Fair Fashion,  Featured

Flipping Clothing is Fun and Profitable—But What About the Fashion Ethics?

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Second-hand. Used. Worn. Flipped. And perhaps my favorite, Pre-Loved. Whatever you call them, the market for clothes that make their way into the resale ecosystem is booming. That’s good news for those of us who love vintage fashion, looking for a deal, the planet (clothing production has a whopping environmental toll), and proponents of personal style over rabid trend-following. But what about the fashion ethics? 

For all these reasons and more (it’s also fun!) second-hand clothing is projected to continue to grow: ThredUp’s Annual Resale Report estimates that this part of the apparel market is projected to increase nearly 1.5 times the size of fast fashion by 2028. With leading resale sector players like The Real Real, thredUp, Poshmark, and Depop—coupled with local vintage fashion and consignment stores—options to buy and sell are plentiful. 

I’ve been a second-hand fiend for many years now and advocate for ethical fashion (@fashionbenders on Insta). I am proud to say that all my garments (sans underwear and socks!) have had past lives. I find unique and newish designer items this way, while also adhering to my ethical fashion value system. 

Some of my favorite items are my white, external pockets Pleats Please Issey Miyake pants from Depop and Z-Coil orthopedic meets street-wear sneakers that I just bought via Ebay for a steal. I love the gratification I feel finding special, in-good-condition items for a fraction of any retail price, while contributing to the item’s longevity.

While this trend might be environmentally sustainable, is it ethical in other ways? Let’s take a look at some of the concerns that have arisen around the fashion ethics of this market recently: 

Thrift-store Prices are Rising

From my experience shopping second-hand for many years, prices at thrift stores like Goodwill have steadily increased in the last few years—especially on items from coveted brands that are now put in a glass case. While some of these might be simply related to inflation (most things tend to get more expensive over time, from milk to movies) blogger Patrice of “Looking Fly on a Dime” thinks it’s more than the usual economic forces at work.

Patrice writes: 

“Some people blamed the lagging economy {more people need to thrift so the prices are reflecting that}, others feel since some re-sell thrifted finds, the stores are upping the prices, and a few people even believe bloggers like myself are responsible, since we’re putting a spotlight on thrift shopping and making it “chic.” Hmm, whatever the cause, us frugal folks aren’t too happy with it.”

Her readers supported this notion stating that yes, the prices have increased,” especially at Goodwill.  Goodwill replied to Patrice’s inquiry about prices, reminding readers that the company uses profits for a host of programs for at-risk youth and adults, including the homeless. 

But still, rising prices may deter people from thrifting when they can instead get new items from a fast-fashion store for the same price. Even more concerning, it might price those in most need of very inexpensive clothes out of the resale market entirely. 

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Snapping Up All the Good Stuff

Certain sought-after brand name and true vintage items have also become more coveted due to their intrinsic resale value, which may mean fewer items for the general public to stumble upon, turning this into a specialists-only marketplace. Many items originally bought at thrift stores will instead end up on a resale platform two, three, or maybe even ten times the original thrift store prices. 

Ten years ago my grandma thrifted an Yves Saint Laurent made in Paris color-block sweater at Savers in Phoenix, AZ and gifted it to my mom. My mom treasures this item and wears it for special occasions especially because of how well it fits her, rather than playing into reselling it online. But not everyone is holding onto those special pieces. 

In addition to you, me, and my grandma, buyers from corporations like Urban Outfitters (for their Urban Renewal line) will also frequent yard sales and flea markets to find goods to resell in stores and online. Tags from UO read “this unique found item was hand-selected for you from a yard sale or flea market. Any tears, holes, paint stains or other ‘defects’ we consider a virtue and not a flaw. Wear it well.” The general complaint with this system is the sheer amount that bigger businesses involved in vintage need to source for their inventory as well as the mark-up for the items. 

But it’s worth considering that it’s projects like these, which take vintage items into stores and show them alongside new stuff that have led to more widespread acceptance of used clothing. “In the 1990s, when I first thrifted at my local Salvation Army and in NYC, some of the other teenagers I knew—even those who appreciated my unique style—thought it was gross to wear second-hand clothing. Now that attitude seems to have disappeared,” Eco-Chick’s editor, Starre Vartan, told me. 

Sizeism Strikes Again? 

There has also been recent conversation involving demand for resale taking away clothing from curvier people. This dialogue on Twitter was catalyzed by @opheliajcbrown’s tweet (see below). They reference the importance of leaving plus-sized clothing aside for plus-sized people, instead of skinny people cutting up the same pair of jeans for a DIY project. Marginalized people and minorities must be given spaces to be heard within the second-hand clothing conversation.

But Hold On, What About Sustainability?

Before we all quit vintage shopping, let’s be sure we are seeing the fuller picture. Right now, the fashion industry is far from sustainable, polluting precious fresh water resources with dyes and finishes, using more fossil fuels than international flights or maritime shipping which contributes to climate change—about 1.2 billion tons of CO2 a year.  And worker exploitation (women are especially impacted as they are the vast majority of fashion workers in factories around the world) is still the norm for fashion that comes from all but the fashion sustainability leaders in the apparel industry. 

Because we are buying more and more clothing and wearing it for shorter time periods, there is a tremendous amount of clothing pouring into the pre-worn market. To break it down, The Balance reports:

In 2014, over 16 million tons of textile waste was generated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of this amount, 2.62 million tons were recycled, 3.14 million tons were combusted for energy recovery, and 10.46 million tons were sent to the landfill. An average American throws away approximately 80 pounds of used clothing per person per year. 

Buying second-hand means you are extending the time for a garment to be worn and valued. Many new clothing purchases only see the light of day seven times, says a study done by British children’s charity Barnardos.

This unfortunate ‘wear it once’ mentality comes from fast-fashion companies, “haul” vloggers, and celebs who promote wearing items only a few times before they are considered undesirable. The result has been, as Nature Climate News reports,There are 20 new garments manufactured per person each year1 and we are buying 60% more than we were in 2000.”

How do we stop this? As the norms of the fashion industry shift, second-hand and vintage fashion creates new norms revered by young people and price-conscious aficionados. This is an important cultural shift that needs to be encouraged. 

The reality remains that not every person wants to spend the time and energy digging through rack upon rack to find the occasional gem. It can be tedious work to find specific items of a certain style, pattern, or brand on your radar. 

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It’s Convenient & Easier Than Ever

People will pay more for convenience that comes with a service provided, so if a seller is finding, and then potentially cleaning or mending; photographing; captioning; negotiating over; and shipping an item, the price will reflect that accordingly. Young and underemployed people also have the opportunity to earn extra money doing this work, which is a huge draw for people to post items online. 

Depop is a Gen Z favorite that draws coos of “It’s really easy […] Literally anybody can do this.” I can vouch as a seller that this is indeed the case. Give me some natural lighting and with three clicks of my iPhone camera, I’ll have a post up for potential buyers—who may, for whatever reason, be unable to go to the store, yard sale, or a grandparent’s attic. Due to ease of use and a backing among young people, Depop is becoming a resale hub with 140,000 items being sold per day, mainly gaining growing traction through word-of-mouth.

Depop seller Noah Carlos (@loserthift), who joined the app a few years ago and has notable popularity, comments on how well-known and well-used Depop is today. “When I started, there weren’t too many sellers[…] Compared to now, when it seems like everybody and their mother’s on the app,” Noah told New York magazine’s The Cut. 

Thrifting is now a regularly used verb that people recognize, a change from decades of the past where the connotation of wearing second-hand clothes leaned on disdain. Vintage and second-hand are becoming associated with one-of-a-kind items that “not everyone has” which makes the wearer feel like they stand out.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

As second-hand continues to turn the fashion industry on its head, it is important to note how this shift brings about rich dialogue. For the vintage fashion industry to continue its blossoming path, it needs to maintain openness and accessibility for all people to be included in the conversation.

This includes transparent pricing structures and diverse size options for all body types. On a more frank note, we must revert to valuing our clothing instead of getting sucked into a vortex of consumerism. Perhaps the best way to view second-hand clothing is through the notion around which slow fashion has been constructed. This means focusing on items that you truly love to wear and buying fewer of them so that they live longer in your closet—that’s true fashion ethics. 

Isa Spies is an ethical fashion advocate and health + wellness journeyer currently residing in Brooklyn. Hailing from Maryland but spending the past five years in San Francisco, she is now streamlining her area of studies in Sustainable Design Entrepreneurship at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She loves yoga, healthy eating juxtaposed with chocolate intake, reading, high fashion, and travel.