One in every three apparel items purchased in the U.S. last year was secondhand, according to the resale platform ThredUp, which has been tracking apparel resale markets for over a decade. As U.S. consumers continue to gravitate toward more sustainable products, over half shopped secondhand apparel in 2022, ThredUp found in its annual Resale Report.
Globally, the secondhand apparel market is set to nearly double by 2027, reaching $350 billion — including $70 billion in the U.S. alone. In the U.S. in particular, resale markets grew five times faster than the broader retail clothing sector in 2022, and global secondhand sales are expected to grow three times faster than the global apparel market overall. Brands are looking to benefit from rising consumer interest in secondhand shopping, with a record 88 brands launching resale programs in 2022.
"Now in its 11th year, the Resale Report has some of the most inspiring findings since we started the report in 2013," James Reinhart, CEO of ThredUp, said in a statement. "Resale is starting to blossom globally, with many of the largest retailers in the world adopting more circular business models."
The secondhand apparel boom comes as more and more people say they're concerned about environmental issues and are willing to change their daily lives to make a difference.
People are ready to change their lifestyles to save the planet
Over half of U.S. adults say they’ve already made lifestyle changes like shopping secondhand, purchasing products in reusable or refillable packaging, and buying less overall in order to reduce their impact on people and the planet, according to 2022 research from TriplePundit and 3BL Media. Another 2022 survey reveals the extent of climate anxiety among the public, with 1 out of 4 U.S. respondents worried they may have to give up long-term goals like starting a family.
Acting in their own lives gives people agency over global challenges — which can ease so-called "eco anxiety" and make people feel better. A 2019 study by Young Consumers, for example, indicates that people who buy less stuff for the sake of sustainability are happier in the long run. Short of simply buying less, consumers say they're willing to buy differently, and the shift toward secondhand apparel is only part of the broader reuse revolution taking hold across major market segments.
For example, nearly 75 percent of consumers have an interest in refillable products, while 86 percent of those under the age of 44 are prepared to pay more for a product if its packaging is sustainable, according to 2022 polling from Trivium Packaging. Refillable and reusable packaging sales are forecast to grow by 4.9 percent annually to $53.4 billion by 2027.
With those numbers, it's no surprise the trade publication Packaging World recently declared reusable and refillable packaging to be a "global opportunity" for the industry. Still, trends like these runs counter to preconceived notions that consumers don't really want or aren't really "ready" to change their lifestyles for sustainability reasons.
"When consumers are asked if they care about buying environmentally and ethically sustainable products, they overwhelmingly answer yes," McKinsey and Nielsen IQ found in a 2023 study focused on consumer interest in sustainability. Still, many brands cite lack of consumer interest as a key barrier in launching more sustainable offerings and point to sustainability-branded products that flopped and were later discontinued. In their report, the two organizations analyzed why that is, and largely found that the way brands communicate their sustainability credentials can make a big difference.
Resale offerings in particular offer a concrete and easily understandable way for brands to align with sustainability in a manner that stands out. More than half of Gen Z respondents to ThredUp's survey say they're more likely to shop with a brand that offers secondhand alongside new, up 6 points from 2021. And brands cited increased revenue and brand loyalty, alongside sustainability, as the top benefits they see from getting into resale.
Sustainability is a top driver of secondhand apparel purchases
Unsurprisingly, many Americans are reaching for secondhand apparel in response to the rising cost of goods, with 63 percent of respondents to ThredUp's survey saying they increased their spend on secondhand apparel in response to inflation. But sustainability remains a top driver, particularly among younger demographics.
In the average Gen Z closet, for example, 2 out of every 5 pieces are living a second life — and survey respondents in this age group cited sustainability as a top driver in making secondhand purchases. Nearly half (47 percent) of Gen Z respondents say they refuse to buy from non-sustainable apparel brands and retailers, up 11 points from 2021.
Their preference for shopping secondhand for sustainability is warranted: Buying and wearing secondhand clothing instead of new reduces carbon emissions by an average of 25 percent, according to ThredUp's Fashion Footprint Calculator — an interactive, consumer-facing tool launched this year alongside the report. If everyone bought one secondhand clothing item instead of new this year, it would save an estimated 2 billion pounds of carbon emissions, the equivalent of taking 76 million cars off the road, according to ThredUp's estimates.
Beyond the raw numbers, as awareness builds of the massive human and environmental cost of cheap fast fashion — ranging from dangerous and unfair labor practices, to microplastic pollution from synthetic fibers — it makes sense that more people are in search of other options that can still fit within their budgets.
"While value continues to be a key driver that motivates consumers to think secondhand first, global climate issues have increased awareness of resale’s potential to reduce fashion’s impact on the environment," Reinhart wrote in the opening of ThredUp's Resale Report. "We are still in the earliest days of inventing how resale can reduce the ongoing production excess in the apparel industry, and I don't see a world where we're going back to the way it used to be."
Image credit: 22Imagesstudio/Adobe Stock
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.