17 May

Is Shopping Second Hand Sustainable?

Did you know that around the world, about 107 billion units of apparel and 14.5 billion pairs of shoes were purchased in 2016?

The number of items purchased every year has doubled in the last 15 years. We’re buying more and more clothing, and we’re also throwing away a lot of these purchases, with 84% of clothing ending up in landfills or incinerators.

It’s a shocking number, and it’s not sustainable. We can’t go on buying new items at this rate, and finding ways to get more use out of each piece in our wardrobes is crucial if we want to reduce the impact of our fashion choices on the planet.

Brands need to change the ways clothes are made so they are more durable or recyclable, but we, consumers and citizens, also have an essential role to play. By changing the way we consume, voting with our dollar, and choosing better brands and practices, we can push the whole industry forward.

Shopping second hand is said to be one of the things we can do to reduce the footprint of our wardrobes. But is shopping second hand sustainable? Today, we look at the rise, impact, and issues linked to shopping pre-owned clothing.

The rise of second hand shopping

Many people saw secondhand clothing as dirty, old, dull, and frankly unattractive for a long time. People thought that going to a thrift shop, op shop, or flea market meant you had to spend hours, even days, dutifully digging through piles of discarded clothes in the hopes of finding one good piece that would hopefully be the correct size.

But things have changed. Shopping second hand is becoming easier and more accessible than ever, and as a result, the resale market is booming. Resale platform thredUP predicts online thrifting will grow 69% between 2019 and 2021, and some even believe that the resale sector will be bigger than fast fashion within ten years.

Today, with people being more worried about the planet and their finances than ever, they will likely turn to their local second hand shops or resale websites. These sites like Depop, The Real Real, or Vestiaire Collective have truly revolutionised the way we think about second hand.

While some experts worried the pandemic would negatively impact the resale sector due to consumers being worried about hygiene, the contrary happened. People found more time to clean out their wardrobes! Retailers are noticing this growing trend, and many are seizing the second hand opportunity, like Asda, which began to sell second hand clothes in its supermarkets just a couple of weeks ago.

Is shopping second hand sustainable?

Wherever you are in the world, if you go to a mall or shopping centre, you’ll likely find a Zara, or an H&M, or a Forever 21. Society is dominated by these fast fashion giants, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused about which brands are worth supporting.

Buying vintage and second hand provides a refreshing and, yes, more sustainable way to shop.

Better for people, the planet, and animals

Buying pre-owned clothes allows us to add items to our wardrobe without using additional resources in the manufacturing process. The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10%of global carbon emissions, uses massive amounts of water, and exploits workers and animals worldwide. Buying clothes that already exist slows down the fast fashion cycle and the relentless demands on low-paid workers in the supply chain. You’re also keeping clothes out of landfills by giving them a new life and discovering unique and special pieces along the way. Gone are the days of arriving at a party wearing the same dress or t-shirt as your friend.

More accessible

Finally, shopping second hand is cheaper and more accessible! Many people are worried about the cost of sustainable fashion, but honestly, building an ethical wardrobe doesn’t have to be expensive, and buying second hand is a great first step.

Good On You helps you discover and support our favourite ethical and sustainable fashion brands, but we also recommend buying second hand, either from your local second hand shops or from apps and websites like Depop, Farfetch (who now has a “Pre-Owned” section) or Vestiaire Collective, where you can find some fantastic pieces in mint condition! To help you out on your second hand shopping journey, here a few of our favourite brands to shop pre-owned:

Reformation

Rated: Good

LA-based Reformation creates killer clothes that don’t kill the environment. The brand also ensures that a large proportion of its suppliers pay a living wage. Go Reformation!

See the rating.

Shop Reformation Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Mara Hoffman

Rated: Good

With a focus on mindful and conscious practices, Mara Hoffman uses eco-friendly materials including GOTS certified cotton, recycled nylon, and recycled polyester, and even has a range of Oeko-Tex STeP certified products. Items come in sizes XS to 3XL, and the brand also has a gorgeous extended sizes collection, so you can be sure to find a new wardrobe addition no matter the bod you rock!

See the rating.

Shop Mara Hoffman Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Patagonia

Rated: Good

Patagonia is a brand which truly lives and breathes the great outdoors. It makes clothing for trail running, climbing, mountain biking, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding. Patagonia has strong labour rights and uses recycled, rather than virgin, polyester. It has also committed to reducing its energy use and emissions, and stocks sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Patagonia @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Patagonia @ Labell-D.

Shop Patagonia.

Shop Patagonia Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Shop Patagonia Kids Pre-Owned @ Retykle.

PANGAIA

Rated: Good

PANGAIA designs products for living in any situation, sustaining your basic needs with smart technology and utilizing recyclable elements wherever possible.

See the rating.

Shop PANGAIA Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Stella McCartney

Rated: Good

A member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Stella McCartney has set some excellent environmental standards across the luxury fashion industry. Stella uses some eco-friendly materials, including recycled polyester and organic cotton, and has a strategy in place to reduce waste across its entire supply chain. It has also adopted the ETI Code of Conduct that includes a living wage definition!

See the rating.

Shop Stella McCartney @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Stella McCartney Kids Pre-Owned @ Retykle.

Shop Stella McCartney Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Shop Stella McCartney.

Find more second hand shopping inspiration.

Issues with second hand

We love shopping second hand, but we also recognise that it can create specific problems without care and consideration.

Poor quality fast fashion

In the second hand market, only a small percentage of donated clothing is of sufficient quality to be re-sold, with cheap fast fashion less likely to survive the sorting process. And even when these items do pass the sorting test, their low quality means they are less durable and will likely be thrown away or re-sold after a few wears. Yes, shopping fast fashion second hand is better than buying it new, but we still need to be mindful and take care of items once they’re in our wardrobes.

In the case of rental marketplaces featuring ‘on-trend’ brands, styles still become obsolete alarmingly quickly, contributing to the problem of excess textile waste. Shopping second hand could be another form of mass consumption. Do we really need to keep filling our closets with cheap fast fashion, even if it’s second hand?

Outsourcing to developing nations

In addition to this, developing countries are inundated with unwanted clothes. Some countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have banned, or are considering banning, used clothing turning up on their doorstep. The excess clothing problem is outsourced to countries with less capacity to deal with it and can often destroy the local clothing industry.

Thrift flipping

With the rise of second hand shopping comes the rise of mending, upcycling, and DIYs. On paper, buying a pre-owned item and customising it to your liking, or ‘thrift flipping’, sounds great, but it’s also a threat for disadvantaged people who can’t find cheap, trendy clothes anymore because they are being bought up to be flipped. According to Metro, thrift flips also make it harder to acquire plus-size clothing: “by buying bigger sizes and turning them into cute co-ords in a smaller size, or choosing much larger sizes for a smaller bodies to have an oversized fit, the demand for plus sizes have gone up in thrift shops without the stock to fulfill it.”

Life isn’t black and white. Yes, shopping second hand is generally more sustainable than buying new. We just have to be mindful of the grey areas! By taking into account the different issues thrifting can create, only buying what we need, and taking care of our clothes so they last longer, we can foster an ethical and sustainable second hand clothing market for everyone.

Interested in shopping second hand? Have a look at our tips and guides:

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via brands mentioned and Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. We love to recommend some of the best sustainable brands, rated ‘Good’ or ‘Great’. We also encourage shopping pre-owned as another great way to reduce the impact of our fashion choices. Use our Directory to search more than 3,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales with top-rated partners made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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