Thrifting has become far more of a thing over the past couple of decades since Carrie Bradshaw was shown riffling through secondhand shops in Manhattan for a black vintage dress to go with her ridiculously priced Manolo Blahniks.
Today, thrifting has become mainstream, and far from the occasional visit to the local vintage store, it’s become a beast in the fashion world: One, in fact, that could become even larger than the global fast fashion industry.
At least, that’s according to the online consignment and thrift store ThreadUp, which in its latest Resale Report concluded that if trends hold up, the entire secondhand market (which includes resale and traditional thrift and clothing donations), could become an $80 billion market by 2029. Compare that with fast fashion, which ThreadUp says may be a $43 billion market that same year.
Even if you parse out projected conventional thrift sales for 2029, we’re talking a $36 billion market. Granted, what constitutes “thrift” versus “resale” depends on who you ask, so if giving clothing a second (or third or fourth) life is your way of shopping, expect more competition in the coming years.
As NPR reports, Gen Z is driving much of the thrifting bandwagon. The 1997-ish and later crowd has already been disrupting norms, including how they view investing. Now, the evidence suggests they aren’t just transforming fashion — they are owning it, on their terms.
NPR profiled these Gen Z thrifters as motivated by finding that side hustle, along with concerns about the fashion industry’s impact on the environment. And, of course, thrifting is about finding that unique item of clothing. “Thrifting has been normalized," 21-year old Eva Perez told NPR. "Since so many people are doing it, it's now seen as cooler. It's seen as better than going to the mall. Younger people find it fun, like a game. A hunt for something unique.”
Adding to the growing chase for all things used is, unsurprisingly, social media. We’re beyond the days of the disorganized neighborhood thrift shop through which only the bravest would want to search. “Gen Z, in particular, has evolved the concept of thrifting, and there are three main factors driving this phenomenon: the input from brands, the role of influencers and the creation of experiences,” wrote Emily Johnson for The Drum.
The ability to show anyone and everyone how thrifting can be cool has led to the popularity of apps such as Depop, on which Etsy plunked $1.6 billion to acquire earlier this month.
Intuitively, one assumes thrifting is a net positive for sustainability: The more clothes are given another life, or two or three lives, the fewer new clothes end up purchased. Further, if dedicated thrifters take better care of their clothes, they last longer — again, decreasing the need for new clothing.
The truth is a bit more complex. There’s a problem not limited to social media influencers: If people keep buying more and more clothes to keep up with fashion trends, that doesn’t necessarily change the reality that more clothes are getting bought, worn and eventually no longer used. “The impetus to get rid of clothing is often charitable, but the more clothing that is contributed and viable, the more fashion cycles speed up,” Jennifer Le Zotte of the University of North Carolina Wilmington explained in an interview with Vox earlier this year.
If thrifting does become mainstream, especially due to how technology has changed it (and, for all we know, online thrifting in five years could become a thing of the past, like Netscape or Peapod or Gay.com), then it could have an effect on fast fashion.
That may already be the case. Last year, H&M launched its own resale platform to buy and sell clothing made under one of the company’s brands. Critics said explaining any part of that decision as a “sustainable” one was a stretch, considering the accusations lobbed at H&M and its competitors over the years — including overproduction, encouraging overconsumption, dubious labor practices and the often marginal quality of the clothing items.
Of course, the same could be said of the massive growth in the online thrifting business. Thrifting, resale and vintage aren’t the same thing, depending on who you ask. “Vintage” to many means at least a couple decades old; thrifting could include someone dumping a carload of old clothes at the local Goodwill or Salvation Army; and if you scored that resale item that still had the price tag on… well, the overconsumption part of this conversation still merits discussion, right?
Image credit: Tyler Nix/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.