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Secondhand fashion has often been touted as the solution to the fashion industry’s major waste problem. This is because buying secondhand creates a more circular economy and is supposed to give clothing a longer life cycle. However, with the rise of this supposedly sustainable movement, we’re encountering some problems.
Here are just a few of the issues we’re seeing pop up with the secondhand clothing industry, and what we as individuals can do to help solve them.
Because secondhand shopping has started to reach more affluent markets, the demand for such goods from middle to upper-class consumers has inflated the price of secondhand items. In addition to this, the ongoing popularity of fast fashion has also been infiltrating the secondhand market, and quality pieces are being swapped with cheap, fast fashion finds. These clothes now flood the market because they aren’t selling.
Now, the secondhand market is filling up with cheap and low-quality clothing. However, because of the introduction of the middle and upper-class market into the mix, secondhand platforms that cater to these consumers are choosing more luxury items to sell and discarding the fast fashion options. In turn, these latter options find their way still to landfills and create waste, and are also becoming the only options available to lower-income communities.
So not only are clothes being wasted in the secondhand market just as they are in the fashion industry as a whole but now, economic barriers are being added between middle and lower-income communities to create a disparity in the secondhand clothing quality given to them.
Thrift flipping originated as a way for people to alter outdated clothing from secondhand shops into pieces that are trendier or fit them better. While this is good in theory to encourage people to buy secondhand instead of buying trendy pieces directly from fast fashion shops, the problem comes from those that thrift flip for profit.
Sellers buy clothing in bulk from secondhand shops, often in larger sizes, and sell these altered pieces for a significant markup in price. Not only does this defeat the affordability and accessibility aspect of secondhand, but it also creates a disadvantage for lower-income consumers who suddenly can’t find their sizes available in these stores.
Ironically, while the secondhand market is seen as the main solution to the fast fashion waste problem, this industry is having its own waste problems that are negatively impacting the environment.
Because there is still a consumer mentality of buying more, we are also still throwing out more. Unwanted items that are being donated get shipped out to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Rwanda, Uganda, and other developing countries. While individuals in these countries can make a living by buying and selling in the salvage market, the secondhand market is still flooded with fast fashion and cheap finds as well as torn and unsellable items that are sent immediately to landfills.
Because of this, countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have banned or are in the process of considering banning donated clothes as they are struggling to deal with the donation overload. This in turn is also having an effect on their local clothing market.
Now that we know the problems, how do we as individuals address these problems with realistic solutions? It’s actually quite simple.
Breaking Western consumption habits is the first thing we can do to help stop fashion waste in every industry. “Want” has majorly overtaken “need,” and so we’re buying more than ever but using less and less of what we own. Developing a more conscious understanding of what we want versus what we need is the first step to decreasing our fashion waste.
We have to make more conscious decisions at the start of the consumer cycle as opposed to the end when we’re overcome with items we don’t want and don’t know what to do with. It’s important not to treat the secondhand market as a place to dump our unwanted items, but as a place to find good quality items that deserve a second life.
It’s unfortunate that the secondhand market, which should be combatting the fast fashion industry, is experiencing some of the same problems it’s supposed to be designed to avoid. But because of consumer greed, we’re seeing more waste and more inequality entering this market.
However, the solution lies with every individual. By breaking the loop of continually buying and donating and instead being more conscious of our personal wardrobes, we can avoid the desire to dump unwanted things and contribute to this negative cycle in the first place.