Second-Hand Fashion: On The Rise But Will It Save The Environment?
Second-hand fashion is a hot market right now. The sector has grown considerably since the cost of living has gone up and looks set to become bigger than fast fashion in a few years’ time. But as economies around the world stabilise, will the market slow down and does buying second-hand really solve the environmental damage that buying clothes inflicts? We take a closer look.
Is the cost-of-living crisis causing consumers to go second-hand?
UK consumers have been enduring the cost-of-living crisis since late 2021. Still ongoing, inflation has only recently crept back under double digits, whilst interest rates have hit 5%, their highest amount in 15 years. As things have steadily become more expensive, the number of people purchasing second-hand clothing has gone up.
City A.M reported that in 2022, eBay saw a 24 percent increase in circular fashion businesses joining the site, and searches for pre-loved clothing on eBay UK rose 1600 percent from summer 2022 to January 2023. According to GlobalData, the UK clothes resale market also grew by 149% between 2016 and 2022 and is forecast to increase by 67.5% from 2022 to 2026.
According to Cam McGimpsey, the CEO of Birl, a SaaS platform that rewards customers for giving their clothes back, the cost-of-living crisis is making second-hand more attractive to consumers.
He says: “It will be the cost-benefit/savings of second-hand that will result in mass adoption, as unfortunately, the environmental benefit by itself won’t be enough. We can already see this with Gen Z shoppers, who are able to obtain the brands they want at a significant discount compared with new. Naturally, the cost-of-living crisis will draw larger sections of society who are unable to purchase what they want if it is new, and therefore will help speed up second-hand adoption.”
Diana Saarva, Chief Operating Officer of Miros, a visual AI platform for shoppers, says that whilst increased consumption was a consequence of rising living costs, the number of people shopping secondhand was already on the rise.
She comments: “One of the effects of the cost-of-living crisis was producing increased consumption of second-hand goods. However, this only escalated what was already surging at the time and initiated a consumer incentive of shopping second-hand, beyond trends and means of shopping circularly.
“This includes the generated hype of shopping for pre-loved goods that circulated social media during the pandemic amongst Gen-Z shoppers due to vintage-inspired trends and ‘thrifting’. Moves towards circular fashion were something that existed before economic instability.”
Despite remaining high, inflation in the UK has started to fall, and the Bank of England expects it will drop to 2% by late 2024. So, once prices begin to stabilise, will people return to buying their clothing brand new again?
McGimpsey doesn’t think so.
He says: “In truth, I don’t think a return to economic stability will reduce adoption, as disposable income has been eroding away for quite some time now. The cost-of-living crisis has only accelerated the real income reduction that was taking place anyway. Finding cheaper alternatives is no longer a luxury, but instead a necessity for so many consumers.”
She comments: “If the economy stabilises, I don’t believe second-hand marketplaces for luxury goods will suffer a loss. People are after pre-loved luxury due to increased prices of high-fashion goods. For example, Chanel keeps increasing stock prices, particularly their classic flap. Therefore, those after classic bags will look toward second-hand marketplaces as a means to purchase within a more affordable price range whilst maintaining a similar value of the goods purchased.”
Can second-hand fashion compete with fast fashion on price?
Whilst there are plenty of opportunities to pick up a bargain second-hand, the sector still has to compete with fast fashion, which is notoriously cheap and bad for the environment. A Guardian story from 2019 covering a £4 dress from Boohoo epitomises exactly what the second-hand market is up against. Buying from a vintage shop can also mean consumers pay more for a second-hand item than they would for a brand-new item from a fast-fashion retailer, which raises important questions over whether second-hand can truly ever compete with fast fashion in this regard.
However, McGimpsey thinks education is the key to resolving this.
He comments: “Yes, an item may be more expensive, but the fact that it is still in good condition in a vintage store shows how well made it is and how long it will last. It also shows that it has good re-sell value for you once you no longer have a need for it.
“Secondly, it also looks like help is coming. The government may be introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation within the next few years. This will make it legally binding for anyone producing clothing to contribute to its effective disposal at the end of its lifecycle. This legislation will hit fast fashion the hardest, and as a result make purchasing better products, whether new or second-hand, a more attractive proposition for everyone.”
But price is not the only way the second-hand market is in competition with fast fashion. According to Saarva, Instagram culture and how it affects shoppers’ consumption of fast fashion is a big barrier to the growth of secondhand.
She comments: “Most barriers concern consumer shopping habits: the Instagram consumer culture and its need to purchase new outfits for every outing or just post a new picture. This is most common amongst the younger generation. Therefore, the accessibility for fast fashion platforms, in terms of price points, constant release of new stock and quick shipping options, and lesser consumer spending power, is a big challenge.
“Second-hand marketplaces are being used by this ‘Instagram Generation’ to sell clothes they wore once and purchased from fast fashion retailers at an even lower price. Also, fast fashion sites are now part of second-hand marketplaces: Pretty Little Thing & Asos are two of many which have incorporated second-hand shopping. Zara has most recently joined the ‘fast fashion turned circular’ cohort. TikTok and Instagram also have their own marketplaces, which might be of concern because they sell inexpensive fashion items perpetuating the expansion of fast fashion.”
According to Peter Lydon, Chief Product Officer at Birl, the biggest barrier to growth is still the taboo that surrounds wearing used clothing. He says younger generations have managed to get past this, but older generations still have a long way to go to being fully converted.
Lydon continues: “Focusing more on the commercial barriers to growth, second-hand fashion does not have the economies of scale that are available when selling new products. Items do not come in size runs, each item needs to be photographed and warehouse storage is a lot more resource intense. In addition to this, second-hand isn’t e-commerce friendly, as consumers want to truly understand their item’s condition before making a purchase.
“The other key hurdle is the current lack of transparency in second-hand, and this needs to be improved. Sellers are often buying their inventory blind and are let down on what they thought they were purchasing. Buyers don’t have the same rights as they do when purchasing new, so often don’t have the confidence required to convert.”
Despite the various barriers to growth, it looks as if the second-hand market is set to thrive in the years ahead. According to Thredup’s Resale Report 2023, the global secondhand market is expected to grow three times faster on average than the global apparel market overall and will be worth $351 billion by 2027.
But will it save the environment?
As touched on earlier, one of the biggest growth drivers for the second-hand sector is its eco-credentials and the increase of more eco-conscious consumers. However, the fast fashion market is expected to continue growing too. According to Statista, the worldwide fast fashion market was estimated to be worth around $106 billion in 2022 and will be worth $185 billion by 2027. With the market continuing to grow, emissions from fast fashion are expected to increase 50% by 2030.
So, even though the second-hand market will nearly double the size of fast fashion by 2027, is it enough to offset the environmental damage being caused?
“No, it isn’t enough, but it is a good start”, says Lydon. “There are two other key actions that stakeholders need to embrace to get much closer to net zero.
“Firstly, at a top level we need to be allocating more resources to accelerate the commercial viability of fibre-to-fibre recycling. Fibre-to-fibre recycling is the process of turning clothing back into clothing, which unfortunately is much more difficult than turning other items (like plastic bottles) into clothing. It is scientifically possible, but not currently commercially viable.
“Whilst fibre-to-fibre is being made into a scalable reality, brands should be looking to reduce the emissions created by their end-to-end production process. Reductions can be made by using better materials, greener energy sources and more efficient transportation practices as a start. Brands also need to work with credible carbon capture products to offset the remaining emissions that they are still creating.”
However, Saarva says buying secondhand still indirectly supports fast fashion and fuels overconsumption.
She continues: “Online shopping means it is easy for customers to buy without thinking, while major brands offer cheap clothes that can be treated like disposable items – worn two or three times and then thrown away. One aspect of the online shopping problem is customers “settling” for cheap items they find on sale rather than buying items they love and keep. And this happens because search algorithms are operated by outdated technology that doesn’t know how to interact with the modern customer.
“We are tackling this problem with our Wordless Search feature that uses AI to translate customer intent into efficient search results in an online store so that customers can find it easy to find the right products even for hard-to-describe styles, patterns or colour combinations. This makes it less likely for clothes to be discarded after a few wears into the second-hand market.”
Even as economies around the world begin to stabilise, the second-hand market will not slow down. And whilst its growth is certainly more encouraging than that of the fast fashion sector, the reality is general overconsumption of clothes means the environment will continue to take a hit. But as new eco-technologies emerge and legislation comes into effect, there are, at least, some signs of encouragement for the future.