Could Secondhand Clothing Change The Fashion Industry's Sustainability Issues?

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Are secondhand, vintage, and thrifted clothing really the solution to the fashion industry’s sustainability issues? With vintage clothing trends growing in popularity in Australia and worldwide, find out what this means for the fashion industry.

The fashion industry has often received a bad reputation for its slowness in enacting industry-wide regulations that could improve its impact on the natural environment and address systemic sustainability issues. Global apparel consumption is projected to reach 102 million tonnes annually by 2030, and though many individual brands have pledged to reduce their own carbon footprint there is still much more work that can be done.

While there may be a lack of top-down industry-wide sustainability initiatives, a sea change in the industry might be happening from the ground up – starting with the individual consumer. With consumers embracing sustainable living in the face of a climate emergency, more of them are turning to secondhand, vintage, and thrifted clothing as an alternative to brand-new retail. According to a report by ThredUp, the secondhand clothing market is now projected to reach USD$77 billion by 2025 with much of that coming from individuals reselling their own apparel on platforms such as Reluv, The Closet, and Mottainai Clothing – and these are just a few Australian platforms that don’t come close to the reach of global online marketplaces like thredUP or Depop.

So how will this trend affect the fashion industry?

Origins of the new ‘cool’ in thrifted clothing

Thrifted clothing used to carry with it a lot of shame and stigma due to its cheap prices, and it was only in the mid-2010s that it started to become embraced as a conscious countercultural decision, according to NPR.  Initially it was mostly alternative subgroups such as vintage fashion enthusiasts who participated in the online secondhand market, but as the trend increased in popularity over time so did its mainstream appeal.

Today, The Sydney Morning Herald says that Millennials and Generation Z are driving the trend forward thanks to consumer concerns about their closet’s impact on the environment and ethical issues behind the brands they buy. Buying secondhand resale is one way to participate in a sustainable circular economy by extending the life-cycle of the garment and reducing the purchase of brand-new retail items. It also allows consumers to be intentional about the brands they choose to purchase, and by extension the brands whose values they personally endorse. Even for brands that may be notorious for worker exploitation, sweatshop labour, or racist marketing, wearing a resale item means the consumer can still enjoy the brand’s aesthetic and style without contributing to their actual retail sales.

Ambiguous implications for the industry

However the meteoric rise of secondhand clothing belies much more serious concerns for the industry. In some ways, the secondhand market is just a stopgap solution to deeper sustainability issues in fashion – and has even brought about its own unintended effects on the climate.

Brands eyeing the ever-growing market share of vintage clothing trends may produce new items to meet consumer demand, or re-release items that have value on the resale market. This may meet the demand for vintage-style dresses or distressed jeans that look like they came from a local thrift store, but fundamentally goes against the ethos of wearing secondhand apparel.

According to Volta, consumers who shop secondhand out of necessity are also reporting rising prices as ‘thrift hauls’ become more popular, where content creators buy large amounts of secondhand clothing and show off the haul on social media. This had led to conversations about overconsumption and whether they are influencing their audience to shift from splurging on fast fashion to secondhand purchases under the guise of sustainability. Other issues have also been raised about wealth, accessibility, and gentrification, as these ‘haulers’ are pricing secondhand shoppers out of their necessities.

With more consumers donating, reselling, and buying thrifted fashion, more attention also needs to be paid to the logistics of how these garments are being transported around the world. According to ABC News, many thrift stores who receive fast fashion donations are often unable to resell the clothing due to poor-quality fabric and construction, with these donations piling up in landfills in underserved communities. At the same time, apparel resale platforms have made it easier than ever to buy, sell, and send premium or branded secondhand clothing halfway across the world. This highlights the uneven consequences of resale fashion logistics worldwide, and how secondhand shopping is not universally sustainable.

Paired with the global growth in online e-commerce, the fashion industry’s carbon footprint now extends to its packaging, logistics, and last-mile delivery choices as well. To cope with this growing demand, more international delivery services such as DHL Express are offering value-added additional services such as GoGreen Climate Neutral shipping which offsets transport-related carbon emissions. However in order to fully transition towards circularity, fashion resale platforms and individual retailers alike need to examine their own commitments to sustainability and embrace industry opportunities for sustainable action. 

Open a DHL Express business account today to find out how we can help your business adopt responsible logistics solutions in Australia and beyond.