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Are Clothing Mystery Boxes The Answer To All Our Fashion Sustainability Woes? Maybe. But Maybe Not.

Words: Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

We all know that fashion’s biggest sustainability issue lies in its chronic over-ordering of stock. It’s all well and good when a piece goes viral after being spotted on TikTok’s white boy of the month or whichever influencer the Instagram algorithm is favouring at a given time - the stock flies out whenever that happens as fans moan about the impossibility of finding the ‘it’ piece. But what about those pieces that everyone thought would be hits? Those pieces that, it turns out, no one wants?

According to a recent survey by Inventory Planner, a business insights researcher who provides inventory forecasts and buying recommendations to companies world-wide, 44% of fashion retailers currently have surplus goods they're desperate to offload. And it’s not just one or two boxes lying about a warehouse, the unsellable goods account for almost 20% of each brand’s entire stock holding.

The numbers keep climbing and no one seems to be learning, even when faced with the huge statistic that around $163 billion of inventory is discarded every single year, according to a report by Bloomberg. It’s straight out bad business to be throwing that away, right? But still, companies flood warehouses with stock upon stock, seemingly unfazed by the inevitable end. But there may be hope, a bump in the otherwise smooth path of the trend-cycle’s dominating run. Let’s roll out the red carpet for a solution; Mystery boxes.

Mystery Boxes

Photo: The Wardrobe Outlet

Clothing mystery boxes are not a new phenomenon but, mainly thanks to GenZ’s evolving shopping habits, they’re growing in popularity tenfold. These boxes are mainly found online, with a myriad of different options presenting themselves to prospective buyers; boxes filled with high-end brand names, others dominated by preloved pieces, bundles themed by TikTok aesthetics like e-girl, cottagecore and blokecore. And that’s just in the fashion space. These boxes are everywhere and include makeup-, homegoods- and electronic-based boxes that even companies as established as Durex - yes, that Durex - are now offering.

So what’s convincing consumers to buy these boxes? Arguably, the main enticement is the fact they’re heavily discounted, holding within their walls surplus or out of season stock that means brands have a chance to sustainably move out excess and give customers a bit of a bargain as the clothing wouldn’t have made them any money, and in fact cost them money, by going to landfill. There’s pro number one; less clothing waste is rotting away in rubbish heaps. Pro number two; cheaper clothes for people who are struggling to scratch that new-wardrobe itch in times where purse strings are increasingly being tightened. But the mystery element of the boxes is showing an increasing phenomenon in shopping, something GenZ are focusing on and forcing brands to catch up with; Having fun.

"In the end, we sold 125,000. We supported over 113,000 people for a month each in Bangladesh through our partnership”

It’s a concept that seems to have gone amiss for some time in the fashion space. But shopping is meant to be fun and mystery boxes are bringing that back into the hobby. Whether it’s scouring online for a new party look that fits in with the garden-esque, fairycore theme a whimsical friend has demanded their birthday party embody, or it’s searching rack after rack in high-street stores for the perfect boxy crop-top everyone else on social media seems to have but won’t reveal the source of, the act of shopping itself should be filled with joy, excitement and anticipation. Increasingly, though, the thought of logging onto another site or staring at yourself in the too-brightly lit changing room of another store with pulsing music, almost fills shoppers with dread, a wish for it to be over so the goods are already in hand.

Mystery boxes are skipping all of that, what’s seen as, hassle and delivering a mismatch of surprise items straight to you; a gift from yourself, to yourself. There’s excitement in that. Everyone loves presents and the growing focus GenZ have on ‘treating yourself’ whenever possible means that these little gifts are no longer seen as something reserved for only those who can economically justify doing as such, it’s seen as an almost necessary act of self-care and who’s to say it isn’t?

Mystery Boxes

Photo: The Wardrobe Outlet

It’s not just fashion clothing brands getting in on the mystery box action, but charity initiatives like Unfolded’s Lost Stock Boxes. The brand launched their Lost Stock initiative during COVID to help manufacturers loaded with excess items that fashion retailers had previously ordered but now refused to move or pay for to get rid of clothing and be paid fairly for it. When they realised how urgent the problem really was, they knew they had to act.

They told us, “We felt that if we were able to do something then we should. We decided to buy the clothes made by these factories directly, sell them to shoppers all around the world as mystery clothing boxes, and to use the money generated to help the garment workers facing such hardship. Our little team in Scotland aimed to sell 10,000 of these boxes. We hit this number in 4 days. In the end, we sold 125,000. We supported over 113,000 people for a month each in Bangladesh through our partnership.”

As well as doing good for the hard-up factory workers, Lost Stock brought affordable clothing to consumers across the globe. “We used the RRP prices set by the original brands alongside customer size, gender, age and colour preferences to determine the contents of each mystery box,” they said. “Each box was sold for £35 containing a minimum of three clothing items worth £75.

“The biggest criticism was around the perceived value of the clothes which, although we knew the original manufacturing brand and RRP, without a brand label on an item it can be hard to quantify the value”

“The vast majority of people were happy with the contents of their boxes and even those that weren’t recognised that, with a mystery clothing box, it was the chance they took and they were still happy to know their purchase was supporting a garment worker and their family. There were, however, a small group of customers who were disappointed with their boxes.”

The reason for this was that, in order to sell the clothes, Lost Stock were required by law to remove any form of branding from the clothes before they were sold to consumers. They knew what brands they were packing up, but consumers didn’t. “The biggest criticism was around the perceived value of the clothes which, although we knew the original manufacturing brand and RRP, without a brand label on an item it can be hard to quantify the value,” they said. “In reality, this raised the question of what does an RRP mean these days with so many people buying with discounts and sales?”

The whole experience taught the founders a lot about the fashion industry and, as Lost Stock was always meant to be a short-term solution to COVID-caused problems that are now largely solved, they recently disbanded the initiative and set to work on Unfolded, a company creating sustainable clothing collections without waste.

Mystery Boxes

Photo: The Wardrobe Outlet

Speaking with them, they clearly enjoyed their work and are pleased to have helped out where they can, but they note that mystery boxes are not feasible or sustainable in the long run. “There will always be people excited by the thrill of a mystery clothing box. However, I don’t believe making clothes specifically to sell in this manner is a sustainable fashion choice as there will always be a level of wastage as clothes don’t fit or aren’t a customer’s style.

“The concept of mystery boxes are really just a fix for a broken fashion industry that produces far too much clothing and doesn’t actually know what the customer wants to buy. What we really should be focused on is building a new fashion retail model to tackle this problem - that’s what we’re doing with Unfolded.”

As Unfolded already pointed out, some mystery boxes, including their own, have come under fire for containing items valued at less than the cost of the box itself and, as perhaps inherently comes with the idea of mystery items, many consumers are left with pieces they don’t actually want. Wendy found this to be so when she jumped on the trend and ordered a mystery box only to be sent a barrage of less-than-trendy items that were promptly donated to her local charity shop. “I honestly could not wear anything they had sent, I was scathing,” she told us.

"Because the items inside them are not purposefully chosen, they simply add chaos and clutter to our lives"

Despite the varying reviews, mystery boxes continue to gain popularity, somewhat moving them past the title of ‘fad’ as people continue to see them as a sustainable, affordable way to shop. But Tara Button, author of Buy Me Once, a book about sustainable consumption, believes the boxes don’t solve any problems and even promote over-consumption among customers, a fact that cancels out any sustainability claims made by companies.

Ultimately for Tara, by selling mystery boxes, brands are simply passing on the issue of creating waste onto the consumer, negating their own responsibilities and profiting off of it too.

“The popularity of mystery boxes will wane. It has too, because the climate crisis is only going to get worse. And because the items inside them are not purposefully chosen, they simply add chaos and clutter to our lives at a time when people are increasingly overwhelmed and looking for ways to simplify their lives and feel calmer.”


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