Booming secondhand clothing sales may help sustainability

A massive force is reshaping the fashion industry: secondhand clothing. According to a new report, the U.S. secondhand clothing market is projected to more than triple in value in the next 10 years – from $28 billion in 2019 to $80 billion in 2029 – in a U.S. market currently worth $379 billion.

In 2019, secondhand clothing expanded 21 times faster than conventional apparel retail did, according to the Idaho Falls Post Register.

Even more transformative is secondhand clothing’s potential to dramatically alter the prominence of fast fashion – a business model characterized by cheap and disposable clothing that emerged in the early 2000s, epitomized by brands like H&M and Zara. Fast fashion grew exponentially over the next two decades, significantly altering the fashion landscape by producing more clothing, distributing it faster and encouraging consumers to buy in excess with low prices.

While fast fashion is expected to continue to grow 20% in the next 10 years, secondhand fashion is poised to grow 185%.

As researchers who study clothing consumption and sustainability, we think the secondhand clothing trend has the potential to reshape the fashion industry and mitigate the industry’s detrimental environmental impact on the planet.

The secondhand clothing market is composed of two major categories, thrift stores and resale platforms. But it’s the latter that has largely fueled the recent boom. Secondhand clothing has long been perceived as worn out and tainted, mainly sought by bargain or treasure hunters. However, this perception has changed, and now many consumers consider secondhand clothing to be of identical or even superior quality to unworn clothing.

A trend of “fashion flipping” – or buying secondhand clothes and reselling them – has also emerged, particularly among young consumers.

Thanks to growing consumer demand and new digital platforms like Tradesy and Poshmark that facilitate peer-to-peer exchange of everyday clothing, the digital resale market is quickly becoming the next big thing in the fashion industry.

The fashion industry has long been associated with social and environmental problems, ranging from poor treatment of garment workers to pollution and waste generated by clothing production.

Less than 1% of materials used to make clothing are currently recycled to make new clothing, a $500 billion annual loss for the fashion industry.

The textile industry produces more carbon emissions than the airline and maritime industries combined. And approximately 20% of water pollution across the globe is the result of wastewater from the production and finishing of textiles.

Consumers have become more aware of the ecological impact of apparel production and are more frequently demanding apparel businesses expand their commitment to sustainability. Buying secondhand clothing could provide consumers a way to push back against the fast-fashion system.