Will shopping secondhand change the fashion industry?

The secondhand fashion market has boomed since the coronavirus pandemic began, but key concerns have emerged around the impact it is having on prices, sustainability and retail business models

The market for secondhand clothes is swiftly entering the mainstream, with a post-lockdown consumer driven by climate, cost and community heralding a new era of fashion and breed of players.

“Online thrifting is a bright spot in the COVID retail slump,” resale platform thredUP declared in its 2020 Resale Report, projecting the secondhand fashion market to more than double to £48.3 billion in the next five years. Within ten years, it predicts resale will dominate our wardrobes.

“The coronavirus has shed light on overconsumption, which has made consumers think, ‘What could they survive with?’,” notes Saisangeeth Daswani, head of advisory for fashion and beauty in Asia-Pacific at trend analyst Stylus. “This will shape not just the resale landscape, but the broader fashion industry.”

Climate, cost and community are embedding purchasing secondhand clothes “as a new route to access fashion” and intensifying competition, she says.

“A sustainability mindset has been brewing for some time. We’re also seeing more consumers enter into a difficult financial situation. And there is a huge focus on communities, with people wanting to look within their own neighbourhoods to fulfil what they need.”

Shifting the fast fashion business model

Big brands have been jumping on the resale bandwagon faster than the volume of secondhand clothes shifting. In the United States, thredUP has been scooping up deals with iconic retailers Macy’s, JCPenney and Walmart.

In the UK, Selfridges has followed up partnerships with Depop and Vestiaire Collective with its new resale service Resellfridges, while H&M Group is rolling out initiatives with Sellpy, the Swedish resale marketplace it has a majority stake in.

“Secondhand is one of the fastest growing business sectors within fashion and it’s a business opportunity H&M Group wants to be part of, so we are investing in different models among our brands,” says H&M Group’s Laura Engels.

We believe this type of circular partnership is key to driving real industry change

“New business models in the areas of rental, repair and recommerce play just as an important part as investments in research and development of new recycling technologies and materials. To sustainably reduce the environmental impact of the entire textile industry, it’s H&M Group´s goal to make the best possible use of limited resources and to keep garments in circulation for a long time.”

How resale partnerships can drive real change

As traditional retailers seek to be more relevant to consumers’ changing lives, while mitigating the competitive threat of resale’s growth, the resale partnership trend is set to boom. “Consumers expect brands to help them be more sustainable and empower them with more positive behaviours. That’s what they are tapping into with these partnerships,” says Daswani.

The success of designer marketplace Vestiaire Collective’s partnership with Selfridges is opening the door to more collaborations, reveals co-founder and president Fanny Moizant. Vestiaire Collective’s report, The Smart Side of Fashion, reveals its shoppers too are gravitating more towards sustainable brands, such as Stella McCartney, Ganni, Marine Serre, LOQ, Veja and GmbH.

“It’s exciting to see customers respond to desirable pre-owned fashion within a traditional retail environment. We believe this type of circular partnership is key to driving real industry change, so we are exploring opportunities with brands in our global markets,” says Moizant.

Brands such as Eileen Fisher, renowned for its sustainability principles in a backlash against fast fashion, believe all clothing retailers should offer resale, based on how consumers have responded to its Renew programme, which includes resale of its secondhand clothes plus a channel for repurposed items.

“We are proud that we take back and process everything ourselves. It’s not easy, but it helps us protect our brand and stand behind our goods. We learn so much from touching every piece ourselves,” says Cynthia Power, director of Renew.

Secondhand clothes sellers also held accountable

But resale platforms are also set to come under increasing pressure to demonstrate their sustainability credentials in the wake of such success. “As they come up with more solutions for people to receive their items faster, there could be backlash with people asking, ‘What are you doing for the environment?’” says Daswani.

Yet Vestiaire Collective believes its growth contributes to powering the sustainability of the fashion industry overall. Promoting the benefits of “circular fashion” in more markets will fuel its international expansion across APAC.

Secondhand market

“Allowing fashion lovers to extend the lifespan of their pieces and encouraging participation in the circular economy can reduce waste. Extending the lifespan of a garment by just nine months through reselling reduces water and carbon footprints by 20 to 30% and cuts resource costs by 20%,” claims Moizant.

“With the arrival of our chief sustainability and inclusivity officer, we are working on a series of activations that will launch during the second half of the year to focus on environmental and social sustainability. We want to encourage more people to join the circular fashion movement and explore a more sustainable way to enjoy fashion.”

How will secondhand fare against fast fashion?

However, Daswani is not convinced buying secondhand clothes will outpace traditional or fast fashion, down to the inconsistent nature of both the experience and pricing. “The more people sell fast fashion items via resale, the lower the price. One-of-a-kind pieces can be priced high which sellers can justify. That’s what consumers are looking for: something different that you can’t just get from the high street. It’s not just about buying through a cheaper route,” she says.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at UK online retail association IMRG, hints that the rise of resale could be a Trojan horse for brands to shift unsold stock, demonstrated by the number of new tags.

Mulcahy says true sustainability may not be the primary motivator for embracing resale, both from a consumer and brand standpoint, and won’t be achievable until we experience a seismic cultural shift, making the market for secondhand clothes just another part of the fashion ecosystem.

“If you want a properly sustainable fashion industry, you have to get people to buy fewer clothes, that’s what it all comes down to. I don’t see anybody doing that,” he says.

“We don’t have the culture or system for it. Businesses are graded on selling more stuff and making more money and they’re not going to stop doing that. I don’t see this changing imminently.

“Culturally, we’re still ingrained to have our ‘outfit of the day’. If celebrities moved more to wearing the same clothes regularly and buying less, and were to spread that message, then we would see more of a shift, but we’re not there yet.”