By Jennifer Greggs


Secondhand clothing has gone from being second best to first choice for many shoppers.  Consider the lexicon of secondhand clothes. A few years ago, they were cast-offs relegated to charity shops; now they’re pre-loved bargains or thrifted finds. 

Already, the European collaborative consumption economy for clothing (including peer-to-peer resale and renting) is worth an estimated 28 billion Euros.   The growth of second-hand clothing market is projected to double within the next five years, with resale accounting for much of that uplift.  An explosion in popularity of pre-owned shopping is evident on social media. Thrifting accounts attract tens of thousands of followers on TikTok, while the hashtag #preloved has been used more than 10 million times on Instagram. 

Data gathered by McKinsey in 2020 confirms that newness has become less important to shoppers.  It was considered the least important attribute when making clothing purchases, whereas quality of materials and durability are highly valued by shoppers.   This constitutes nothing less than a mindset shift, according to McKinsey.  


graph of factors affecting brand to buy

It’s possible that consumers seeking quality and longevity in their clothing have future resale possibilities in mind: poor quality clothes are unlikely to be sought by Depop or Vinted shoppers.  These resale platforms have already achieved huge reach. One third of 16-24 year-olds in the UK now have a Depop account

Drivers of growth in the secondhand market

Instagram influencer Secondhand Charli went from being a Primark regular to a preloved-only shopper.  Horrified by the working conditions endured by workers for online fast fashion retailer Boohoo.com, she gave up fast fashion for good.  Charli is not only opting out of a system that relies on exploited labour, but one that’s also responsible for enormous negative ecological impacts.  Awareness of the links between fashion and fossil fuels is increasing: ‘Until recently, people had no idea that clothes are made from fibres that are produced from oil and gas,’ says Charli, ‘but they are now making that connection’. Shopping secondhand has another benefit too – ‘It’s good for my wallet’.  

Like Charli, many secondhand shoppers recognise multiple benefits of buying pre-owned.  This is reflected in Re-Fashion’s proposition: the resale platform claims to make clothes shopping charitable, sustainable and affordable.  No doubt this combination of benefits has stimulated the rise of preloved fashion.   Also important is greater accessibility: Thanks to community platforms such as Shwap, Re-Fashion, Vinted, Depop, buying pre-owned clothes need no longer mean a frustrating trawl of charity shop rails – styles can be filtered and ordered in seconds on apps. 

Problems with secondhand

‘I have been told I’m taking clothes away from poor people’, reports Charli.  However, the sheer volume of per-owned clothes in existence makes that unlikely.   Shwap has calculated that there are enough clothes in the world today to clothe the entire population for 20 years.  While concerns have been raised about the gentrification of second-hand shopping, all of the data points to an abundance of second-hand clothes: it’s extremely unlikely that the adoption of second-hand fashion by the middle classes will deprive lower income shoppers.  Her role as a volunteer with St John’s Hospice means that Charli has seen for herself that charity shops receive far more in donations than they could hope to sell. 

But there are drawbacks. In ‘Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes’, Andrew Brooks illuminates the shadowy world of second-hand clothing.  Rather than – as most people imagine – their donated clothes being sold to other UK citizens, a high proportion find their way to second-hand stalls in African countries.  This trade has suppressed local garment manufacture, helping to entrench poverty.  Therefore, it may be preferable to sell unwanted clothes on peer-to-peer platforms than to donate them. 

Where to next?

Niinimäki et al. rightly state that nothing less than ‘the total abandonment of the fast fashion model, linked to a decline in overproduction and overconsumption’ is required.  We remain a long way from this goal, given that Boohoo, ASOS, Zara and other fast fashion brands continue to report enormous sales and ongoing growth. 

The growth of second-hand clothing is incredibly encouraging.  Every pre-owned purchase that replaces a brand-new item saves on carbon emissions, chemical pollution and freshwater withdrawals.  However, currently shoppers are buying second-hand as well as (not instead of) new garments, meaning that the environmental benefits so far have been low.  This could change as consumers become more aware of the environmental and social costs of fast fashion.  In the meantime, legislation to curb the damage wrought by the industry is a must.