Interview with Allison Sommer

Allison Sommer
Allison Sommer
Director-Category Marketing
The RealReal
The RealReal

Consigned to eternity
Leading US luxury consignment company, The RealReal, recently launched a Sustainability Calculator to show the impact that consignment has on the planet. The company worked with sustainability consultancy Shift Advantage to develop the methodology quantifying greenhouse gas (GHG), energy and water saved from women's clothing items consigned. Experts from World Resource Institute (WRI) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and sustainability expert Michael Sadowski reviewed and provided feedback on the methodology. 

The RealReal is a leader in authenticated luxury consignment. With an expert behind every item, it ensures that everything that is sold is 100 per cent real. There are 90+ in-house gemologists, horologists and brand authenticators who inspect thousands of items available online each day. As a sustainable company, it gives new life to pieces by brands from Chanel to Cartier, and hundreds more, supporting the circular economy. It makes consigning effortless with free in-home pickup, drop-off service and direct shipping. At its stores in SoHo New York City and Los Angeles, customers can shop and consign and meet with the experts to learn more about luxury authenticity and sustainability. At ten retail locations across the US, its expert staff provides free jewellery, watch and handbag valuations. 

Subir Ghosh speaks to Allison Sommer, director of category marketing, about the company and the consignment sector.

How did this idea itself come about? I mean the need for you to work on such a Calculator.

The RealReal, a leading luxury consignment company, launched a Sustainability Calculator for consignment on the occasion of National Consignment Day on October 1 in the US. The objective of this calculator is to create a sound, science-based tool to quantify the positive impact of consignment on the planet. This first generation calculator focuses solely on women's apparel. The initial calculation measured the impact of 2.5 million women's clothing items consigned to The RealReal, with the results showing that the company has offset 65 million car miles in greenhouse gases and energy since 2012. 

Transparency and accuracy are part of The RealReal's core values. We knew logically that our circular business model, which extends the lifespan of luxury items, was environmentally friendly, but we wanted to be able to share with our customers and consignors exactly how much.

How long did it take for you to work on this with Shift Advantage? The methodology itself is outlined in your press statement; but what about working out the methodology itself?

We began working on calculating the environmental impact of consigning about a year ago, starting with finding the right partner in Portland-based Shift Advantage to help us develop the usage of average fabric types.

Do you think gaps still remain in your methodology? For instance, the "impact by material" considers only averages for each material type. Doesn't this leave room for error?

Traditional retailers and brands are able to conduct life cycle assessment (LCA) studies following vetted methods presented by leading sustainable textile organisations. Since we do not own the supply chain for the products we sell, and since our inventory is hyper-fragmented across hundreds of thousands of designers and product SKUs, we had to rethink how to apply the concept of an LCA to our unique business model. This means required assumptions and averages- fabrics, production techniques, item inventory, item weights-in order to complete the calculations. To that end, we were rigorous in our approach and vetted final outputs with a team of industry experts, including from Ellen MacArthur Foundation, World Resources Institute, and others, and incorporated their feedback before publishing any results.

Do you plan to share your Calculator with others? Or is this a benchmark that you wish to set for yourself?

The methodology of how we applied average fabrics to our unique model is proprietary and applicable in exact match only to The RealReal's operational chain and inventory set. However, we hope that other companies follow suit, measure, and share their footprint with their customers. The more people talking about sustainability, and taking action to put weight behind the words, the better. Increasingly customers expect that sort of transparency and corporate responsibility from the brands they love.

Do you plan to share your Calculator with others? Or is this a benchmark that you wish to set for yourself?

You have offset 65 million car miles in greenhouse gases and energy since 2012. Will you be updating this figure regularly? If so, at what frequency?

Yes, we will be updating it, eventually in real time.

What has been the response to your Calculator announcement? Have sales shot through the roof? How has industry reacted to your initiative?

As a fast-growing startup, sales are always strong! The response has been very positive from both press and customers, who appreciate our initiative to take a stab at unravelling a complex problem and lead the industry by example. Since we shared the individual water and energy savings by our top consignors we've heard from, somehow this knowledge makes them feel more excited to consign with The RealReal than the commission earnings!

Sustainability is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. So, what next can one expect from The RealReal.

We plan to build the data from the calculator into our website, so customers and consignors can have visibility at all times into consignments' impact on the planet. We also want to expand the Sustainability Calculator to other categories, such as men's fashion. We will always continue being an active participant in the circular economy, seeking customer-facing brand partnerships and educational opportunities. We want to contribute what we know about how to extend the life of wellmade luxury items, as well as learn from experts with other perspectives regarding how to change fashion into a more sustainable industry.

Your website does not say much about the beginnings, except that Julie Wainwright launched the venture out of her own home. Could you please elaborate on the early days?

The idea for The RealReal was born after Julie was out shopping with a girlfriend: her friend purchased items from a consignment rack in the back of an upscale boutique. Julie never knew her friend to shop consignment or buy from online resale websites. When she asked her friend "why", she said she trusted the shop owner, the shop was beautifully curated, and she was getting amazing deals on luxury designers she loved like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. It changed Julie's perception of consignment. The lightbulb went off, and she did extensive research of the luxury and resale markets, and even tested resale methods herself. There was a massive market opportunity to create a beautiful shopping experience, preserve the romance of luxury brands, ensure authenticity and remove barriers to consignment-not to mention the business model would be impervious to the likes of Amazon. In December of 2011, Julie had her "aha!" moment. By early March, she picked out a name, registered the business, and raised capital. In June 2011, she opened the doors. She went from running the business out of her house to renting a warehouse and setting up a true office where all items would be processed and authenticated.
Published on: 06/02/2019

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of

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