Second-hand fashion’s popularity is booming: Here’s why

The line stretched down the alley where the vibrant store was tucked away, filled with people shivering from the winter cold and the pure excitement, desperate to capitalize on what little time they had available to them. It could be seen as quite an oversized reaction to used clothes shopping.

Baby’s Basement, a vintage second-hand store in Oshawa, Ont., opened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, spending its early years stuck between periodic business closures while trying to grow its customer base. Co-founders Connor Stella and Evan Saar said despite these challenges, people immediately gravitated to the business and would line up before opening on the days the store could allow customers inside. 

“We were pleasantly surprised by our consistent turnout,” Stella said in a Zoom interview. “The response is just really, really positive.” 

According to the 2021 report released by thredUP, an online retailer, the clothing resale market is currently growing at a rate 11 times faster than the traditional forms of retail and is predicted to be worth $84 billion by 2030. 

WATCH | The Observer’s Jenna MacGregor explains the rise of thrifting:

A new generation of shoppers has turned this kind of consumerism into a trend. The online world allowed for a peek behind the curtain of the fast fashion industry, raising an eco-conscious generation in search of another way to shop. This, paired with an overwhelming emphasis of individuality and experience in one’s own personal style, are all contributing to a boom of thrifting.

No Planet B

Globally, the fashion industry produces approximately 53 million tonnes of fibre a year. More than 70 per cent of that ends up as waste, while less than one per cent is reused in new clothes, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit working to create a circular economy.. The severity of this problem and its relation to climate change and individual carbon footprints is nothing new, but millennials and gen Z online have recently turned environmentalism “trendy” through the help of socially conscious influencers and celebrities.

WATCH | The Ellen MacArthur Foundation on how thrifting is part of the solution:

And it seems to be working. Forty five per cent of millennials and gen Z claim to refuse to buy from non-sustainable retailers. This is because many young people are becoming hyper-aware of the destructive effects the fast fashion industry has on the planet. This includes the exploitation of workers in the global south in order to keep up with the incredibly fast-paced industry, typically for little to no money. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent store closures worldwide pushed people toward online shopping and amplified the problem, according to Danielle Tessaro, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Toronto. 

“The COVID economy of ordering EVERYTHING online is a big issue for the environment,” she said in an email interview. “You’ll order something small from Amazon and it comes in a huge cardboard box. So much cardboard being wasted, and so much business stripped away from local shops.

“So, instead of ordering something new online, think about the impact, and consider whether you can buy it second-hand or local first.” 

A stylistic scavenger hunt 

Exclusivity in fashion is typically only designated to high end couture and serves as a way for the wealthy to show off their expensive handbags or one-of-a-kind pieces. Typical retail leaves many consumers longing for an outlet for stylistic individuality. Second-hand fashion is a solution, offering entire stores filled with clothing that — though not necessarily one of a kind — would be next to impossible to duplicate.

Kiera Kivlahan, a 21-year-old thrifting enthusiast, said her favourite part about the whole experience is looking for clothes, far more than actually buying them. 

“When you find that one article, or multiple articles of clothing that you know no one else is going to have, it’s kind of like the thrill of the find,” she said. 

Thrift and second-hand stores also provide a great place to explore one’s personal style, often stocked with eclectic pieces that expand beyond current trends. 

“We like anything pretty colourful … things that are more truly weird or interesting,” Stella said. 

“And I think that it’s important to pay attention to trends,” Saar added,”but it’s also important to pay attention to what feels comfortable on you and what feels right and what will spend the most time in your closet”

Fashion, but frugal

Second-hand stores have always provided an outlet for clothing at a price range even more affordable than typical fast fashion. thredUP reported that in 2021, consumers saved over $390 billion by buying second-hand. Unfortunately, as thrifting has become such a loved activity by younger generations, many stores have used the opportunity to raise prices to capitalize off the success, making them less accessible to the low-income customers who have been shopping there long before #thrifting had nine billion views on TikTok. 

Second-hand shopping methods like thrifting will still allow for cheaper prices that expand far beyond just style, whereas vintage shopping will typically cost more in price, but will remain in your closet for a longer period of time.

“In the vintage industry, there’s a lot of talk about the price per wear,” Saar said. “So if you spend $5 on a T-shirt and wear it one time versus $30 on a T-shirt that you wear 300 times until it falls apart you’re getting a more value price per wear.”

Culture, community and bragging rights

The act of thrifting and second-hand shopping has become a hallmark of gen Z and millennial culture, creating a sense of community through the competitive aspects of the activity. Some of the YouTube videos produced by Emma Chamberlain, a popular online influencer, have more than five million views. Chamberlain has made an incredible career online, one that has made her extremely wealthy.

WATCH | YouTuber Emma Chamberlain shows off one of her thrift hauls:

Chamberlain is a partner with Louis Vuitton, attends Paris fashion week, walks in the Met Gala and is seen as trendsetter in the world of fashion. So why is she thrifting at all? 

Second-hand fashion has taken on a new life form in recent years, shifting from an outlet for accessible clothing at low prices, to a status symbol for those “lucky” enough to find the perfect trendy outfit at the lowest cost.

For many, environmental impact is important, and the low costs are great but the real draw for shopping sustainably comes from the irreplaceable boost of confidence and pride that rushes through your body when someone asks where you got a certain piece of your outfit and you get to triumphantly exclaim:

“Oh this? I thrifted it.”

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