The Business Case for Secondhand

This I Wear | Secondhand

I think we can all agree that there is too much stuff in the world today.

If you don’t agree with that statement, read this again after spending an hour at your local H&M to see how much stuff people are buying. Alternatively, you could choose to google “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” or better yet, stop into any charity shop and see what nervous ticks the staff have developed since the release of Marie Kondo’s “The Magical Art of Tidying Up.

But for those of you who do agree, my guess is that you’re already trying to do your small part in encouraging a world of “less stuff” in your own way.

I also thought I was doing my part until I realized I could be doing a whole lot more because, well, #economics. And by that, I mean I had an enlightened moment of understanding that I was all supply and no demand, and that this was not gonna get any of us any closer to a “less stuff” world. Let me explain.

Here’s my usual routine when it comes to closet cleaning: Clean out closet. Decide if what I cleaned out warrants hosting a swap party. If not, donate clothes to my neighborhood charity shop. Cue that feel good feeling of knowing that I kept my stuff out of the landfill for at least a little while longer.

Oh how I have been naïve.

After my most recent “tidying up” inspired by Marie Kondo, I was all set to do the above usual routine when I heard a podcast talking about all the places to sell your clothes online. Beyond selling my really nice pieces at a local consignment store, I had never explored selling my clothes. I soon found myself browsing sites like The Real Real, Tradesy, and Threadflip that all specialize in online secondhand clothing and accessories for women, and I was floored by the amount of (really really good) merchandise on these sites. If fact, there is enough merchandise on these sites to keep all of womankind clothed and happy for all of eternity.

That’s when I realized that my usual routine was missing a really crucial step: shopping secondhand.

While I am very careful about knowing what I’m buying when I do shop (Was it made ethically? Where was it made? Are the materials sustainable and/or recyclable? Etc.), I’ve still been buying mostly new. And that isn’t really helping us solve our “stuff” problem, because we’re still creating more stuff and using more resources to make all these new things. So while the stuff might be ethically made, what about the unnecessary harm done by further cluttering up the world and using up our resources?

So if I really believe in the importance of valuing our resources and creating less waste, my habit of donating or selling my clothes is only solving half the problem. To make the secondhand market work, I also have to become a consumer of it – taking as much as I’m giving, and looking for what I need on the secondhand market first before I look to buy something new. (Luckily, between local consignment and vintage shops and the online secondhand retailers, this is even easier than trying to find something new that is ethically made.)

The same argument can apply to a million different scenarios when it comes to solving our stuff problem. If we’re recycling but not buying products made with recycled materials, we’re not really creating demand for those materials to tell the market we want more recycled products. Likewise, if we’re powering our house on solar energy but still driving a gas-guzzling car, then we’re really not committing to renewable energy.

Baby steps are important. Yes to making sure our stuff stays out of landfills, that we opt for renewable energy when we can, and that we buy responsibly made goods. But we could be doing so much more if we looked at our behaviors in a more holistic way to see what unintentional signals we may be sending to the market about what we as conscious consumers want. #economics

And anyway, perhaps the only good lesson that fashion has taught us is that vintage is just way cooler and we should know that the old will always becomes new again. So while I will by no means be a perfect secondhand shopper, I’m definitely going to do my best to close this loop.

Photo via ReDone Denim (source here!), a company that is definitely proving there is a business case to be made for secondhand fashion.

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  1. AnT

    I do have this dilemma sometimes. Normally, I would agree that secondhand is always better than new, but then again sometimes in consignment stores you find things that are in perfect shape and realise that by buying this or that piece you are funding somebody’s post-Mary-Kondo shopping binge (I don’t mean you, by the way:)) and end up “feeding the machine”. I feel this minimalist movement (which I rather like, I must say), sometimes focuses on individual minimalism, when instead we should also have some kind of “global minimalism”, where we just stop buying things, because we understand that giving our stuff to someone else is just another way to not take responsibility for it. So, in this case, when we do need to buy something, which demand should we fuel? Secondhand or a sustainable company (knowing that, in the ideal case, in the future there will be only sustainable companies, but that there has to be a critical mass that needs support to start with)? I haven’t been able to decide yet. Maybe you can help:).

    • Rebecca

      Hi AnT, I love this distinction between individual and collective minimalism. With such a huge problem of stuff, do our individual actions, like shopping secondhand, really make an impact? Or do we need to focus more on the big picture – our collective “stuff” addiction? (This makes me think of “The Story of Stuff” which you should search for on youtube if unfamiliar.)
      I think it is important to explore how we can align our individual actions and needs with our values, which is why I share resources here so that when people do shop, they can do so responsibly. But, yes, to not forgetting that we have a much bigger problem to solve.

  2. Liesbeth

    I agree theoretically, but find second-hand shopping soooo difficult. Most of my second-hand purchases in the past have quickly turned out to be mistakes, provoked by a combination of feelings of scarcity (there’s only one!), cheap prices and an overestimation of my competence with regard to repairs and alterations.
    On top of that I easily get put off physical second-hand stores because they are often a bit smelly and overstuffed with loud colors and synthetic materials. Online shopping on the other hand is risky: here in Belgium I don’t know of any websites that have return policies because it’s usually just a marketplace. And the marketplace is small too: postal charges even for neighbouring countries within the EU are ridiculous, so I have to stay within the borders of our 11 million people country. Which is a lot, I know, but nothing compared to the US marketplace… So I think we also have way fewer options than you guys.

    • Rebecca

      Thanks for adding the international perspective, Liesbeth! That’s really interesting – even in the US though, the online secondhand shops like the ones I mentioned are really new and many of them have been acquired or gone under, etc and I think it’s because they haven’t figured out how to be selective with the amount of stuff they’re accepting AND people aren’t really shopping that way just yet so the business model isn’t working. I agree on that musty secondhand store smell. I tend to shop consignment stores only instead of thrift shops, because at least in my experience, it’s a much more curated (and better smelling) shopping experience. If there’s a market opportunity for starting a secondhand online shopping site in Belgium, maybe you could start it :)

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