These Funded Startups Want To Make Fashion Less Wasteful

A couple generations ago, mending clothes was something families commonly did. We put patches on ripped pants, sewed up sweaters for another season, and even fixed sock holes.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who even knows how to darn a sock, let alone chooses to. Instead, it’s gotten pretty easy to buy cheap replacement clothes.

It’s not just socks. Between 1990 and 2018, real U.S. prices of footwear and clothing reportedly halved. Globally, with the rise of fast-fashion brands and discount retailers, we’ve entered an era where billions of consumers are awash in more clothes than they can conceivably wear out.

The resulting situation is not good for the planet. A recent European Union report concluded that  consumption of textiles has, on average, the fourth-highest impact on the environment and climate change, after food, housing and mobility. It is also the third-highest area of consumption for water and land use.

Given those stats, it’s no surprise that sustainability is becoming a much more powerful mantra in the apparel space. That’s reflected in startup funding, where purveyors of secondhand clothes, recycled or recyclable fabrics, and other environmentally conscious approaches to fashion have raised billions over the years.

Where the money is going

Much of the funding activity is comparatively recent. To illustrate, we used Crunchbase data to compile a list of 28 companies funded in roughly the past two years at the intersection of apparel or fabric and sustainability. 

Certain themes stand out. First off, resale is a big focus area. Among the more heavily funded is Brisbane, California-based Trove, which works with apparel brands to vet, price and resell pre-owned items. The 11-year-old company has raised over $150 million to date, including a $30 million Series E in August.

Multicategory used goods platforms are also pulling in capital. This includes Barcelona’s Wallapop, an operator of local online marketplaces that picked up $86 million from investors in January. More recently, Singapore-based Novelship, operator of a platform for authenticated sneakers, clothes and collectibles, secured $9.5 million in a September Series B.

Startups focused on recycled materials are also seeing some investor love. Gen Phoenix (formerly ELeather), a U.K. developer of technology for recycled leather, picked up $18 million in fresh funding earlier this year, bringing total reported investment to over $120 million. And Worn Again Technologies, another U.K. startup, picked up $34 million late last year for textile recycling technology.

Another popular area is sustainably produced textiles. One standout in this category is San Jose-based VitroLabs, developer of techniques to manufacture real leather using stem cell-based technologies, which sewed up $46 million last year. Another is Byborre, a Dutch startup that touts its environmentally friendly approach to making textiles.

Sewing it all up

So far, sustainable clothing has not been a great area for producing exits.

While a number of venture-backed companies in the resale or sustainable apparel space went public in the last few years, IPO returns show most were not runway ready. This includes subscription and rental outfit provider Rent the Runway and resale platform ThredUp

Secondhand apparel marketplace Poshmark, meanwhile, was acquired for a fraction of its initial public valuation. 

Looking forward, however, sustainability-minded approaches to apparel may gain some more steam with regulatory efforts.

In particular, the EU has rolled out a strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. Its 2030 vision calls for all textile products placed on the market to be “durable, repairable and recyclable.” They should also to a large extent be made of recycled fibers, free of hazardous substances, and produced “in respect of social rights and the environment.” 

The EU strategy is explicitly against cheap, quasi-disposal clothes, arguing that ”fast fashion is out of fashion” and that consumers benefit longer from high-quality affordable textiles.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. regulators don’t appear to have anything similar on the table. However, as a work-from-home American, I’d argue that our culture has already produced another excellent solution for reducing clothing waste: Being a slob. Slobs happily wear ratty T-shirts and warmup pants until they are practically decomposing. 

However, there are few high-revenue startup business models that can be centered on cheap loungewear for indifferently dressed people who wear the same things over and over again. Thus, we see the reigning fundable approaches rely on reselling higher-end items to other consumers who care about such things.

This isn’t a save-the-planet level approach to sustainable dressing, but it is better than always buying new. From a user experience standpoint, meanwhile, it also looks far more enjoyable than, say, darning a sock.

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Illustration: Dom Guzman

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