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Second-hand Clothing - Online & Thrift Store

Let's talk #thrifting, sustainability, and equity. In this two-part series, I will ask questions and provide data when available.

woman shopping clothing
Thrift store shopping - Photo by Burst on Pexels

Landfills and incinerators are clogged with clothing. Studies show increasing a garment’s life by even three months can help the planet by decreasing CO2 emissions, water usage, and environmental pollutants. But, with the second-hand’s industry focus moving toward middle-class and younger shoppers are poorer shoppers being left behind and offered fewer options? Or are used clothing streams for resale online more adequate to handle the high volume of pieces than traditional donations sites overrun with items?

In everything we do to try to care for our planet there are trade-offs. We realize this when looking at complex systems like energy solutions and food creation. More solar panels can stress outdated electrical grids but clean energy must be implemented. Various types of land management for food creation negatively impact the environment and consumers but transitioning farms to more sustainable methods can lead to higher food prices. When reading interpreted analysis from different segments of society for environmental impacts, are we looking at the rise of CO2 or the pollution of waterways, both or even more climate issues? How studies address the impacts of various industries is vital for even casual readers to think about as resources become more scarce.

When analyzing the benefits of second-hand retailers with large online capacity, one must weigh the shipping and return of garments to the overall pollution and energy footprint of fast fashion. Even with transportation energy consumption and packaging, almost all studies indicate second-hand sales save resources across the board from energy to water to impacts from environmental pollutants. But, do social implications exist with the presence of more thrifters in the second-hand clothing market? Are prices increasing for second-hand clothing a reaction to more thrifters? Does online selling deplete options from local resellers? As we dig deeper what are the social impacts of increased thrifting? Are workers being impacted? A better understanding of the is needed.

"I love thrift shopping. You can get ten things because everything costs, like, three dollars." Lorde

ThredUp, a large online second-hand fashion retailer, predicts that resales of clothing will make up about 20% of the overall fashion market by 2030. This is double where it stands today. It also estimates that 34 billion pieces of clothing entering US waste streams could be diverted to resale and another 9 billion pieces are sitting stagnant, unworn, in closets. Worldwide it is estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased a year and worn on average only 7 times. This is four times as many clothing pieces purchased twenty years ago. This seems like an adequate supply for a huge amount of resales and well beyond the means of local thrift shops.

With this level of clothing consumption, it is no surprise that ThredUp is shipping out free Clean Out Kits to shoppers to send unwanted garments through the mail to be sold on their website. When sales are generated, individuals are compensated with cash or credit. No need for the individual to take an image or work to promote their clothing. ThredUp takes care of everything and takes a cut. Other sites like Poshmark and Depop allow sellers to post and create their own shopping experience for e-consumers. These resellers are small businesses and work with clients directly. These two online models are both doing well and target different population groups. Knowing that the average consumer purchases 60% more clothing than in 2007 one might wonder if even resale is enough to pull back on the amount of new clothing coming into the fashion market? This likely depends on how many pieces are being diverted from landfills and if thrifters entering the market recently are purchasing second-hand in place of new clothing purchases or simply supplementing purchases with thrift pieces.

"I shop at thrift stores at least five times a week." Macklemore

While online thrift is showing increased sales, so are online fast-fashion retailers. Econsultancy (from 10/21) states that fast fashion provider, Boohoo’s revenue has risen in the last six months, “a 20% increase on its interim report the year before, during which the company saw huge growth in online orders amid the coronavirus crisis. These most recent H1 results remain a massive 73% above pre-pandemic sales.” And, the company expects a year-end growth of 25%. A recent Vox story discusses fast-fashion online seller China-based Shein out selling Boohoo and other fast fashion giants. Increasing fast fashion sales aren’t a good sign that real change in the shopping behavior of consumers has occurred. Is this because consumers lack the knowledge of the environmental and societal costs, are unable to afford different fashions, or do they simply try to ignore these realities and keep shopping? With the growth of both fast fashion and thrifting, is overall fashion consumption seeing any significant decline?

"Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying." – Lucy Siegle

Next week - continuing this blog, finding some numbers to answer a few questions, and looking at the societal issues being raised around second-hand fashion in the last couple of years.


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