Nicola Gleave, greener retailing champion from Worn By Us

Greener Retailing Champions: Worn By Us founder Nicola Gleave on collective action driving eco agenda

In this series we talk to the individuals and companies helping retailers become greener businesses – highlighting the tools, technologies, and options available to support a change in environmental focus.

Green Retail World was on stage at the IRX 2023 e-commerce conference in May with Nicola Gleave, founder and director of Worn By Us, a platform that retailers and consumers are using to keep clothes in use for longer.

That particular session, which also featured Millie Pearson, chief operating officer at online sneaker reseller The Edit Ldn, was about the growth of the resale market, and the opportunities it presents the wider retail industry. All panellists spoke of the rising interest in pre-loved fashion, and suggested it is more than just a trend – it’s a shift in how consumers behave and want to shop.

The UK consumer, they agreed, no longer necessarily sees second-hand as second best. It is just one of several options people will naturally consider when looking to purchase goods on or offline – the message conveyed was that pre-loved is “cool” now.

It appears to the be case globally too, with research from GlobalData and online second-hand marketplace ThredUp suggesting the pre-loved market in the US will nearly double by 2027, reaching a value of $350 billion.

With so many people talking up the pre-loved revolution, Green Retail World decided to chat to Gleave about the Worn By Us proposition and its role in the retail ecosystem.

What is Worn By Us and who are its partners?

The foundations of Worn By Us were built pre-pandemic, when Gleave, spurred on by her own breast cancer diagnosis, sought ways to give back to the charities that were supporting her.

Officially launching Worn By Us in 2015 and using her network of contacts from a career in consulting and working closely with businesses, Gleave looked to get celebrities to resell their clothes and accessories to support good causes. The late Jacqueline Gold, the ex-CEO of Ann Summers who passed away from breast cancer in March this year, was the first celebrity to donate items to Worn By Us.

Gleave, who is now in remission, remembers Gold donating “a fabulous blue Philip Armstrong evening gown” which was sold via auction at a fundraising event for R Charity at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen Hospitals.

“She believed in me and started me off on my journey to realise my dream and I will forever be grateful for her support,” Gleave notes.

What began as a fundraising project for Gleave quickly grew into a business opportunity, as the platform prompted interest from organisations and consumers alike.

“People came forward telling me about their wardrobe clear-outs, and saying they couldn’t justify giving hardly worn items – some still with price tags – away,” Gleave remarks.

“They wanted to get something back because they realised the value of the items gathering dust in their wardrobes.”

Relaunched after Covid, Worn By Us now positions itself as a versatile player in the pre-loved fashion space.

Consumers can resell and donate garments directly via Worn By Us, as well as buy the pre-loved items listed on the website. And retailers, including Sosandar, N Brown, and Henri Lloyd, are working with the company in different ways.

From January this year, Sosandar began advertising to its customers that they can use Worn By Us to resell clothing, as part of the online womenswear retailer’s own efforts to demonstrate more circular business practices. Henri Lloyd was using Worn By Us before that, and channels 10% of the resale value of items to its chosen partner charity.

N Brown, meanwhile, is accessing the platform to distribute surplus stock. It is a commercial tie-up for the fashion retailer, but through Worn By Us’s partnerships with social enterprise groups there is a chance goods can be repurposed and help provide a social impact too.

“We’re reselling items on an individual basis and providing a transparent report back to the retailer,” says Gleave.

“We can inform how much was resold or if it’s damaged we work with a social enterprise partner to repair, so it can be relisted. Beyond that, we’re repurposing the goods.”

The clothing that cannot be resold is repurposed into items such as cushions or mobility bags that are then donated into the community.

Elsewhere, Swedish fashion retailer Lindex will soon be placing clothing collection boxes in its London stores for customers to drop off pre-loved clothing, which Worn By Us will resell and/or repair through its channels. And Gleave’s business has also agreed a customer take-back scheme with Runcorn shopping centre Shopping City, where consumers will be able drop pre-loved clothing items in collection boxes located in the shopping centre.

It is early days for Worn By Us, but it is forging strong partnerships within retail that indicate its potential to scale further in the months ahead.

All the good things

Retailers are making some huge carbon reduction targets in line with what scientists say is needed for society to limit its impact on the environment and prevent excessive global heating.

“I think we should recognise even at the smaller scale, the different policies or strategies being implemented and we should be getting behind them”

There is no denying that some of the challenges and changes the industry faces in light of these climate-related targets can seem insurmountable, but Gleave is positive about retail’s direction of travel. She also believes the business case to go greener is now in place.

“There is huge business opportunity and I’m seeing positive movement in retailers starting to embrace it,” she explains.

“There’s often too much unfair criticism; it’s like moving a ship – it takes time. I think we should recognise even at the smaller scale, the different policies or strategies being implemented and we should be getting behind them.”

She adds: “We should be doing that rather than saying “that’s not enough”. It’s not going to be enough for a long time, but if we all start somewhere and we play a part and evolve that, we will see a greater impact.”

Gleave acknowledges that none of the retailers she has engaged with about the Worn By Us proposition have said “no, we don’t want to do that, it’s not a focus”. The attitude tends to be a positive one, with retailers keen to do what they can.

The founder and director also suggests that the public revelation in 2018 of Burberry incinerating unsold stock worth £90 million over a five-year period, was a turning point for many in terms of their attitude to environmental welfare and the circular economy. Burberry is not the only company that did or does that, of course, and the brand said at the time it incinerated goods to make energy, but the news was an eye-opening insight into what can happen to unwanted fashion goods.

“I think no matter who you are even if you don’t generally have a passion about sustainability or the environment, it was just shocking to hear,” Gleave continues.

“It created a lot more awareness. People thought I don’t want to buy from brands doing that kind of thing and it created a shift in thinking, including from retailers who realised that it was bad for business.”

All together now

Gleave has a realistic view on retail and the environmental agenda. It fits the Green Retail World mantra that nothing is sustainable, everything leaves a footprint, but all businesses can continue to be greener and evolve to ensure they have less of an impact on the environment than they did before.

“I think there’s a balance needed,” she says.

“If retailers overnight shifted their models completely they wouldn’t be here next week!”

For Worn By Us, it’s about “playing a part” in the transition and the move towards more circular thinking and operations, Gleave notes.

“No-one is going to tackle the challenge in the short-term future, but for me it’s about playing a role – doing something positive and playing your part alongside others. And collectively you can make a greater impact.”

At Green Retail World we are giving greener retail champions, like Nicola and Worn By Us, a chance to explain how they are helping retailers become greener businesses. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.

[Image credit: Worn By Us]

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