How Farfetch is uniting designers, retailers and shoppers to create a circular fashion economy
EXCLUSIVE: Digital fashion platform Farfetch has been serious about the circular economy since its foundation. But amid growing demands for more ambitious action on waste, its chief sustainability officer has told edie that the firm now views resale and repair as an "amazing commercial opportunity".
From small beginnings, technology platform Farfetch has grown into a multinational giant, connecting 1,000+ luxury retailers with consumers in 190 countries around the world. During the past 18 months alone, it has forged new partnerships with the likes of Gucci, Prada, Burberry, Valentino, Saint Laurent, Chanel and Balenciaga.
With this growth – which has come during a time when the media spotlight on the multitude of environmental, social and ethical challenges facing the global fashion sector is growing hotter and starting to dramatically alter the attitudes of policymakers, corporates and consumers alike – came increased responsibility; something the firm responded to by launching its first sustainability strategy last year.
Entitled ‘Positively Farfetch’, the strategy consists of four key pillars: Positively Cleaner (cutting emissions, reducing plastic waste, and so on); Positively Conscious (being transparent around the environmental, social and animal impacts of brands and products); Positively Circular (designing waste out of fashion) and Positively Changing (supporting innovative startups and offering green micro-loans to shoppers).
With the global fashion industry now estimated to be producing 100 billion garments, most of which will eventually be sent to landfill or incinerated, Farfetch’s chief sustainability and commercial officer Giorgio Belloli and global director of sustainable business Tom Berry told edie how the company is now adopting a more “multi-pronged” approach to fostering a ‘Positively Circular’ fashion system.
“The business model that luxury fashion is based on is moving towards circularity or, at the least, positioning waste reduction as a key requirement, meaning there are some big opportunities in this space,” Berry said.
“Some of these emerging models and the opportunities to drive them, are quite specific to luxury, because the industry is designed around selling products that are well-made and, therefore, are items that you can encourage people to cherish, rent, or sell on. That’s really exciting for us.”
It has always prided itself on connecting designers and retailers to showcase high-quality, long-lasting products made using “timeless” designs, they explained. But recent times have seen the business trial its first repair service, in partnership with UK-based startup The Restory, and, this week, its flagship resale platform called Second Life. Under Second Life, consumers can access a digital platform that enables them to sell their designer handbags back to Farfetch in exchange for store credit. The bags will then be repaired and resold.
A boon for new business models
In the face of resource scarcity challenges and ever-growing awareness around the fashion sector’s sizeable waste problem, Farfetch is among a select cohort of other fashion firms to have branched out into business models which offer services or used goods rather than new products in recent months.
H&M, for example, recently launched garment repair and customisation facilities across its stores in France, Germany and Norway, while VF Corporation now sells upcycled goods through its ‘The North Face renewed’ platform. And in the luxury fashion sub-sector, the likes of Burberry and Stella McCartney have been providing repair services and aftercare advice for years.
But according to Berry and Belloli, Farfetch’s position as a platform, rather than an individual brand or retailer, means it has the potential to drive more rapid and far-reaching progress. Indeed, it is the first platform business to have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, which unites players across the garment value chain in a bid to capture the $460bn currently lost due to the underutilisation of clothes, as well as $100bn from clothing that could be used but is currently lost to landfill and incineration.
“When you look at sustainability from a brand point of view, it’s usually very specific to what you produce, where you make it, and so on,” Belloli explained, citing his past experience at firms such as Miu Miu, Helmut Lang and Prada Linea Rossa.
“For us as a platform, we need a completely different approach. We see ourselves, in a way, as a platform for sustainability. We see circularity as an amazing commercial opportunity and see tremendous growth in playing the leader, as a platform, within all things circular.”
In order to engage its partner boutiques and designers to drive more joined-up and ambitious progress against key environmental and social factors, Berry explained, Farfetch invites all of these organisations to an annual conference in which they are taught what best practice and co-beneficial collaborations look like.
Farfetch additionally hosts frequent communications campaigns to highlight products and brands with high sustainability credentials, as determined through independent analysis of their carbon, water, waste, chemical and social impacts. Before each of these campaigns launches, Farfetch contacts all of its boutiques and encourages them to showcase items, ranges and brands with equally high green standards. As for brands which are found to have poor ratings, Farfetch reaches out to them directly to discuss co-creating solutions to their biggest challenges.
According to Berry, these moves have already spurred dozens of boutiques to re-think how they make decisions around buying stock and have led fashion houses to publish new sustainability commitments. Belloli also believes they have helped consumers to think twice about the green credentials of their clothes, shoes and accessories before they make a purchase – whether they are shopping through Farfetch's partners or not.
“As a platform, we are much more focused on consumer transparency than brands usually are when it comes to sustainability and believe choice is a massive lever for the execution of a sustainability strategy,” Belloli said.
“By allowing the customer to make the best choices they can, we can create a coalition that did not exist before and get all the brands to come with us on our journey.”
Belloli’s comments echo those made by members of NGO Fashion Revolution – which is campaigning for corporates, consumers and policymakers to jointly create a more transparent fashion sector which values ethics and nature in the same light as profit – during the group’s annual week of action last month. The organisation believes that transparency is the “first step” to “transforming” the industry and publishes an index ranking the environmental and social disclosure of the sector’s largest every April, in a bid to help consumers make informed choices and incentivise big companies to improve their sustainability reporting practices.
Have you read the 2019 FASHION TRANSPARENCY INDEX? If you haven’t already, this important publication is a must-read for anyone passionate about the fashion industry’s environmental and social impact, and how we as citizens can push brands to do better. https://t.co/6E8ats83kI pic.twitter.com/HCjYSyuytW— FashionRevolution (@Fash_Rev) May 7, 2019
“Transparency alone is not enough to fix the industry’s problems, but it is a necessary first step towards wider systemic change - it shines a light on issues often kept in the dark,” Fashion Revolution’s co-founder Orsola de Castro said.
“Ultimately, we each need to act upon the wealth of information that is being disclosed in order to hold brands and retailers, governments and suppliers to account for human rights, working conditions and environmental impact.”