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Be Wary of the Gap x thredUP Partnership

‘Sustainable’ partnerships are not always as eco-friendly as they might seem. Many brands have genuine sustainability goals and set out to achieve them with the utmost integrity.

Other times, collaborations and programs aren’t as ‘clean and green’ as they appear on the surface. Be sure to read between the lines when considering which sustainability programs behind which you put your money and resources. Here are a few more details to consider regarding the recent partnership between Gap, Inc., and thredUP.

Gap, Inc., recently announced a partnership with thredUP, the largest online consignment and thrift store, as part of their sustainability initiatives. I’ve been a fan of thredUP for quite some time, but I’m somewhat unimpressed with this latest partnership.

Beginning in April, Gap customers will be able to pick up a Clean Out Kit at certain stores under the Gap, Inc. umbrella (Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta, Janie and Jack, etc…). I can get behind this part of the collaboration.

Clean Out Kits are bags with pre-paid postage that customers fill with unwanted clothes and return to thredUP in exchange for credit to purchase new clothes from thredUP. These Clean Out Kits are the main source of inventory for thredUP.

Typically, a customer can also choose to exchange thredUP credit for cash or store credit with certain sustainable fashion retail brands. These other brands abide by an ethos built on sustainability by using deadstock fabric, thoughtful materials, and eco-friendly processes. Their values are consistent with the intention of finding ways to make fashion less of a burden on our environment.

Through this new partnership with Gap, Inc., customers can exchange their thredUP credit for store credit at several of the Gap brands as well. Gap has not historically made ethical and eco-friendly manufacturing and supply chain a top priority in their business model.

This partnership is probably good for Gap and thredUP, but I’m not convinced it’s all that great for the planet.

Why thredUP Benefits

thredUP expects to gain at least three benefits from the partnership. First, they gain brand awareness among a new set of customers. Some Gap customers already shop at thredUP but many don’t.

Second, not only does thredUP have direct access to potential new customers, but that messaging comes in a familiar place for those new customers and is backed by Gap’s heavyweight retail credibility. Gap has struggled in recent years among the investor community, but they’re still a really big deal in the world of mainstream fashion.

Third, thredUP can only grow as fast as its inventory, and it relies on Clean Out Kits to provide inventory. By allowing customers to get Clean Out Kits at Gap stores, they hope to see a significant spike in inventory, particularly of the Gap brands that resell well through their platform.

Why Gap, Inc. Benefits

Gap also benefits from the partnership. Mainstream customers increasingly care about sustainability. This program allows Gap to tout its contribution to sustainable fashion.

Further, major brands are experiencing pressure from environmental advocates to think about their products’ circularity. Companies need to be held at least partially responsible for what happens to their products at the end of their lives.

Partnering with thredUP helps Gap, Inc., customers more easily “recycle” their clothing instead of leaving it to wallow in our landfills. This is a nod in the right direction for Gap toward helping address waste reduction and responsible end of life considerations. Hopefully, it is a baby step toward more robust solutions in the future.

Why It’s Not So Great For The Planet

But here’s the catch. Customers are encouraged to use their Clean Out Kit credit at Gap stores, instead of on the thredUP platform. In fact, they receive 15% more credit in “Gap credit” than “thredUP credit” if they choose this option. This is great for Gap. This is not so great for the planet.

Clearly this encourages customers to buy MORE NEW CLOTHES. That’s the biggest benefit to Gap.

Moral Licensing Leads to More Consumption

Even worse, sending clothes to thredUP creates a moral licensing problem. Moral licensing is a principle that is innate in human nature. Moral licensing allows us to justify doing something “bad” because we did something “good”. In other words, we give ourselves permission to do something negative because we have an overall positive self-image with respect to a certain matter. Research shows that this is a common human pitfall.

Moral licensing comes in a variety of forms and scopes. For example, we simply excuse eating a large dessert because we worked out extra long that day and earned it. More deeply, we feel comfortable making a racist comment because we have a black friend, so we couldn’t really be racist, right?! Wrong. These are not productive outcomes.

With respect to clothing, we can buy more new clothes at Gap, Banana Republic, or Janie and Jack because we properly disposed of the old items we bought. We are shopping at a store with “sustainable” values. We are “good environmentalists”.

Gap hopes this partnership boosts sales of new clothing, and that is not good for the environment. This partnership is great for thredUP for the reasons mentioned above, which is both good and bad for the planet. Hopefully, more clothing is diverted from landfills and available to secondhand shoppers. But it by no means addresses the root cause of our environmental fashion disaster… way too much consumption!

On the contrary, it may well exacerbate consumption for the moral licensing reasons above. Gap surely hopes it increases the consumption of its products. It’s precisely why the company executed the partnership. Returning value to shareholders who are expecting eternal growth is paramount to company leaders, so they’re always on the hunt for ways to sell more stuff.

From thredUP’s perspective, this partnership should expand their inventory and may help achieve their lofty but important goal of making secondhand style an equal powerhouse in everyday fashion markets.

Greenwashing From Gap

For Gap, this is a whole lot more greenwashing than a truly sustainable solution. They’re telling a story to convince consumers they have a sustainable bent. This program, however, does little to address the real issues around 1) excessive clothing consumption (in service to shareholders over other stakeholders) and 2) the environmental impacts of toxic production and staggering usage of resources to bring clothing from farm to market.

While consumers call on companies to think more circularly about the life cycle of their products, this is a first step for Gap to connect customers to a more responsible solution than throwing Gap clothes in the trash. But Gap could do much better.

Companies like Eileen Fisher take back their own clothes to be remade and readied for resale. Madewell partnered with thredUP to put secondhand Madewell jeans in certain of their stores so customers could buy resale products and not just more virgin pieces.

Competing Priorities of a Public Company… But I’m Not Buying It

Gap is a behemoth company. Change takes time, especially in massive organizations. I appreciate the many competing priorities a multinational, public company faces when shifting gears to truly be more environmentally conscious. But this partnership strikes me as more greenwashing than substance, at least on the part of Gap.

Partnering with a leader in fashion resale like thredUP isn’t a bad thing on its own. thredUP can definitely help Gap begin to think full circle about the end of life options for Gap products.

However, Gap should not be encouraging customers to swap their thredUP credit for Gap store credit. They definitely should not be offering a 15% increase in credit value when used in Gap stores. They’re missing the point, at least with respect to sustainability.

If Gap wanted to truly commit to sustainable changes, they simply could offer Clean Out Kits in-store and encourage customers to buy secondhand through thredUP. This could allow them to tout their commitment to the end of life solutions for their products without simultaneously encouraging more consumption of virgin clothing.

I understand Gap may want a financial benefit from the partnership greater than a bullet point on their sustainability resume. They could sell their own secondhand products in-store as Madewell has done.

They could also arrange for some commission-type program through which Gap earns a fee for each Clean Out Kit distributed in-store that results in a new customer for thredUP. That’s not so different from the referral program they already have in place. I’m not a tech expert, but I suspect that is technically feasible from an IT perspective.

In the end, I see the benefits of the partnership. I also see its flaws and know that no program will be perfect. But let this be a reminder to be wary of sustainability initiatives that are not as promising as they seem.

If you’re even the slightest bit concerned that our planet is suffocating under mountains of fast fashion, drowning in oceans of toxic chemicals, and sweltering in greenhouse gas bubbles, get involved by simply reducing your excess consumption.

Grab the Clean Out Kit from Gap. Browse the thredUP website next time you need something new. But please ditch the Gap store credit to simply replace the clothes you just sent off for resale. Refilling your closet with more new clothes is not doing anyone (except Gap, Inc., shareholders) any good.

Greenwashing Questions To Consider

New programs and partnerships come to market all the time that tout sustainability goals, eco-friendly motives, and climate action benefits. Of course, not all programs are created equal.

When you hear about a new program and are considering if it’s worth its weight in marketing dollars, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What actions does the program or partnership really encourage?
  • How do those actions align with the proclaimed goals of the program or partnership?
  • Why did this program or partnership get started?
  • Who truly benefits from the collaboration? And who (or what) suffers?

Hopefully, we will see lots of forthcoming, systematic changes in the fashion space that make it easier and more palatable for consumers to curate responsible wardrobes without breaking the bank or burning our planet to smithereens.

However, I expect we will see a mix of well-designed and misguided opportunities to support the growth of fashion in a way that also works for the planet. As they come and go, be sure to ask yourself some of the questions about what actions the program truly intends to drive.

Next time some golden opportunity shows up in your inbox or your Instagram feed to save the planet with your purchasing power, don’t forget to read between the lines.

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