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Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Gen Z to the Fashion World: Forget Trendy Throwaways. We'd Rather Buy Used.

Second-Hand Clothing

Shopping in thrift shops and secondhand clothing stores used to be for the bohemian and, well, the thriftier among us. But the expansion and diversification of the used clothing market is attracting a new clientele, many of them younger shoppers who don't even remember when vintage was cool the last time. 

Generation Z, the demographic born between 1997 and 2018 (ages 7 to 22), has embraced the growing clothing resale movement, which champions buying less and selecting gently used items over new. Almost 1 in 5 Gen Z shoppers hope to buy less fast fashion in 2020, according to a recent survey from the resale app Mercari — and, in general, these consumers are far more focused on the quality, not quantity, of their clothes.

Younger shoppers are fueling the secondhand clothing market

Millennials and Gen Zers are turning to secondhand buying at a rate 250 percent faster than other age groups, Mercari noted in its research. Half of all millennial and Gen Z respondents to Mercari's survey said they would rather own fewer, high-end designer brand items than more inexpensive, mass-produced clothing. 

Watching your wallet as a teen and 20-something is nothing new, but Generation Z is lucky enough to have been born into a secondhand fashion tech revolution,” said Anna De Souza, Mercari’s chief stylist and organizing expert.  “Pre-loved garments are having their day in the spotlight, thanks to not only services allowing for the renting and trading of dresses, shoes, handbags and more, but the cultural shift is moving away from associating used garments with dusty, run-down thrift stores.”

Over the past three years, the resale segment has grown 21 times faster than the traditional retail apparel market, and the secondhand market is expected to reach $51 billion in five years, driven by resale sector growth, according to a 2019 report from online consignment seller ThredUp

An emphasis on quality, not quantity

“It’s become so much easier to shop for secondhand wears,” De Souza said. “Gen Z is going online, of course." And they're aren't just looking for discounted luxury items or designer shoes and bags. "We’re seeing interest in everyday-wears, like yoga pants, trousers, cashmere sweaters, zip-ups and more," she said. 

The way she sees it, the booming clothing resale movement is just the latest extension of the sharing economy that brought us apps like Turo and Airbnb. "The ‘shareability’ culture initially relegated to cars and vacation homes is certainly extending into fashion," she said. "Gen Z is enjoying a carefree, transient relationship with clothing, knowing they can resell garments easily online without as big a cost to their wallet or the environment.”

Other results from the Mercari survey showed that 60 percent of Gen Z women and 55 percent of millennial men agreed with the statement, “I'd rather own fewer high-end, designer brand clothes or accessories than more, inexpensive trendy items.” In addition, 18 percent of adults aged 18 to 21 said buying less “fast fashion” is a resolution for 2020. Finally, 28 percent of millennials and 31 percent of Gen Z indicated that “having a smaller footprint on the environment” is a resolution for this coming year.

More retailers are moving into the ‘pre-owned’ clothing market

Even name-brand retailers have jumped into the pre-owned apparel market. In January, Nordstrom announced its See You Tomorrow line of previously-owned clothing, available through the store’s New York City outlet and online. Nordstrom says it is working with a third party to verify all designer pieces. The See You Tomorrow brand offers women’s, men’s and children’s’ clothes and accessories, as well as some watch and jewelry selections. Other retailers already established in the pre-owned market include REI, Patagonia, Taylor Stitch and The North Face.

In addition, clothing rental services continue to gain traction. Companies such as Rent the Runway and Haverdash allow customers to pay a monthly subscription and rent a certain number of clothing and accessories at a time. “[They] offer high-quality, fashionable interfaces that make shopping not only affordable and eco-conscious, but a fun and luxurious experience as well,” De Souza said.  

The secondhand clothing market could not be growing at a better time. Producing and discarding clothing continues to have a huge impact on the environment, even more so in recent decades because of the shorter “life” of most apparel. In the past 15 years, the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn before being tossed has dropped by 36 percent, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found in a 2017 report. At the same time, textile waste has grown by 811 percent since 1960.

“A whopping 84 percent of our clothing ends up in landfills and incinerators,” De Souza added. “There’s such a big misconception that donated fast-fashion goods have a happy ending: getting purchased cheaply at your local Goodwill store. Garments typically get turned into rags, carpet padding, insulation or, worse yet, are shipped across the globe, further impacting the environment.”

For those looking to dress more sustainably, no matter your age, De Souza recommends a "capsule” wardrobe. “It’s 37 pieces, including shoes and jewelry, that you rotate every season to keep your wardrobe fresh and your closet organized,” she said. “Focus on clothing that washes and wears well, and invest in fabrics and brands that are sustainable. While it can be pricey, begin weaving them into your closet slowly.”

If your budget doesn’t allow for a big wardrobe overhaul, the best thing to do is show garments some love, she added. “Hand-wash when possible, air dry to avoid pilling, and attempt to keep clothing as pristine as possible so that even fast-fashion pieces can look great for the longest time possible.”

Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash


Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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