There are few industries as wasteful as the fashion business, in part because the very premise of its pitch to the consumer is newness. In the U.S. each year, some 11.3 million tons of textile waste, or 85% of all textiles, are sent to landfills, according to Earth.org. It doesn’t help that the number of times a garment is worn has declined by nearly 40% since 2007.
Selling used clothing instead of throwing it away is a solution that appeals to brands and consumers alike.
For brands, it alleviates some pressure to find more sustainable ways to manufacture and market apparel. And more consumers are making purchasing decisions with ecological and social issues in mind, or at least gravitating to brands and retailers that purport to operate more ethically.
That’s translating to tens of billions of dollars in sales. ThredUp and GlobalData analysts estimate the secondhand goods market could reach $350 billion globally and $70 billion in the U.S. by 2027. Last year, secondhand sales were $177 billion globally and $39 billion in the U.S., according to that report.
“Our mission is to inspire a new generation of shoppers to think secondhand first,” ThredUp President Anthony Marino said by phone. “We are quite pragmatic about what impact resale can have on a trillion dollar apparel industry that’s built upon producing garments new, then selling as many as you can at full price, then what you can't sell at full price selling at a discount, and what you can't sell at a discount doing something else.”
Consumers do see buying used items as environmentally friendly, and brands from H&M to Lululemon tout their resale programs as key to their sustainability goals. In its recent report, ThredUp, which also runs a service for other brands, has encouraging claims about resale’s potential boon to the environment, based on research from Green Story, a platform that helps brands assess their environmental impact.
If every consumer this year bought just one secondhand garment instead of a new one, it would lower CO2 emissions by more than 2 billion pounds, equal to taking 76 million cars off the road for a day, and save some 23 billion gallons of water and 4 billion kilowatt-hours of energy, according to ThredUp’s report.
These numbers reflect the average fabric composition and weight of an item within a category, a ThredUp spokesperson said by email. The assessment takes into account the footprints of both new garment production (raw material extraction, yarn production, fabric production, dyeing, cutting and sewing, transportation, washing and disposal) and the secondhand journey (transportation at various stages, cleaning, warehousing, washing and disposal), the spokesperson said.
“We thought a lot of this stuff would be resellable, and it’s not. It’s just not to the level of quality that anybody would agree to buy."
ThredUp also ventured that if retailers produce one fewer item for every used item someone buys, it could curb apparel production by nearly 8% by 2027. That is based in part on its finding that, last year, U.S. consumers bought 1.4 billion preowned apparel items they would previously have bought new, a 40% increase year over year. ThredUp also said that more than a third of retailers surveyed said they would manufacture fewer items if resale efforts prove to be successful.
“They told us they would use the facts about how consumer consumption is changing to change their strategies around production and sales, and we think that is a really exciting and positive development, even as we're very pragmatic and realistic about the time it takes to change behavior,” ThredUp’s Marino said. “The industry is still massive and has had these practices ingrained for generations.”
Indeed, that’s a big “if,” and it would likely take more time than the planet has, according to Lee Peterson, executive vice president of thought leadership and marketing at WD Partners.
“I think that's possible, but I don't know about this century,” he said by phone. “It reminds me of the idea that e-commerce is going to be 80% of retail. Sure, but probably not in my lifetime.”
Resale’s potential in correcting fashion’s poor environmental record is overblown, according to ReCircled CEO Scott Kuhlman. He believes that resale has a small role in improving the apparel industry, but is skeptical that it can drive textile circularity.
This is a change of heart. ReCircled began as a resale platform much like ThredUp or Trove, but its primary goal of keeping apparel out of landfills has led it to focus on recycling instead. ReCircled’s initial expectation was that about a third of used clothing coming in could be resold, but the actual percentage is in the low single-digits, Kuhlman said in a video conference interview.
“We thought a lot of this stuff would be resellable, and it's not. It's just not to the level of quality that anybody would agree to buy, at least not at the price point that works in the market,” he said. “And if you look at it environmentally, how does it make sense for you to ship a used sweater? You send it to us, we spend the time, the energy, the money, the water, the everything else to clean and repair it. And then we ship it back to somebody else. We've measured all that, financially and environmentally, and it doesn't make sense at all.”
It’s not clear how much financial sense it makes for anyone, given the segment’s struggles with profitability. ReCircled is still in the apparel resale business, but most of the used garments it takes in are repurposed. The company uses some to manufacture yarns, though even that requires a used textile to be of a certain quality. Much of the clothing is now going into production of composites for use in building materials like countertops, flooring, wall systems and doors, and home goods like clothes hangers.
“These hangers are 90% textile waste. For a retailer, imagine a day where all of your hangers are not plastic, they're from old textiles,” Kuhlman said. “This idea of upcycling and recycling is all based upon time. How much time is everybody willing to put into this garment, to take it to its next life? We're starting with the end in mind, which is no landfill, and then work backwards from there.”