The sustainability paradox: slowing down to help us speed up sustainability
Co-founder of luxury resale boutique Downtown Uptown discusses the challenges facing the luxury resale industry and its role in fashion's sustainability journeyGiji Gya is the co-founder of Downtown Uptown, a hybrid physical and online luxury resale space in Geneva, Switzerland. The store specialises in consignment, rental, resale, recycling, repairing & upcycling authenticated luxury items, as well as offering new ethical, circular & eco-fashion brands. An expert in luxury authentication who has worked with Sotheby’s, Giji also directs Sapere Aude Associates, a consulting group on business and human rights, human security, ESG & CSR.
Certilogo: Can you tell us a little about the mission of Downtown Uptown
Giji: Both myself and my business partner, Christophe, began the business valuing sustainable wardrobes that last. We specifically chose pre-loved and at a luxury level, for better supply chain control, superior materials, and durability. Even second-hand should be accountable from a first-hand supply-chain perspective! The higher value also prompts more thoughtful purchases. We sell pre-loved luxury fashion, accessories, and new ethical fashion, where we can ensure an exploitation-free supply chain.
Certilogo: Why did you want to run a business?
Giji: I desired hands-on experience implementing a sustainable fashion model. Many business schools and entrepreneurs promote models that do not ensure sustainability. The problem is, deviating too far from these business models can lead to business failure. This is often missed by activists and policymakers lacking business experience. Running a business provides the understanding necessary for effective input to realistic sustainability.
Certilogo: When consumers buy pre-loved luxury from a boutique, they need to be reassured their purchase is genuine. You are an experienced authentication expert and have worked for Sotheby’s. How do you do it?
Giji: We look at how luxury auction houses have been doing it for centuries and adopt a two-layered approach. First, our experts thoroughly examine items based on their extensive knowledge. Which is then followed up by specialists focused on specific brands or product categories, similar to how auction houses have experts for certain painters or furniture styles from particular eras. Secondly, we prioritise vetting sellers and verifying product provenance. We exclusively accept first-hand items, ensuring sellers visit our store in person and undergo proper identification. Swiss law aids this process, as any second-hand seller must register with the Canton and police and any seller must provide a copy of their ID and address. So, our dual approach process identifying both the seller and the provenance of an item, then of hand authenticating with experience, filters out counterfeit or stolen goods.
Certilogo: That sounds like a time-consuming process.
It is! Slow fashion! We examine each product three times. During the agreement, description, and photography stages. This process is lengthy and costly, posing scalability challenges. Some other major online resellers use machines to check items, but their accuracy is questionable. They have investor pressure for fast, higher sales volume and in the past that has led to instances where the same people who wrote descriptions were authenticating articles without any or very little experience, allowing many fake products to slip through. Being an authenticator raises interesting questions. What defines an authenticator? There's no registry or formal training. Authenticators rely on industry experience and exposure to numerous items, hence a practical knowledge. However, there's no peer review system to ensure credibility of authenticators.
Certilogo: Do you ever encounter fakes?
Giji: Sometimes we come across sellers unknowingly offering counterfeit products, but we politely decline. I've encountered super fakes, and trust me, machines or YouTube tutorials on authentication wouldn't catch them. It's impossible, for reasons which I cannot disclose here. But we never encountered a whole suitcase of fakes. They wouldn't dare approach us, as we'd involve the police. They seek other channels where they can avoid vetting. Unfortunately, technology has outpaced government policies, so you have many online sellers who operate without registering their identities, and platforms overlook this. Consequently, the counterfeit problem has shifted predominantly online.
Certilogo: More brands are adding Digital IDs to their products. What is your experience of using Digital IDs to authenticate products?
Giji: We do use digital authentication, such as Certilogo, even if we also back it up with other checks and seller vetting. If you track items, I believe it will help in the long run. It fights counterfeits, makes for a better consumer experience, and promotes integrity in the second-hand market. Some challenges remain however, and some brands have progress to make. Strong positive examples are Chanel, that no longer uses authenticity certificate cards which can be faked but have visible RFID tags. Louis Vuitton hides RFID tags inside their bags. Unfortunately, we lack the means to be able to check these products without special readers. Brands could ease things for resellers by sharing information using secure digital codes & tracking systems that counterfeiters cannot replicate.
Certilogo: So do you think that the EU regulation and the introduction of the Digital Product Passport will be key to improving the situation?
Giji: I think you need the regulation to force things to happen, and if the strategy proves right, it still incentivises the business because, in theory, the model should be more profitable. However, navigating the complex EU policies poses challenges. The lack of coordination between EU consumer and sustainability directives has resulted in unintended consequences. The second-hand fashion industry was overlooked during the consumer directive which allows online returns for no reason. I fear similar issues may arise with the Digital Passport, which focuses on new products rather than older products in the vast resale market. Regulation that promotes consumer rights’ regarding returns, has nurtured a very unsustainable excessive consumption behaviour in the consumer. This is made worse by the short-term thinking by businesses that believe easier returns increases sales, disregarding long-term consequences. Returned new products are ending up in the re-sale market or in landfill. In Europe, online eCommerce has an over 50% return rate due to the consumer directive. Again, brands face pressure to quickly boost volume, cut costs, and compromise quality, perpetuating harmful unsustainable practices. This cycle drives down fashion prices and leads to excessive pollution from global shipping and returns. It's a destructive cycle that encourages detrimental consumer behaviour, where we have clothing being shipped and returned all over the world – completely in contradiction to the sustainability directive!
Certilogo: You talked about the need to involve all the stakeholders. What role does the consumer have to play?
Consumers need to hold themselves accountable. Surveys claim consumers are willing to buy sustainably, but my experience in our boutique and conversations with industry peers tell a different story. Consumers don't follow through on their intentions.
There's plenty of information on the harmful impact of fast fashion, but people comfortably hide behind their computers, thinking they won't be noticed. They believe they're responsible for only buying one item, but they purchase multiple items and return most of them.
Despite the availability of appealing ethical fashion options, there's still not enough interest. For example, luxury houses use chrome processes to produce vibrant leather colours, which are environmentally harmful. Alternative options like vegetable dyes or algae exist in sustainable fashion, but they result in more muted tones. Who's to blame that we are not using these less damaging solutions, the consumers or the brands?
Certilogo: What do you think the industry should be focused on, and what gives you hope that the complexities can be overcome?
It's a huge challenge. But there's hope, always. We can find hope by reducing stress in our societies. When we're highly stressed, we use consumption as therapy. We need to recognise the need to slow down. Not everyone is ready to make changes yet, but when we all come together with the willingness to act, it becomes easier. The hard part is getting everyone on board. It starts with small daily changes, like re-using what you have or recycling instead of throwing things away. We need to create more space for slower, better consumption and urge each other for this to happen.