What about second-hand fast fashion?

  • by Vivienne Austin

The current clothing production, distribution, and consumption system follows a very linear process. Significant amounts of nonrenewable resources are extracted to manufacture the garments that we wear every day; garments that are often used only for a brief period before being discarded in landfills or incinerated. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, over half of fast fashion items are disposed of within a year. This linear fast fashion model overlooks economic potential, strains resources, pollutes and harms the environment and its ecosystems, and generates substantial adverse societal effects at local, regional, and global levels.


We’ve said it before, but this linear fast fashion system is just not sustainable in the long run - or the short one, considering the fast effects climate change is having on our planet. Instead, the whole fashion industry should focus on achieving the vision of a circular fashion economy, which aims to be restorative and regenerative, benefiting businesses, society, and the environment. In this system, clothing, textiles, and fibres are maintained at their highest value through use and are reintroduced into the economy instead of becoming waste.  From implementing new ways to prolong clothing use to incorporating renewable materials in the supply chain to developing new ways to transform used clothing into new pieces, a circular fashion economy is - in a few words - one that makes most use of what we now consider ‘waste’.


The benefits of the second-hand market 

Consuming second-hand clothing supports the transition to circular economies by extending product lifespan through reuse. This practice is vital for reducing environmental impact, resource use, and waste generation to align with planetary boundaries. The environmental effects of new clothing consumption in affluent communities, such as CO2 emissions and chemical pollution, highlight the importance of examining the second-hand clothing market. While second-hand consumption may not always prevent new product purchases, reusing products is crucial for circular economies, as these markets are key in encouraging the use of existing products and shifting consumption away from new ones.

 

 

Historically, in high-income countries, the practice of buying second-hand clothing has been commonly associated with individuals of lower financial means and, in certain circles, still carries a stigma of poverty. However, in many affluent communities, second-hand shopping has gained popularity due to increasing concerns about sustainability and changing fashion trends. This rising interest in thrifted clothing is reflected in both policy discussions, such as the European Commission's plan to expand producer responsibility for textiles throughout the European Union by 2025, and traditional retail companies that primarily focus on new products, like Zalando and IKEA, which are now showing a growing interest in selling second-hand items. 

 

On the other hand, while not-for-profit organisations, such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, have historically been the main players in the second-hand market in Western Europe and North America, the landscape of the clothing resale market is evolving significantly, with a surge in public interest in pre-owned items and an influx of new commercial players. Over the past decade, many for-profit companies like Vinted, Depop, ThredUp, eBay, Vestiaire Collective, The RealReal, and others have entered this market pushing the growth of the resale market even further.

 

The drawbacks of the second-hand market 

The surge of second hand online marketplaces such as Vinted and others doesn’t only have positive aspects associated with it. Although these platforms are surely making second-hand fashion accessible to everyone in the easiest way possible, they are also bringing in fast fashion into the resale scene, which might not be that sustainable and in fact, even detrimental for the vision of a circular fashion economy.

 

 

In fact, the presence of 61.8 million Zara garments, 21.8 million Shein pieces, 21 million Primark items, 10.2 million Mango items and 59.7 million H&M items on Vinted, illustrates a complex scenario involving consumer behaviour, fast fashion, and sustainability efforts within the retail industry. 

This data highlights the extensive production capabilities of these corporate giants in the fast fashion sector, emphasising their dominance in the industry, and the significant quantity of items listed on Vinted indicates that these consumers are still actively purchasing these garments in large numbers, with a short desirability lifespan for the buyer. Although these buyers are trying to extend these products’ lifecycle, the concept of circular fashion should prioritise durable clothing that lasts beyond a single season, rather than the continuous production of polyester-based garments by fast fashion brands. Hence, the abundance of fast fashion pieces being sold and resold on platforms such as Vinted only proves that fast fashion, even when second-hand, still fuels overconsumption exponentially.

 

While secondhand marketplaces like Vinted play a role in addressing fashion waste, broader changes in production, consumption, and disposal practices are essential for achieving sustainable outcomes in the industry. As the fashion industry addresses its environmental impact, both retailers and consumers must reconsider their approaches to clothing production, consumption, and disposal to promote sustainability.

 

[info sourced on sciencedirect.com, ellenmacarthurfoundation.org and fashionunited.uk

All images sourced on canva.com]

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