Slow Fashion at the Speed of Light

The drivers, benefits, and drawbacks of the rise of online thrift shopping.

In my second year of university, I watched a documentary called The True Cost in a lecture and it brought me to tears. This film was all about the social and environmental harms caused by the fast fashion industry, and watching it was both an eye-opening and heart-breaking realization for me. From that day forward, I vowed to seek more sustainable alternatives when buying clothes and to constantly question my consumeristic behaviours, and I have been thrifting ever since.

Buying second-hand clothing is a common, sustainable alternative to buying fast fashion, and has rapidly gained popularity in recent years. When I made the switch to buying second-hand, I was unknowingly contributing to a much larger movement – a sustainability trend. And more recently, this trend has spread and accelerated online.


Why Should We Avoid Fast Fashion?

Before I talk about online thrifting, here’s a quick background on fast fashion. Fast fashion refers to clothing that is produced and marketed to consumers as fast and as cheap as possible in response to recent trends. Generally, a company falls into the fast fashion category if the following are true:

– they produce new, mass-produced clothing items

– they are not transparent about where their clothing is coming from

– it is not obvious that they are fair trade and/or genuinely sustainable

Clothing production is very environmentally demanding and uses a lot of resources. Manufacturing one pair of jeans can produce up to 75 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions – and one t-shirt uses 700 gallons of water. But it’s not only the production of clothes that is a problem, it is also problematic at the consumer level. On average, 1 in 2 people throw away unwanted clothing in the garbage instead of donating, selling, or repairing the items. There are clearly some consumeristic bad habits at play here, but the fast fashion industry is driving the problem and unsustainably producing huge amounts of clothing.

In a linear economy model, clothing is made, purchased, and discarded, which results in a lot of waste. But in a circular economy model, the most sustainable system, clothing is not thrown away – it is bought and used with care, repaired if possible, resold to be reused by others, or upcycled for different purposes. The loop keeps going around as clothing items are repurposed, reloved, and diverted from landfills.

Source: AforeAfter

What Is Online Thrifting?

There has been a rise of second-hand online shopping and selling on various platforms, including Etsy, Instagram, Poshmark, thredUP, Depop, and Facebook marketplace, to just name a few. The people behind the online thrift “shops” vary. These “shops” aren’t actual thrift stores, like Value Village or Goodwill; they are exclusively online. Platforms, like Depop and Poshmark, aren’t even actual shops per se, but rather a collection of shops on a website. For example, you could make an account on Depop and create your very own second-hand shop. You would post your items on your page, set your own prices, other people would purchase those items online, and you would ship the items to them. You would likely make some money and the company, Depop, would take a percentage of the profit.

Stormee James, a woman from Ohio, made US$1700 from selling her clothes during the pandemic as a kind of side gig on top of her regular job as a school cleaner. Stormee is one of many people who have decided to sell their own used clothes to make a small profit during the pandemic.

On top of people selling their own clothes, there are also online thrift shops that are more like genuine small businesses, with an established brand and aesthetic. These online shops are usually run by individuals who have a passion for collecting vintage clothes and reselling them. The shop owners would likely go hunting for good quality, vintage thrift finds that fit their brand’s aesthetic at local second-hand stores or flea markets, and then buy the items to resell on their shops. All these types of online buying and selling can be grouped under the same umbrella as the resale clothing industry.

Source: The Knight Crier

The resale industry on the whole is seeing resounding, steady growth and this trend is only expected to continue increasing. In the U.S., the second-hand clothing market is estimated to grow 5 times in 5 years, from 2019 to 2024, and the retail market is expected to shrink. According to thredUP’s 2020 Resale Report and statistics from GlobalData, the entire second-hand market will be almost twice the size of the fast fashion market in the U.S. by 2029. And the coronavirus pandemic will only act as a catalyst to these upward trends.

Source: thredUP

I am a curious person, always formulating questions in my head, and as a writer, I find myself looking for stories even when I don’t intend to. So, as I’ve observed the online resale market flourishing and gaining popularity, I started to wonder…

  • What are the main drivers behind this rise of online thrifting?

  • These online second-hand shops are a sustainability trend, but are they all truly sustainable?

  • How might the rise of online second-hand shopping impact local thrift stores?

  • What are the social and economic implications of online thrifting for people who rely on thrift stores for lower priced clothing?

And boom. There’s a story.

The Drivers 

Why are we seeing an increase in online thrifting in the first place? There are several factors behind the trend, but the following four are what I’ve gathered as the main drivers.

  1. Sustainability

The truth behind fast fashion is spreading and environmental awareness is ever-growing. More and more people are understanding that taking small actions and making shifts in our own lives towards sustainability are important. Buying and selling second-hand are key ways we can make those sustainable shifts towards establishing and sustaining circular fashion.

  1. The pandemic

Following the start of the pandemic, more people than ever have been cleaning out their closets and getting around to selling those unwanted items that they’ve always been meaning to. I’m sure this behaviour is a result of either boredom, new motivation to declutter, looking for new ways to make a bit of cash, or a mixture of all. In terms of buying second-hand, there are plenty of cheap, online options, which are an important source for those whose finances have taken a toll from pandemic life. Perhaps staying at home is even inspiring people to redesign their lives – why not redecorate your living room or adopt a new style if you have to stay home all day anyway?

  1. Generational change

Young people – millennials and Gen Z’s – are normalizing second-hand buying and driving this shift. Life as a young adult today is very financially different than it was for preceding generations. Millennials and Gen Z’s have collectively strived to remove the stigma that used to be associated with thrifting – the belief that the only people who thrifted were grandmas and people who could not afford to buy new clothes. Now, buying second-hand is normalized and encouraged by younger people, which has suited their need to spend less and save more in our current economy.

  1. Influencers

Online influencers and celebrities are following the sustainability trend by supporting second-hand stores, re-wearing outfits to big events, and further contributing to removing the stigma with thrifting. For example, celebrities like Cardi B and Meaghan Markle are starting to sport vintage clothes, and Kate Middleton, Jane Fonda, and Tiffany Haddish have all made fashion statements in 2020 by rewearing dresses to important events.

The Benefits 

When looking to buy clothes, online second-hand shops and websites can be great places to find unique, quality items for a decent price. Browsing through online second-hand shops is easy and quick. On apps and websites like Depop or Poshmark, you can search for items and apply filters to help focus your results – totally hassle free. For individual online shops, you can follow them on Instagram or Facebook and have their items show up right on your feed without even searching. It truly is effortless thrifting.

And of course, second-hand shopping also diverts purchases away from fast fashion, which is supportive of social and environmental sustainability. Some online thrift shops are genuine local businesses as well. Re-selling clothes can be a kind of “side hustle” for some, but for others who are passionate about slow fashion have made this business their full-time careers. So online thrifting can also be supportive to small-business owners and individuals who have worked hard to establish their own online brand.

The rise of online thrifting has also created an aesthetic, trendy, and appealing way to buy second-hand items. Not everyone enjoys the experience of shopping at a thrift store: the smell of other people’s clothes, sifting through rows of clothing racks to discover maybe one quality piece in your size, finding extremely quirky and cringey items in the process, and buying clothes you have to wash before wearing. So, with online thrifting, more people are being steered away from fast fashion and enjoying thrifting in a new way.

I am someone who enjoys the full experience of going to a thrift store, but I’ve also enjoyed online thrifting. I have found some really nice, affordable clothing online from other people’s shops. On the app Depop, I discovered a shop that sells vintage sweaters that have different logos on them, like sports teams and universities. I was on a mission to find a used University of Waterloo hoodie, since I go to UW and don’t want to buy a new sweater, and I found a vintage one on their shop. It’s great quality and it’s an item I’ll enjoy for a really long time!

Credit: Siobhan Mullally

The Concerns

Not all that glitters is gold… Despite the positive, sustainable shift to online thrift shopping, there are still concerns that come along with it.

First, I’ve noticed on some apps, like Depop, that although people might be reselling their clothes, it is clear they still buy new clothes regularly. Some people likely support fast fashion and just resell those items online once they’re done with them. After buying fast fashion clothes, they may use those items for a year, a month, a day, or may never wear them at all before reselling. So, just because someone is reselling on a thrifting site does not mean they’re contributing to slow fashion or circularity.

Also, as thrifting has become a popular activity labelled as “sustainable”, it seems as though people might be buying clothes a lot more often since the media and culture have classified it as a guilt-free method of shopping. I do agree that thrifting is a more sustainable alternative to buying new items, but I still think people need to rethink their consumerist tendencies to buy new items all the time, even if the items they buy are used. Online thrifting may just be enhancing consumerism by giving people a “sustainable” way of consuming the same amount of, if not more, materials that they would be buying new. Buying second-hand is an important shift for a circular economy, but the rise of online thrifting may just be perpetuating consumer culture, which is the root of what needs to be shifted.

I also wondered how local thrift stores and the people who depend on them would be impacted. As online thrift shops are on the rise, thrift store business would likely follow since thrift stores are the source of the clothes that many online shops resell. If thrift stores get more demand, their prices are likely to increase as well, and this could turn into a harmful form of gentrification.

Gentrification is the process of a neighbourhood or area becoming higher in economic value, when a low-income area transforms into a higher-income area driven by wealthier people moving in, attracting new businesses, and often displacing the people who already live there. In terms of thrift stores, gentrification might look like prices of clothing going up and excluding the shoppers who depend on thrift stores for lower priced items. One of the top reasons people thrift is to be able to shop on a budget, but if the thrifting market starts skyrocketing after its massive popularity jump online, will thrift stores no longer be affordable for those people? Where will low-income individuals shop if the thrift store is no longer a feasible option for them? Maybe department stores are the next cheapest, like Walmart or Giant Tiger. The clothing at those stores is fast fashion and likely lower quality, which will cause wear-and-tear more easily and induce more buying. An unsustainable fate in the long run.

Going forward

So, what’s the takeaway – what’s the best, sustainable option? Buying second-hand is definitely better than fast fashion, right? And I should also be aware of what online thrift shops I contribute to so I can choose to support the genuine small businesses? And I have to avoid the people who resell and still support fast fashion? And I should try not to contribute to gentrification? So, how can I be a responsible, sustainable shopper?

If you are asking yourself any of those questions and are feeling overwhelmed, conflicted, frustrated, hopeless, or confused – don’t worry. I’m with you on that. It can be difficult to sift through all the information and decipher the best way to move forward. It is important to understand that we will all make sustainable shifts in different ways and at different paces, so there’s no “one solution fits all”.

Personally, what works for me right now is buying things second hand to avoid fast fashion, but also trying to buy things less – only when I need something. Of course I occasionally impulse purchase because it can be hard not to participate in buying new clothes for fun, but I’m working on it. My next goal to continue improving the sustainability of my clothing lifestyle is to learn how to sew, so that I can mend my clothes instead of needing to replace them. We will all be at different points and have different capacities for change, but learning about the options is a great way to start thinking about what you can do next.

Source: Alisa Koz

When I am considering a second-hand purchase or have a genuine need for an item, I like to visualize the “buyerarchy of needs” pictured above. The bottom of the pyramid is the largest section because that action is what we should be doing the most of. Similarly, the top is what we should be doing the least. But the key to remember is that we have options. We should all be working on taking that next step towards sustainable fashion, whatever it may look like, online or otherwise.

Siobhan Mullally (she/her) has an Honours B.E.S. from the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS) at the University of Waterloo with a minor in English Language and Literature and two diplomas in Environmental Assessment and Ecosystem Restoration and Rehabilitation. For her senior thesis, she travelled to Labrador to study climate change impacts on tundra ecosystems in the Canadian Subarctic. As a budding ecologist, researcher, and writer, she is interested in exploring the intersections between ecology and communication to inspire climate change and help others develop a deeper appreciation for nature. In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature and getting lost in her favourite novels.