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Part 9: The role of the shopper in making fashion more sustainable

Kate Sanner

We couldn't do a series on the secondhand industry without including the most important component: you! Shoppers occupy a unique position in the secondhand industry because their role is not just buying from it but also supplying it. Ultimately, the industry shifts and responds to the shopper and how they are engaging in the industry.

The Power of Shopper Demand

Supply and demand— it's economics 101, right? It's in a business' or industry's best interest to supply what the consumer wants and will buy. Much of how the secondhand industry has evolved in the last two decades is a response to the shifts in culture and consumer demand. 75% of all consumers and 83% of Gen Z consumers are shopping or open to shopping secondhand, and projections indicate that new secondhand shoppers will continue to give it a try and fuel industry growth. The demand is clearly there. With the secondhand market expected to grow 3 times faster than the rest of the global apparel industry, it's only natural that more businesses will view that as an invitation to join in.

In many ways, you can view each of these pieces of the resale puzzle we've looked at as building on each other and responding to how the customer has participated in each. Thrift stores emerged in response to the cultural need for waste management and accessible clothing, while also offering an opportunity to support charity work. Secondhand served many roles for its users in the 20th century, from economic relief in times of war and tension to being a feel-good disposable method for the wealthy to offering outlets for punk rebellion and individual expression. By the turn of the century, secondhand had established itself and was ready for its next evolution online. Thanks to globalization and the internet, people now have access to clothes in abundance and have new (more) shopping habits, resulting in the need to re-home their excess clothes. Resale marketplaces wouldn't exist if there wasn't a desire for individuals to sell their own unwanted clothes in order to re-capture its value. Resellers are able to thrive thanks to these marketplaces. Brands are keen to introduce resale platforms because they see how shoppers are buying more secondhand than ever before, given that resellers and marketplaces have validated the market. And so it goes. Each iteration of the secondhand industry is bolstered by the customer's engagement in the version before.

The Role of the Shopper

Beyond demand, the shopper plays an integral role in the secondhand industry. In many ways, customers are co-creators with secondhand businesses. Secondhand businesses often require a consumer-supplied input, not just a consumer-facing output. If individuals weren't donating their clothes, listing them on peer-to-peer selling platforms, or taking them into brands to be recycled or resold, these businesses couldn't exist in the same way. Shopper behavior informs every aspect of the industry. What brands a shopper buys from and how the shopper cares for the products and how long they keep their clothes will determine that customers' clothing's resale value. How that individual chooses to offload their unwanted clothes determines the pathway for those items and the supply source for resale and their related businesses. How and if a shopper chooses to engage in shopping secondhand indicates demand of certain secondhand solutions. It's all interconnected and dependent on the shopper.

Social Media-Fueled Growth

The secondhand industry likely wouldn't be where it is today without its relationship with social media. As an offering that was previously stigmatized, secondhand fashion has been able to flourish thanks to how social media and secondhand shoppers have rebranded it. While historically secondhand has been used by those seeking a countercultural rejection of mainstream fashion, social media and Gen Z have pulled secondhand into the mainstream. The younger, digital native generations make up the majority of secondhand shoppers and are using social media to talk about it. Billions of videos about thrifting are all over TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram. Users are showing off their #thriftfinds and actively dismantling thrift stigma by demonstrating how secondhand can be fashionable, cool, and trendy.

As we know social media has a huge influence on users' shopping patterns, the secondhand industry has largely benefitted from the normalization of thrifted fashion online. Consider Depop, a resale app designed to appeal to Gen Z, made to look and feel like a social media app. Social media and consumer demand go hand-in-hand as they feed each other. When we see our peers engaging in certain shopping patterns, we are highly likely to adopt those practices as well. Social media has made thrifting trendy which has introduced many to the practice. Yet, when discovering the benefits of finding affordable, fashionable, new-to-them clothes, users are unlikely to treat shopping secondhand as just a trend. The emergence of online resale options have enabled secondhand shopping to rival the convenience of fast fashion, opening the door for it to be a lasting solution and option for many shoppers.

The Desire for Sustainable Solutions

When surveying customers about why they shop secondhand, price is certainly a top factor, but so is sustainability. In a moment in time when most people understand the need for a sustainable transition, customers want options that are better for the environment. Secondhand is often marketed as that solution— and a more affordable way to engage in shopping sustainably compared to higher-priced ethical brands.

The timing of the rise of thrift-loving Gen Z aging into its buying power, the social media boom of secondhand, the rocky economic climate since the pandemic, and the recognized need for sustainability in this moment have all created the perfect confluence to allow secondhand to grow and evolve as it has in the last several years. In other words, from the position of the consumer, there's never been a better time to shop secondhand.

Throughout this series, we've walked through the interrelated businesses and stakeholders that make up the secondhand fashion industry. In piecing together the resale puzzle and the industry's inner workings, we hope that you share in our excitement of its potential and join us here at Beni as we play our own part— making it even easier for you to get in on the countless benefits of secondhand! We couldn't do it without ya!