You could assume designers and editors dictate what’s “in,” and consumers sheepishly just follow along
. Sometimes, though, it’s the opposite. For decades, brands have instead relied on everyday trailblazers. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s viral New Yorker story “The Coolhunt”? It’s still eerily relevant over 25 years later. For time immemorial, trendsetters have set trends (as they do), and companies have followed suit. But…what happens now that trendsetters have no choice but to make sustainability hip? How can an industry adapt to a model that asks money-makers to pump the brakes for the sake of the planet?
All signs—and experts—point to one answer: circularity. To achieve this in the fashion industry, though, we have to embrace secondhand shopping. Step one: recognize that it’s not all hand-me-downs and raggedy sweats from Goodwill bins.
Historically, thrift shopping has been treated like fashion’s castaway island. But now, largely because of Gen Z, shopping secondhand is cool as hell. (This begs the question, is that because they truly think it’s cool, or is that thinking necessitated by the environmental crisis? Chicken or the egg…but in this case, the stakes are too high to care.) What’s important is this: The future of fashion relies on rethinking a garment’s life cycle. Environmentally–minded individuals have known this for ages. Resale sites like thredUP, Poshmark, and even eBay have been in the game for a long time. The difference now is that the fashion industry at large has to get on board as it becomes increasingly clear that resale is the future. Thrifting is no longer a fringe hobby for the granola set.
“Everyone agrees that something needs to change,” says Sam Blumenthal, consumer communications lead for thredUP. “A lot of brands believe that sustainability is important, and resale is becoming a key part of their strategy to get there. Some of it is altruistic…and some of it is because they’re going where the consumer is going.” And for a litany of reasons, consumers are turning to secondhand.
Per thredUP’s 2023 resale report that the company released earlier this week, the global secondhand market is slated to almost double in size by 2027 with a growth rate three times faster than the average apparel market. The majority of this growth is expected to come from new shoppers, meaning more people are converting to the secondhand market. Earlier this year, The RealReal’s 2023 luxury consignment report backed up this idea, stating that Gen Z resells more than any other demographic.
According to Business Insider, more than 100 billion garments are produced each year, about three-fourths of which end up landfills, per Vox. (Reminder: The world population is 8 billion.) To save you the trouble of doing any mental math, that means 75 percent of the fashion industry’s output is unnecessary and goes unused. Optimistically, thredUP reports that U.S. consumption of secondhand apparel was up 40 percent last year compared to 2021.
Up until now, the secondhand market has mostly excluded players from the primary market (a.k.a. the retailers). A consumer would donate or consign an item, and then someone else would buy it. Moving forward, brands are getting in on the action. This idea of using resale to give a garment or accessory its second (or third, fourth, or fifth) life is just starting to be legitimized in the big leagues. Noelle Sciacca, senior fashion lead at The RealReal, says in the past year or two, she’s seen a shift in brands’ perspectives. “Now, we’re not competitors in any way; we’re partners,” Sciacca says of the dynamic between the resale site and the luxury designers it carries. “That is telling of how the secondhand market is evolving in the luxury space.” Take, for instance, Golden Goose’s new 5,600-square-foot “Forward Store” in New York City’s Soho neighborhood, where you can extend the life cycle of items by repairing, remaking, reselling, and recycling them.
In The RealReal’s early days, Stella McCartney was the platform’s only luxury partner. Now, Sciacca says, it boasts relationships with Burberry, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, and, yes, Golden Goose, among others.
If you can recall, Burberry had a major scandal in 2018 when it was revealed that the label burned millions of pounds of garments simply to keep them off of the resale market. “That news was shocking to everyone except people who have worked in the fashion industry,” Blumenthal says. The point? Burberry might have been the one in hot water then, but they certainly weren’t the only brand using wasteful practices.
Blumenthal has worked at thredUP for six years, but before that, she spent many years working for labels like Vince, Alice + Olivia, Moncler, and Missoni. When that particular news story broke, thredUP published an open letter to Burberry pleading to help. The site offers what they call “RaaS,” or retail-as-a-service, in which they handle resale on the behalf of primary market brands. H&M, J.Crew, PacSun, Kate Spade, Athleta, Vera Bradley, Madewell, and Tommy Hilfiger are among those that utilize RaaS.
Promisingly, over one-third of retailers reported to thredUP that successful resale programs could lead to decreased production values. And because overproduction is one of the biggest problems at hand, this is very good news.
It’s also worth noting that today’s shoppers are preemptively considering resale value as a determining factor in shopping, according to both reports from The RealReal and thredUP, as well as firsthand accounts from Depop’s top sellers. Gen Z consumers in particular have shown to research the resale market prior to making purchases. Moreover, they report that they’re less likely to go through with a purchase of, for example, a luxury secondhand handbag if it lacks the potential to be valuable in the future. The same could be said for lab-grown diamonds, though the ethical benefits far outweigh their inability to be resold or passed on as heirlooms.
We know Gen Z is more concerned with climate change than any generation before. Research on that fact is ample. They care about style, money, and sustainability; but more importantly, they believe these three things can and should be attainable in tandem. And because they’re demanding a new standard—one in which you can have style and quality without detriment to the living environment—the industry will have to make strides to keep up.
According to the resale report, nearly half of Gen Z says they flat-out refuse to shop from fast-fashion and non-sustainable brands, despite the prevalence of labels like Shein on TikTok. Research also shows that they’re increasingly thrifting more than they’re buying firsthand, and that there’s a growing interest in “fair condition items,” or those that have a little more wear. This may be the countermovement to what thredUP dubs an era of “TikTok sameness,” wherein everybody wears the same things and buys the same things from the same stores. In fact, research finds that Gen Z actually turns to thrifting as a means of establishing stylistic individuality, lest everyone wear the same Zara top.
Indeed, the shabby–chic look is trending in a major way, so the timing couldn’t be better (again, chicken or the egg…) From the comeback of indie sleaze and Y2K to Mary-Kate Olsen’s beat-up Birkin and Bella Hadid’s vintage wardrobe, secondhand shopping is very much en vogue and clearly not just for aesthetic reasons. Actually, the secondhand boom—with its subsequent trends and corollary market impact—has one very interesting facet: at the core, it’s virtue signaling.
Now, bear with me for a moment. Picture the scene: two young women show up to a new hotspot. One wears the hottest mainstream designers from head-to-toe. The other wears a hodge-podge of eclectic pieces from an unassuming vintage shop. While the first may have been dubbed more fashionable by some (read: antiquated) standards, the latter offers what Blumenthal calls “anonymous value signaling.” Without uttering a word or brandishing a logo, contestant #2 makes the statement that she doesn’t need the latest runway collection to look good. Arguably, she’s more stylish because her look is curated and doesn’t rely on brand recognition. As for contestant #1, her look may have been luxe, but it was lazy, and by this new standard, could even be considered environmentally tone-deaf.
Jenna Hart, one of Depop’s top sellers, seems to agree. “I think fashion is moving in a direction of people being less concerned with overarching trends and more concerned with styling,” she says. “People are interested in finding unique pieces, which is much easier to find [with] vintage.” In more and more conversations with industry insiders and even some influencers, I’ve clocked a distinct movement towards this renewed standard of evaluation.
It’s kind of like when the internet first entered the mainstream. Retailers and brands might have hesitated to open e-commerce sites, but in the end, if they wanted to keep their customers, they had to. If the past is any indication, companies will start resale programs out of necessity. Turns out, the change has already begun—there’s been a quiet but notable growth in resale programs over the past few years, and, in all likelihood, it isn’t going to slow down anytime soon (especially as they’re already proving to have positive ROIs).
As for what this means for the industry as a whole, or what the fashion marketplace will look like in even five years time, I do not claim to know. But as for where we stand now, it’s a pivotal moment to be aware of in any capacity. Everything counts for something. Here is proof that, although the burden of change shouldn’t rest on consumers, we can vote with our wallets. The numbers and data are already reflecting the changes we set into motion. This isn’t the time to get discouraged; we have to push forward, and the good news is we can dress very well while we do so.
Associate Fashion Commerce Editor
Meg is the Associate Fashion Commerce Editor at ELLE.com where she researches trends, tests products, and looks for answers to all your burning questions. She also co-writes a monthly column, Same Same But Different. Meg has previously written for Cosmopolitan and Town & Country. Her passions include travel, buffalo sauce, and sustainability. She will never stop hoping for a One Direction reunion tour.