In the average American closet, 25% of the clothing goes unworn. Meaning even as we venture out daily to malls, replenishing our stock with of-the-minute additions, a quarter of all our clothing nationwide is sitting idle and unused—sometimes with the tags still on. It was such a closet that confronted James Reinhart one November morning in 2008. Reinhart, a Harvard Business School graduate, suddenly saw his rows of clothes as a vast trove of opportunity. "There was tremendous waste happening," he says. "I'd call them 'underutilized assets' in business terms." He realized that a convenient, affordable, fun way to exchange clothing with someone just like him would be a service that could provide not only an economic impact, but an environmental one as well.
Soon after, Reinhart, and two friends, Oliver Lubin and Chris Homer launched thredUP, where men and women could "shop" for packages of used clothing packed up by people of similar size and taste. Since late 2009, thredUP has already gained 10,000 members. This week, aided with a $300,000 round of Seed capital, Reinhart and his team launched thredUP Kids to address some even more paralyzing statistics: By age 17, kids have outgrown over 1,300 items and parents have spent nearly $20,000 on their clothing. A mind-blowing 23.8 billion pounds of clothing and textiles end up in U.S. landfills each year. The demand for more affordable kids' clothes is definitely there: Over 1,500 parents joined the site over the last two weeks when it was in private beta mode, and have already assembled 1,000 boxes of clothing that are ready for exchanging.
HOW IT WORKS
Members can join for free in order to participate, allowing them to upload basic descriptions of what's available in their "closet" and browse the basic descriptions of other users. Clothing is ranked based on its trendiness and quality using applicable desirable brand names, dividing the offerings into different price tiers. Then thredUP uses that information to find members a "match"—someone who has clothes in similar size, style and trendiness in their own closet. (The process is explained in more depth in the FAQ.) Just like eBay, thredUP relies on feedback from its users to ensure that all participants are holding up their end of the bargain. The trust-factor is huge—people want to know they're getting good stuff—so thredUP has created a Pro membership, which allows members to see more contents inside boxes and establish an Inner Circle of trusted exchangers.
To complete the transactions, members must use pre-paid shipping envelopes that are purchased directly from thredUP. For the launch of thredUP Kids, a new partnership with the U.S. Postal Service makes shipping even easier, as members can order flat-rate Priority recycled cardboard shipping boxes that are delivered to their door—a key selling point for busy parents who can't make trips to the Goodwill or post office. thredUP created a "two-click" system that allows users to pay and print postage that alerts the postal service for pickup.
SERENDIPITY AND SPECIFICITY
Besides the convenience factor, the concept of receiving a box of "new-to-me" clothing in the mail has been a popular part of thredUP's experience, and one that Reinhart hopes will be popular with kids. "One thing we underestimated was how much fun the Serendipity would be," says Reinhart, who says that some people have likened thredUP to "playing the clothing lottery" and have talked about "winning" with their exchanges. But he also thinks this aspect is a great way to engage children in sustainability. "You're getting boxes delivered to 4-year-old kids who know the power of presents," he says, noting people often leave letters or other information that almost creates a kind of pen-pal aspect between members.
Even though the "gamble" of thredUP is what makes it fun, being able to specify exact sizes and seasons is what makes it more effective. Although conventional wisdom seems to dictate that exchanging clothes locally would be a more environmentally-friendly solution, Reinhart says the ability to zero-in on exactly what kind of clothing you need eliminates more wasteful future trips. Besides, he notes, holding clothing swaps takes time and energy that doesn't always translate to a fruitful exchange. Even if you can guarantee that you'll be able to trade clothing with another family, you're not guaranteed that the seasons will coincide properly, says Reinhart—a 6-month-old in summer will be a one-year-old come winter. He believes that the convenience factor—and the sheer numbers—makes for a more usable, wearable closet. "By layering on a national network, with one online solution, you can actually meet the needs of the whole community," says Reinhart.
As newly minted experts on the used-clothing market, Reinhart thinks that thredUP could bring some of their knowledge to the field as an industry leader. By seeing what clothing "trades" higher, they'd be able to cross-reference companies to provide a purchasing guide for parents that lets them know which brands are responsibly produced as well as durable. "Eventually we could recommend brands that last longer or are more sustainable," says Reinhart. "It's a value proposition for them—they have great recycle value if they last longer." Future plans would include being able to donate clothing to those in need just as easily as exchanging boxes with another person, and setting up a program for military families, who Reinhart says number one million extremely transient households living abroad that could benefit from the convenience and small clothing footprint that thredUP provides.
But overall, Reinhart hopes that the launch of thredUP Kids can help re-educate a younger generation when it comes to our outrageously wasteful ideas about what clothes mean. "Kids who grow up with parents who garden, they eat healthier," says Reinhart, who is expecting his first child this summer. "Our dream scenario is that kids who grow up with thredUP think this is the way you manage and use clothing."
If you have a design and sustainability story to share, let us know about it! Check out the brand new Designers Accord Web site. And follow us on Twitter @designersaccord to hear what the Designers Accord community is thinking about.
Browse more Designers Accord Case Studies