While 74 percent of fast-fashion buyers believe that their individual consumption habits have a significant impact on the planet, according to GlobalData survey that ThredUp commissioned, 72 percent of them say they shop on the high street because it’s good value for money. Another 53 percent say they choose fast fashion because it saves them time.
There’s plenty of conflict over this, however. Nearly half (48 percent) of fast-fashion shoppers said they try to avoid buying fast fashion whenever they can, while 43 percent said they feel guilty for buying or wearing fast fashion. Nearly two in three consumers who opt for disposable clothing said they aspire to buy more secondhand alternatives, according to ThredUp‘s report.
“One thing that stood out to me this year is this battle that’s going on in the minds of Gen Z,” Anthony Marino, president of the world’s largest online consignment and thrift store, told Sourcing Journal. The generation born between 1997 and 2012 is widely hailed as more progressive and environmentally conscious than their forebears, he noted. But its members are also bombarded by the minute with social media posts that compel them to keep up with their stylish peers.
Add to that the siren call of companies such as Shein, which adds upward of 6,000 new items—averaging $7.90 a pop—every day. “Shein in particular is the most evolved species of fast fashion you’ve ever seen,” Marino said. “It’s cheap, it’s convenient [and] by some magical flight of fancy the packages come from China in a couple of days. Consumers are always going to keep the bar high, and convenience, price and style [are] what they’re looking for.”
Enter resale, which ThredUp defines as the sector of the broader secondhand market that includes more curated assortments, with options that are primarily if not exclusively online. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a whole next wave of growth and resale that’s actually being fueled by brands and retailers,” Marino said. The number of fashion firms that have dipped into secondhand has soared by 275 percent from 2020, creating more choices for even the most fickle of shoppers, he added. ThredUp’s own resale-as-a-service platform, which powers the pre-loved inventories of companies such as Madewell and Target, onboarded 30 customers in 2021. It expects to have a total of 40 by year’s end.
Demand is equally voracious. In 2021, the U.S. secondhand market saw a record growth of 32 percent, the report said. It’s further expected to more than double by 2026 to surpass $82 billion. A similar pattern is forming in regions such as Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America, which ThredUp scrutinized for the first time since it rolled out its inaugural report in 2013. Secondhand apparel, it said, is becoming a “global phenomenon” with an expected growth of 127 percent by 2026, or three times faster than the overall clothing market.
Secondhand apparel is expected to grow 127 percent by 2026, or three times faster than the overall clothing market.
The United States is still the locus of much of resale’s boom, thanks, in part, to the emergence of technology and online marketplaces that have made partaking in pre-loved easier. Consumers in the United States, Marino said, are embracing secondhand “in droves.” Of the consumers GlobalData surveyed in 2021, 53 percent said they’ve purchased secondhand garments during the year, an increase of 22 points from 2020. They’re also becoming sellers, with 57 percent of those surveyed making a buck from their castoffs in 2021.
“The U.S., in many respects, is a market where many of the earliest players got started,” Marino said. “And online thrift, which is focused on these more curated assortments of products that are really easy to shop, really helps fuel consumption of thrift because you [don’t] have all the friction of having to sort through the racks in the physical [world]. And so you can shop your [used] products in the same way you shop new products with search and browse [capabilities] and all those other conveniences.” In other words, online resale has to continue to “up its game” in order to pull shoppers away from the “cheap and very addictive” highway that is fast fashion, he added.
But once they’ve switched lanes, they’ve switched for life, Marino said. Many converts even wear that identity with pride. In fact, GlobalData found that nearly three in four of the consumers who shopped secondhand in 2021 consider themselves “thrifters.” Nearly 60 percent of those who snapped up used for the first time in 2021 said their choices give them “bragging rights.” More than half (54 percent) who bought their first pre-owned piece in 2021 said they go out of their way to tell people they are wearing secondhand.
“When you get to the point in the development of a market, where a whole generation of shoppers is saying, ‘I self-identify as a thrifter,’ you have to ask yourself what are the ramifications for how these customers shop?” Marino said. “So [for the] three-quarters of consumers who said, ‘Hey, I’m a thrifter,’ they’re looking for value, they’re looking for sustainability, they’re looking for the fun and discovery that comes with thrift. And for us, that was a big signal that thrifting can become a badge of honor.”
ThredUp, which hired its first-ever policy chief in February, wants to spread the gospel of thrift to the corridors of power, too. According to GlobalData’s calculations, secondhand displaced 1 billion new clothing purchases that normally would have been bought new in 2021. Tax breaks and other regulatory instruments that promote resale could further cut fashion’s massive carbon, waste and worker-exploitation footprints down to size.
“I think the first thing we want to do is make it really easy for consumers to do the right thing,” Marino said. “And if doing the right thing is purchasing more used fashion, rather than fashion that sparks more production, we believe that governments will probably need to get involved the same way they got involved with solar panels, the same way they got involved with electric cars, the same way they got involved with recycling.”
He also wants to see more transparency with how clothing waste is created and dealt with, including within ThredUp, which lists only 60 percent of the products that it receives. The rest is divvied up among local thrift stores, sorters and pulpers, depending on their condition.
“But there’s a lot of fast fashion in there that’s two-thirds polyester—that’s a tough product to recycle,” Marino said. “So what happens to that product? How do we think about that? So while we don’t have all the answers to every step of that quite yet, I think we’re constantly striving to bring transparency to where every item we process ends up. [This will be a] long-term series of activities that we’ll have to undertake with the support of the whole industry.”