Secondhand clothing predicted to overtake fast fashion within a decade

Two women shop in a secondhand store together.
The secondhand clothing market is quickly growing in popularity. Photo credit: Getty Images

We all like cheap clothes, but they can come at a huge price, not only to our environment but also the people who make them. 

Textiles make up four percent of the waste in New Zealand landfills, according to the Ministry for the Environment. That's more than glass which makes up 2.5 percent and nappies and sanitary products which make up 2.7 percent. 

Not only are they clogging up landfills, but according to the United Nations, the textile industry contributes around 10 percent of global C02 emissions - that's more than aviation and shipping combined. 

When it comes to wastewater pollution, clothing production contributes a whopping 20 percent worldwide. 

Globally, people bought on average 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than they did in 2000, but they kept it for half as long, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). 

This love for new clothes means one garbage truck of clothing is burned or sent to landfill every second. 

Secondhand clothing predicted to overtake fast fashion within a decade
Photo credit: Newshub.

The human cost of fast fashion 


The fast fashion industry also has a sketchy, at best, relationship with human rights, with wages notoriously low and forced and child labour widespread. 

Human Rights Watch says abuse is rampant and managers frequently fire workers for getting pregnant, deny them maternity leave, force them to work overtime, ignore sexual harassment and punish workers who join unions. 

The issues don't stop there with a string of high profile work accidents across South Asia in the past decade highlighting the conditions many people are forced to work in.

In 2012, a fire tore through a textile factory in Bangladesh killing 123 people and injuring 150.

Five months later, a Bangladesh factory, which housed several garment manufacturers, collapsed, killing 1021 people. 

Is secondhand clothing the answer? 


The impact of the industry on the environment and human lives is undeniable, and secondhand clothing is often pushed as the solution to the issue. But is thrifting really going to fix our fast fashion addiction? 

It's certainly a growing market with a 2019 survey by global online thrift store Thred Up showing secondhand clothing sales growing at a "phenomenal" rate.

Thred Up lead market analyst Neil Saunders said they expect growth to continue as consumers seek out more environmentally friendly options. 

"Compared to the overall apparel market, resale's growth has been phenomenal.

"As the market uniquely meets consumers' preference for variety, value, and sustainability, we expect the high growth to continue."

Younger people are driving the increase with Generation Z making up 37 percent of the market and millennials accounting for 29 percent. 

The global secondhand market is expected to be worth $64 billion by 2028, while fast fashion is predicted to be worth $44 billion. 

While globally it's a booming industry, design researcher at the Massey University School of Design Jennifer Whitty said it comes with its challenges. 

She said buying secondhand clothing is great but warned that we shouldn't make it the goal, instead we should rethink the way we shop entirely. 

Garments workers are seen working in a sewing and finishing section in a factory in Bangladesh.
Garments workers are seen working in a sewing and finishing section in a factory in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Whitty said if people look at clothing as a long term purchase and avoid overshopping, it will have a much more significant impact. 

"The most sustainable garment is the one you already have in your wardrobe," she said. 

"At the moment, the majority of secondhand clothes are things that were made in the last 20 years. 

"The majority of those clothes are dated in terms of aesthetic and their construction durability - how they are made isn't meant to last."

Whitty said consumers are increasingly seeking out more sustainable and ethical clothing and the industry is being forced to change. 

She said as more and more people move away from unsustainable items, there will be a revolution in the way we buy and make our clothes. 

"My prediction, if I am going to be quite radical about it, is that fast fashion as we know it will no longer exist and we will have more localised micro-communities making clothes."

Whitty said people who are caught up in the fast fashion industry are often addicted to the feeling they get when they buy a new item. 

"Research shows that people who are big consumers, they get a quick high after they buy something, but they actually get a bigger low after quite a quick period."

While cost might feel like a barrier, Whitty said the idea that sustainable clothes cost more is a bit of a false economy.

"If people were to add up all the items in their wardrobe that cost a couple of dollars, it would be the same price as a quality garment."

She acknowledged that doesn't apply to people on low or no incomes.

Secondhand clothing predicted to overtake fast fashion within a decade
Photo credit: Newshub.

The human cost is another crucial aspect to the fast fashion industry, Whitty said. 

"It's really cheap for a reason and that means someone, somewhere is suffering."

"We are very, very shielded from the impacts in the West. We don't see the polluted waterways. We don't see the polluted air. We are living in a bubble, all we see is the new clothing. Whereas in countries where clothes are made, it's pretty in your face. 

"If we were to pay a couple of dollars more, that could make a huge difference for a worker's life or the ability of a clothing manufacturer to produce more sustainably.

"Consumers have a huge role to play in that. We could be asking for much, much better and the industry would have to respond."

The rise of fast fashion 


During the industrial revolution, clothing manufacturing started to move away from made to order and towards generic pieces made in a variety of sizes. 

However, it wasn't until the 1960s that fast fashion really took off with young people embracing cheap clothing and news trends.

The fashion boom forced retailers to keep up and resulted in massive textile mills opening and the outsourcing of labour to countries outside of the US and UK. 

This meant clothes were cheap and readily available to everyday people. 

The Tearfund 2019 NZ Ethical Fashion ratings 


The A grades

  • Kowtow A+ 
  • Icebreaker A+ 
  • Freeset A+ 
  • Liminal A+ 
  • Kathmandu A 
  • As Colour A- 
  • Nature Baby A-

The B grades

  • Hallensteins/Glassons B+ 
  • Karen Walker B*
  • Huffer B- 
  • MacPac B- 
  • The Warehouse Group B- 

The C grades

  • Barkers C+ 
  • Swanndri C+ 
  • Barkers C+*
  • Max C 
  • Postie C 
  • Ruby C

The D grades

  • Hunting and Fishing NZ D+ 
  • Kate Sylvester D+*
  • WORLD D-*

The F grades

  • Farmers F*
  • 3 Wise Men F*
  • Baby City F*
  • T&T F*
  • Trelise Cooper F*
  • The Baby Factory F*

*Did not take part


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