Obviously, if she's coming to us for possibly entertainment, we work really hard to tell our sustainability story, and to educate people around why choosing second-hand is a better, more thoughtful choice for the planet in a way that's an adjustable, approachable. Not a lecture. We're not here to lecture. We're just here to help people make better choices, in a really fun and affordable way.

[00:10:19] Liz: That's great. I'm sure that this is what resonates with that generation too. I'm sure you have a wide demographic, but from Gen Z, all the way to on up, I would imagine that that resonates. How does social media play into this? In telling your story, your sustainability story in a way that's entertaining?

[00:10:45] Erin: Our social media presence is really key to being able to tell our sustainability story. I would say Instagram is probably a channel where we're really able to get into the nitty-gritty, where our audience really love hearing about the real details of impact, the impact of choosing second-hand over new. The keys to success, I like to share because it really does underline the impact of second-hand. If everyone in the US bought just one item used instead of new, it would save around six billion pounds in carbon emissions.

One of the ways that we always tell our sustainability story is by creating an equivalency, so what is six billion pounds of carbon emissions? It's the equivalent of taking half a million cars off the road for an entire year. That's amazing. That's a huge impact for such a small step that each individual can take. We look at cumulative impact and we try to quantify that for people in ways that they can understand, that resonates with them. That has been really successful for us in telling our sustainability narrative. Most of our larger campaigns that are telling the stories are launched on social media, so yes, key for us.

[00:12:15] Liz: That's great. I love how you quantify it that way. You make it less overwhelming for people because I think people look at the problem and say, "How can I ever make an impact as one person?" But if you put it in those types of terms, and visually show them that, they can't help but to know that it will help and that they should go down that road. That's awesome.

[00:12:38] Erin: Exactly. Like I said earlier, we're not here to lecture people or make people feel bad. It's really so easy to do better and it's more fun, quite frankly, to shop second-hand. There's just so many benefits to it. Having worked in this industry for so long, I'm probably a bit of a zealot just because I don't understand why anyone would do anything else. It's such a win-win-win-win. You save money, you get better clothing, it's good for the planet. It's hard not to shout it from the rooftop, but I guess that's why my job is what it is.

[00:13:30] Liz: [laughs] It's catching on too, so you're doing something right and the educational part is huge.

[laughter]

[00:13:40] Liz: Is there a brand that you admire that's doing this right? From the supply chain, all the way to thinking about end-of-life?

[00:13:50] Erin: Yes. It is key. I think that is how the future of where retailers need to go is actually completing that circle. Because I think responsible and sustainable retailers, there are a lot that are doing a good job. They've always focused on that supply chain and point of creation, and the production cycle, but then that relationship seems to end at the point of purchase. Then, it becomes the consumers' problem, essentially, to deal with the end-of-life of clothing. I think, historically, they haven't known what to do with it. They don't need it; it ends up in the trash. 64% of 32 billion garments produced end up in landfill, so it's really clearly not been addressed.

The brands at the forefront who are looking forward to where do their clothes go, even after purchase and taking responsibility for that, providing solutions are really, to me, cutting edge. The Patagonia’s of the world, or very small companies like For Days, which has the closed-loop t-shirt line in LA, but their model is really forward-thinking. Those are two off the top of my head, big guy and a little guy.

[00:15:24] Liz: That's great. A lot of our listeners, they handle the end-of-life. We have a lot of haulers, recyclers, environmentalist. What do you think their role is in all of this?

[00:15:37] Erin: In second-hand, or just in terms of? [inaudible 00:15:42]

[00:15:42] Liz: In terms of fast fashion and handling it when the consumers make it their problem. Is there anything they can do on their end?

[00:15:53] Erin: That's an interesting question. Honestly, I'm a curious to hear- maybe asking you a question now. Because our relationship with haulers or third party textile recyclers is when we receive items that we are unable to resell. We have a group that we work with to try and redistribute those items domestically as much as possible to avoid additionally shipping them to other countries. That's our goal at ThredUP.

I would be curious more of the hauler's point of view, whether about the quantity of clothing that they're receiving and whether there is any addressable way to maintain all of recycling efforts here domestically and what needs to change in the production cycles in order for that to happen. In my experience and my understanding is simply that there are too many clothes being produced. There's a major overproduction issue, and fashion waste is a very real thing. Haulers and clothing recyclers have a really tough job to do, which is just managing way more than is needed for the country, but ultimately for the globe.

[00:17:22] Liz: Absolutely. You're right on. They are handling it and they're trying to really look toward innovation to help. Even some of the innovation that has come forward AI, and robotics, and things like that that are helping on the recycling side of things for contamination on cartons and things like that, it's very hard with textiles because it's really hard to determine wool versus cotton. Those types of challenges, I think, the industry is really paying attention to, but the sheer volume needs to be obviously addressed as well.

Even like you said, how your kit became so popular when people were cleaning out as well residential waste went up because people were in their homes, they were cooking more, they were cleaning more, and they were [unintelligible 00:18:19]. There was a rise in that as well and I'm sure part of that was textiles, so it's a huge challenge. A garbage truck filled with textile pits the landfill every two minutes. The industry is aware of it. Chemical recycling is part of the issue or could be part of the solution. There are so many things I think that they're considering, but as you know, education is a huge part of it. What's recyclable? What is not? What can you do to extend the life of your clothing and things like that? It's a lot of [crosstalk] the struggles that you're talking about, for sure, by the time it reaches everybody on our end.

[00:19:04] Erin: Yes, exactly. That's the thing, I don't think it's on your industry to solve the problem. I don't think in my mind the responsible solution is for us to simply figure out how to better recycle. As much as we want to produce, I think there's a responsibility on the production side to slow down the production and actually produce to the addressable needs, not just do, "Sky is the limit".

It needs to happen at every step of the way, production and then, at ThredUP, we need to educate, we need to extend the life of garments as much as possible, as well as provide a lot of education. Then, in recycling, we definitely need more innovation around recycling. For textiles, obviously, it is really tricky. There's lots of innovation, but to scale it up to the level where it needs to be to make an impact, I think from my understanding is still quite away as off.

[00:20:16] Liz: Yes, definitely. But what you're doing is helping, so any sort of progress is amazing. 

[00:20:27] Erin: We're trying. 

[00:20:27] Liz: I saw ThredUP's fashion footprint calculator, it's very cool. Can you tell our listeners about that?

[00:20:37] Erin: Sure. Our fashion footprint calculator is really fun. It actually was born from this survey that we did. We found out that most people are concerned about sustainability, but they were unaware and they wanted to do better, they wanted to help but they did not understand how their choices were relating to how they shop [unintelligible 00:21:08] or and where their clothing are connected to sustainability, that those two things are aligned, their decisions are aligned.

We decided to create this calculator where you could simply answer in a really visually impactful, fun, quick calculator, less than five minutes, answer some questions and then see what your decision making, the choices that you make, how they're impacting your closet. Give you your fashion footprint score and how that relates to other people. As well as providing a rundown of the impact that, each decision you make, the level of impact it has on the environment. Of course, it also provided tips for how to improve as well as a directory of sustainable brands and discounts to shop there and fun things like that.

It was super-duper popular and we're really surprised by how widely it was taken and continues to be taken. We find that very encouraging that people really are just curious about how [unintelligible 00:22:18] do is impacting the planet. Again, going back to that mission of making it simple, the tips are simple. It's like, "Wash something in cold", or, "Hang it to dry", just understanding, "If you dry-clean that, here's the [unintelligible 00:22:33] like that.

[00:22:37] Liz: That's so fun. Again, back to your education, making it fun, and informative, and engaging. I think that's awesome.

[00:22:44] Erin: Yes, it was a good one.

[00:22:46] Liz: I also read about ThredUP resale as a service platform. Can you talk about that?

[00:22:52] Erin: Yes, our resell as a service platform has been really exciting. We've been partnering with retailers from Walmart to GAP to help them participate in circular fashion, and, essentially, we have a few partnership models. We have apparel recycling, which means that customers can literally clean out their closets with ThredUP in exchange for receiving brand shopping credit.  That is like if you order something from the GAP and you receive it and there's a threadUP cleanup kit inside, you filled the bag with stuff that you no longer want or need, it gets sent to threadUP, we process it and we pay you in GAP credit.

It's a win-win for both sides. We also provide [unintelligible 00:23:40] secondhand shopping, so we have custom second-hand product assortment. That example is on walmart.com, where we have things upwards of 750,000 second-hand items that are listed on their site. That is a really cool partnership because Walmart is introducing second-hand clothing into their shopping experience. They're a massive retailer and all of those customers are learning about second-hand, so we think that's really encouraging and love that partnership.

Also, we have an excess inventory partnership model that obviously helps ThredUP. ThredUP helps brands turn unused in inventory into additional revenue. Plus, we know returns are not resell able in a traditional retail model, whereas on credit that's everything second-hand, our returns are already more sustainable because we can relist them, but we can also do that for other brands.

[00:24:46] Liz: That's great, my goodness, what a good partnership.

[00:24:49] Erin: It's been really an exciting year for partnership, it's been great. It's been great to see the adoption and welcoming of second-hand and thrift into traditional retail models, and I do think as we move into a more sustainable fashion future, I hope, that is really what needs to happen for traditional retailers to embrace second-hand, extending the life of garments, the end of life, so partnerships are a key way for us to get there.

[00:25:22] Liz: Definitely, yes. I'm sure we will see that grow for you.

[00:25:25] Erin: I think so.

[00:25:27] Liz: You've talked a little bit about what you hope for the future of fashion, but if you could reimagine it, what would it look like?

[00:25:35] Erin: The future of fashion in a perfect world would involve far less clothing being produced, the clothing that is produced thoughtfully and ethically, with minimal impact to our environment and sustainability as possible. As well as providing safe and ethical fair wage jobs to their employees, garments that are designed to last and made from recyclable fabrics. The obviously, that those garments are the actual norm and expectations for those garments to be worn, and resold, and worn again until there really is no re-wearable option, at which point there are responsible and easily available ways for clothing to reach recyclers and the circle is complete. 

[00:26:44] Liz: That sounds amazing. 

[00:26:47] Erin: Got some work to do.

[00:26:49] Liz: Yes, we have work to do, but I think we'll get there. I think what's interesting was just where fast fashion is and what we talked about in terms of being-- really, it's the tipping point of interest. Do you think most of the bigger brands are beyond greenwashing? The reason I asked that is I watched a MasterClass with Anna Wintour, and even she has pushed the boundaries on sustainable fashion now to the point where it actually feels like real action and not just talk. Do you feel that way?

[00:27:26] Erin: I do. I actually think that COVID and its effect on the traditional fashion industry may help hasten that trend line and the way that COVID has hastened a lot of trend lines and e-commerce and shopping. In the sense that the interruption to the production cycles has really shined a light on the overproduction issue, and things like the reliance on the Fashion Week, then in-person events, and brick and mortar stores has really shifted a lot of the perspective onto, "Should the fashion world be more direct to consumer?", which they've had to do to survive, right now it's really just due to e-commerce and direct to consumer where you really can produce more to demand.

There's been a lot more conversation around it in the fashion industry in a way that I haven't heard before. I can't predict the future, obviously, but I think those who survive will most likely be trying to shift some of the emphasis more into their digital world, and considering the effect of reliance on such heavy production, it's driven by department store orders and vendors, that buyer orders and whether that cycle will return to the way it was or whether there will be significant changes.

[00:29:02] Liz: So true. Any advice you have? You talked a little bit about it when you were talking about the calculator, but for individuals, so they can clean up their own closets and think more sustainably?

[00:29:14] Erin: Yes. My advice it's not complicated, really, is, one, when you're purchasing something, if you're buying a new item and it seems incredibly cheap, wonder why it's so inexpensive. That's always a guideline, if it's too good to be true on a new item, there's probably a cost somewhere, and that item can be purchased second-hand without contributing to the production problems. It's really just replace, especially those fast fashion purchases, just try and avoid and check second-hand first. That's pretty much it, that's doing your part. Or at least a little bit of your part.

[00:30:04] Liz: Definitely. That's great advice. What's next for ThredUP?

[00:30:08] Erin: Well, we've got a lot of things cooking, but right now we are really just trying to keep up with demand and make sure that we have the most amazing freshest inventory and the most surprising thing. We love to delight our customers, right now we are finishing a month of playing Bingo. We do ThredUP Bingo every year that our customers go crazy for with just tons of promotions, and games, and really just trying to be an entertaining, fun way to shop. While we also have, of course, continue to share our message about the importance of buying second-hand, the actual very real problem of fashion waste and helping people keep money in their pockets. That's enough for us these days.

[00:31:08] Liz: Definitely. Again, back to the fun, it sound like such a great culture, you're doing so much good and you're really making second-hand cool. I love that this new generation has just embraced it. I think that's so inspiring. Thank you for what you're doing, it's awesome,

[00:31:29] Erin: Thank you so much, this was a pleasure.

[00:31:32] Liz: It really was, it was so insightful. I'm going to check out the calculator.

[00:31:37] Erin: Yes, please do it. I bet you're pretty good. 

[00:31:42] Liz: Well, thank you so much, Erin, this has been awesome. Good luck with everything. Stay well.

[00:31:49] Erin: Thanks, Liz, this was great. Stay well.

[00:31:51] Liz: Thank you, talk soon. Bye.

[00:31:54] Erin: Bye.   

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