Used clothing is no longer solely the domain of the poor, and for good reason.
ONE DAY MANY YEARS AGO, I stood as a meek and awkward adolescent in front of an older girl’s burgeoning closet. Her mother was pressing me to pick out some clothes for myself. Her mother had also been my grade five teacher a few years earlier, and was one of the more outspoken voices in the community. I cringed as if I was back in her class.
She must think we’re really poor, I thought, as I tentatively slid the hangered shirts and dresses along the rod. Anxiety tightened my throat. To please her, I’d have to wear her daughter’s clothes in public and deal with that fallout. But if I went home empty-handed, I’d be rejecting her charity and maybe invoking annoyance, a risk I didn’t feel brave enough to take.
In the end, I chose a pair of black tights, blurted out my thanks and dashed for home.
Those were the days when you faced palpable shame for wearing other people’s castoffs. You could accept a pie or pickles or freshly knit slippers, but someone else’s old clothes—that was too personal, too stigmatizing. It was the distinction that consigned you to the have-not corral and then used your new-found status to keep you there.
Fast-forward to 2020, and everything has changed. The used-apparel industry has become a darling, a feel-good shopping option that’s trendy, thrilling, and much easier on the budget and the planet.
The clothing resale market has grown 21 times faster than retail over the last 3 years
In the US, it will grow to $51 billion by 2023, more than double its worth in 2018. In truth, it’s beginning to leave the retail market in the dust. According to a 2019 Resale Report by thredUP, a San Francisco-based, online, used-clothing marketplace now accessible to Canadians, the resale market has grown 21 times faster than retail over the last three years.
That’s not surprising, given that resale shopping options now include efficient, fashion-savvy online markets, some of which allow you to return clothes for credit when you’re finished with them. Also—and this is a key driver—everyone has become a potential client. No longer is “used” the domain of the poor. According to Kijiji, 35 percent of Canadians who shop the overall used market have an annual income exceeding $80,000.
High-profile shout-outs haven’t hurt either: The Los Angeles Times recently declared buying second hand to be one of the hottest trends of the year. Fashion designer Stella McCartney has declared, “the future of fashion is circular; it will be restorative and regenerative by design and the clothes we love [will] never end up as waste.”
Anna Wintour, fashion diva and editor-in-chief of Vogue, recently urged consumers to become more mindful in their shopping choices. It’s about “valuing the clothes that you own and wearing them again and again” before finally passing them on to someone else, she told global news service Reuters last November.
All this helps to begin pushing back at the ugly and destructive side of the fashion industry—that the planet has $40 billion worth of clothing languishing and burning in landfills, 95 percent of which could have been reused; that the industry’s carbon footprint is estimated to be larger than that of the shipping and airline industries combined; that most clothing is produced in Third-World factories where conditions and wages are deplorable, and is sold here by retail staff whose earnings are among the lowest in our work force; and that no mass-produced fabric can really be called sustainable.
Even natural fabrics require copious amounts of water and other resources in the course of manufacturing, tailoring and shipping, resources that are wasted when they end up in the landfill. But if you donate it instead—let’s say your t-shirt—and someone else buys and wears it, now its carbon footprint is reduced by 82 percent, according to research firm Green Story Inc. (The same can be said for almost anything that’s repurposed.)
Locally we’re fortunate to have a vibrant used market. Each year we collectively support it with untold thousands of donated clothes, thereby advancing a circular economy or, as Kijiji calls it, community commerce. As long as the clothes continue to change hands, they continue to make money. The revenue stays local; some of it goes to charity. Jobs are created and budgets aren’t broken. The stores are clean and organized. Nothing smells like mothballs.
In 2020, shopping for used clothing is trendy and forward-thinking. I no longer tremble when facing the hangers. I love the hunt, and the fact that I’m being a “radical” for the environment. We know we’re going to have to start treading more lightly to avert a crisis. Used clothing is an easy way to make a difference.
Trudy wishes everyone a Happy New Year and happy new adventures in community commerce. Once you go there, you'll never look back.