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The Sustainability Myth

Understanding the consumer-led perspective when it comes to second hand luxury retail.

Dust off your Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene Eva Clutch. Nordstrom is joining the fashion world’s circularity soiree. The Seattle-based department store has just announced the launch of “See You Tomorrow’, a new initiative in which they will sell second hand luxury clothes both online, and at their flagship New York store. This shop-in-shop launches the retailer into competition with other circularity solutions like the Vestiaire Collective and Fasionphile (a luxury consignment website acquired by Neiman Marcus).

As news spreads, and the media share details about both this offering (and the category itself) these second hand luxury fashion solutions are described as a “boon to sustainability-minded fashion freaks”. In fact, coverage of See you Tomorrow itself is described as a “sustainability initiative”.

But is circularity (specifically in the context of luxury fashion) truly all about “sustainability”? Or is this an industry-led perspective and something entirely different is actually driving growth in this niche marketplace.

To better understand what is happening in this culture, we leveraged our MotivBase Insight platform to understand who was engaging in this culture, and what was motivating their consumer behavior.

To begin, we identified search the term “high end fashion” in the context of “secondhand”. MotivBase's AI engine uses these terms to understand this context the same way an anthropologist innately would in-field. Unlike most social data analysis tools that focus on finding patterns in consumer comments and engagements that directly mention a search term, MotivBase understands that to truly decode culture (and conduct an immersive ethnography), it needs to go beyond direct mentions to understand the universe of topics or meanings surrounding a search term (discussed by consumers in the context of the search term).

Interestingly, sustainability is nowhere to be found in the dominant topics that consumers associated with secondhand, high end fashion.

Instead, we see that consumers are measuring the value of the brands in question, we see the role of vintage serving as a token of social capital, and we see a desire to find and access unique and niche selections that can augment and enhance one’s style.

This culture is quite mature and is relevant to 104.8 million Americans.

And predicted to grow by 10.1% in the next 12-24 months.

But what is driving this growth? What emotional need is secondhand high end fashion serving for the consumer and is it linked to sustainability? Sadly for our eco-friendly readers, the answer is no.

MotivBase uses Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning to understand the unique fingerprint behind each and every factor, as well as the unique fingerprint behind a user's search term, to then identify the specific permutation of factors driving a particular topic or trend.

When we look at this topic, we can see that the dominant motivation is about negotiating the system. The consumer understands that there are pressures in society, directly linked to how they appear and how they present themselves, and in order to compete, they need to make smart, logical choices to create a quality life for themselves and their family.

This is a consumer that believes that they need to pay higher prices to get better quality products. But there are limits to what they can afford. Secondhand high end fashion provides them with an opportunity to acquire and present an image of being successful.

It makes them appear more affluent than they truly are. It is all about finding ways to achieve status.

Now, let’s look at what happens when we zoom in on secondhand high end fashion, but add the context of sustainability.

In this culture, we can see a shift in the context that shapes the consumer perspective. There is a concern with quality, and this links to concerns with the “fast fashion”. The consumer is interested in “slow fashion” and “ethical brands.”

But, and this is perhaps the most important revelation. This culture is drastically smaller than the overarching secondhand high end fashion culture.

It sits among the early majority and is only relevant to 42.7 million Americans. And while it is growing, it is growing at a slower rate than the overarching culture examined above.

Not surprisingly, this is a culture dominated by progressivism. The consumers are dedicated to making a difference through responsible living, and are willing to sacrifice to make the world a better place.

It’s not that these consumers are not concerned about status and ambition. There is clearly overlap with the overarching culture’s desire to maintain appearances, and access quality, high end fashion brands. But their social capital is inherently tied to environmentally making the world a better place.


If you were to ask a consumer why they are interested in secondhand luxury fashion they may tell you it is to reduce waste and to live a more sustainable existence. But this will likely be a rationalization or an alibi used by the consumer to justify their behavior.

The majority of the population is driven by a much more intrinsic motivation - a motivation that is linked to how these people leverage high end fashion brands as a marker of both wealth and success.

Interestingly, sustainability is linked to higher income consumers compared to the general populace, so there is an argument to be made in focusing on sustainability in an attempt to encourage a more affluent customer to gravitate to your secondhand offering.

But if the goal is to attract a larger portion of the population, sustainability is not as dominant as other core drivers.

Imagine instead, that a luxury brand was to leverage its circularity as a way to counteract the threat of knock offs (a dominant topic that emerges in our research). Give the consumer (even those who are less affluent) a badge to celebrate their appreciation for the finer things and stand up against inauthentic and counterfeit culture.

Or, what if there was a way to reinvent the category and create a new mind-space. Own the time between when something is new, and when it becomes classic or vintage. Much like pleather has been redefined as vegan leather, what if used luxury fashion was positioned as “pre-vintage”.

Whatever the solution, the question a client has to ask, is are you leading the category by tapping into the true emotional needs of the consumer? Or are you following a narrative that is being driven by your industry and the journalists that cover it?

Photo by Andre Furtado from Pexels

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