Booming secondhand clothing sales could help curb the sustainability crisis in fashion

Energy

A massive force is reshaping the fashion industry: secondhand clothing. According to a new report, the U.S. secondhand clothing market is projected to more than triple in value in the next 10 years — from $28 billion in 2019 to $80 billion in 2029 — in a U.S. market currently worth $379 billion. In 2019, secondhand clothing expanded 21 times faster than conventional apparel retail did.

Even more transformative is secondhand clothing’s potential to dramatically alter the prominence of fast fashion — a business model characterized by cheap and disposable clothing that emerged in the early 2000s, epitomized by brands such as H&M and Zara. Fast fashion grew exponentially over the next two decades, significantly altering the fashion landscape by producing more clothing, distributing it faster and encouraging consumers to buy in excess with low prices.

While fast fashion is expected to continue to grow 20 percent in the next 10 years, secondhand fashion is poised to grow 185 percent.

As researchers who study clothing consumption and sustainability, we think the secondhand clothing trend has the potential to reshape the fashion industry and mitigate the industry’s detrimental environmental impact on the planet.

The next big thing

The secondhand clothing market is composed of two major categories, thrift stores and resale platforms. But the latter largely has fueled the recent boom. Secondhand clothing has long been perceived as worn out and tainted, mainly sought by bargain or treasure hunters. However, this perception has changed, and now many consumers consider secondhand clothing to be of identical or even superior quality to unworn clothing. A trend of “fashion flipping” — or buying secondhand clothes and reselling them — also has emerged, particularly among young consumers.

While fast fashion is expected to continue to grow 20% in the next 10 years, secondhand fashion is poised to grow 185%.

Thanks to growing consumer demand and new digital platforms such as Tradesy and Poshmark that facilitate peer-to-peer exchange of everyday clothing, the digital resale market is quickly becoming the next big thing in the fashion industry.

The market for secondhand luxury goods is also substantial. Retailers such as The RealReal or the Vestiaire Collective provide a digital marketplace for authenticated luxury consignment, where people buy and sell designer labels such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès. The market value of this sector reached $2 billion in 2019.

The secondhand clothing trend also appears to be driven by affordability, especially now, during the COVID-19 economic crisis. Consumers not only have reduced their consumption of nonessential items such as clothing, but also are buying more quality garments over cheap, disposable attire.

For clothing resellers, the ongoing economic contraction combined with the increased interest in sustainability has proven to be a winning combination.

More mindful consumers?

The fashion industry has long been associated with social and environmental problems, ranging from poor treatment of garment workers to pollution and waste generated by clothing production.

Less than 1 percent of materials used to make clothing are recycled to make new clothing, a $500 billion annual loss for the fashion industry. The textile industry produces more carbon emissions than the airline and maritime industries combined. And about 20 percent of water pollution across the globe is the result of wastewater from the production and finishing of textiles.

Consumers have become more aware of the ecological impact of apparel production and are more frequently demanding apparel businesses expand their commitment to sustainability. Buying secondhand clothing could provide consumers a way to push back against the fast-fashion system.

Worldwide, in the past 15 years, the average number of times a garment is worn before it’s trashed has decreased by 36%.

Buying secondhand clothing increases the number of owners an item will have, extending its life — something dramatically shortened in the age of fast fashion. (Worldwide, in the past 15 years, the average number of times a garment is worn before it’s trashed has decreased by 36 percent.)

High-quality clothing traded in the secondhand marketplace also retains its value over time, unlike cheaper fast-fashion products. Thus, buying a high-quality secondhand garment instead of a new one is theoretically an environmental win. But some critics argue the secondhand marketplace actually encourages excess consumption by expanding access to cheap clothing.

Our latest research supports this possibility. We interviewed young American women who regularly use digital platforms such as Poshmark. They saw secondhand clothing as a way to access both cheap goods and ones they ordinarily could not afford. They did not see it as an alternative model of consumption or a way to decrease dependence on new clothing production.

Whatever the consumer motive, increasing the reuse of clothing is a big step toward a new normal in the fashion industry, although its potential to address sustainability woes remains to be seen.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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