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Secondhand Shopping Is Trending—But Is It Still Sustainable?

Moves like buying in bulk and reselling fast fashion items take some of the sustainability out of secondhand shopping, finds new report.

Written by
Calin Van Paris

Even the most cursory of glances at the current style landscape makes it clear that secondhand shopping is on the rise. Between the continued Y2K revival, a lean into "ugly" style—which features kitschy pieces and art school feels—and a more-is-more wardrobe mentality, younger generations are buying more secondhand clothing than ever before.

“Between primary market supply constraints, inflation woes, and the acceleration of the climate crisis, shoppers and consignors alike are seeing the economic, environmental, and emotional value of resale," says Rati Sahi Levesque, president and co-CEO of The RealReal, in the brand's recently released report.

And according to TRR and a similar report from thredUP, gen Z is joining the thrifting club, and reselling more quickly, than previous generations.

It's fun! It's cute! It's cheap! It's environmentally friendly! Where's the bad?

In this case, popularity is something of a double-edged sword. While purchasing used is always better than investing in new items, moves like buying in bulk and reselling fast fashion take some of the sustainability out of the circular economy.

Who's Shopping Resale?

So, who's shopping secondhand? The short answer is everyone—but in different ways. According to The RealReal's August 2022 Luxury Resale Report, Millennials are the #1 resale generation, but Gen X resells the most (and is the most committed to the concept of circularity), and Gen Z resells the fastest. Gen Z is also the fastest-growing consumer base, increasing 35% year over year.

The thredUP's findings echo this upswing, noting that 62% of Gen Z and Millennials look for an item secondhand before purchasing it new. Unlike Millennials, though, 36% of Gen Z purchases apparel items monthly or weekly—the same rate at which they clean out.

Secondhand Shopping and Fast Fashion

It's both counterintuitive and unsurprising that the secondhand market's meteoric rise—the industry has increased 24% year over year and is expected to more than double in the U.S. by 2026—coincides with the onset of fast fashion. From clothing hauls to constant visibility, the pressure to stay freshly outfitted and on-trend is real, with 1 in 5 fast fashion shoppers saying they feel pressured to have the latest styles due to social media. And though secondhand is a sustainable option at its core, it's also cheap and easy, allowing shoppers to consume copious amounts at a minimal cost.

This also explains the influx of fast fashion pieces to vintage and thrift stores: Gen Z is opting for both.

“McKinsey identified that recirculating 1 in 5 garments by 2030 is key for the apparel industry to achieve the 1.5-degree pathway laid out by the Paris Climate Accord. However, you can’t recirculate poorly made fast fashion," says James Rogers, director of sustainability at TRR in the aforementioned report. "The benefit of luxury resale is that luxury items are created with craftsmanship and higher quality materials, giving these items a longer life span.”

TL;DR: The point of secondhand shopping is to encourage a mindful circular economy built of well-made pieces that are equipped to experience multiple lives. Hunting for forever pieces that are fun and affordable is a joy, but flooding the resale sphere with poorly-made clothing, or purchasing an unnecessary amount of pieces for clout, could ultimately alter the eco-friendly market.