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Terry E.  Cohen headshot

Secondhand is on Track to Take First Place in Retail

By Terry E. Cohen
A shopper looks through clothes at a thrift store.

Say “secondhand shopping” and many people latch onto an image of thrift stores for the tightly budgeted or the treasure-hunting consumer, whether the shops are physical or online. However, the resale of goods — particularly clothing, footwear and accessories — encompasses a much broader market that is rising quickly to a powerhouse.

Growth in resale — also known as re-commerce, a name derived from the term reverse commerce — is expected to dwarf the growth of fast fashion in the next few years. This speaks to the trend’s potential to improve sustainability in an industry notorious for being anything but planet-friendly. The National Retail Federation put a white-hot spotlight on resale and sustainability at its January 2023 Big Show in New York City, with one expert’s estimation of the resale market reaching $300 billion by 2031.

Thrift stores and consignment shops still factor into the consumer search for secondhand clothes, footwear and accessories, but both brands with big names and smaller merchants using online platforms like Shopify are bringing resale to unprecedented scale.

What’s driving re-commerce’s accelerating positive trajectory?

The rise of resale: The consumer experience and the retail shift

To learn more about what is driving the rise of resale in fashion retail, TriplePundit spoke with Tasha Reasor, senior vice president of marketing at Loop, a returns management app for brands on the e-commerce site Shopify. She likened the shift to the appeal of factory outlet stores, which initially offered discounts on unsold stock before many companies added product lines exclusively for those shops.

“Think about returns: they can come back damaged, they're out of season or simply just can't be resold,” Reasor said. “When we think about re-commerce, you take the ones that can be resold, and you're opting to save money and not waste the returns. You're boosting your profit margins while also promoting a sustainable behavior.”

“American Eagle recently opened a resale shop called AE/RE, and they partnered with ThredUp, a company that specializes in reverse commerce,” she said.

American Eagle’s resale shop offers newer items for resale and vintage wear from its past decades. Therefore, the value of re-commerce isn’t a one-way street benefitting business to recoup profits on unsold and returned merchandise. It brings back the thrill of the hunt for bargains on quality-made items, nostalgia or other shopping aesthetics consumers enjoy.

Digital space created a definite need for resale, too. While the ease of shopping online and the rise of social media influencers stimulated purchasing, consumers also heavily leveraged return policies. Retailers and brands then had to look for ways to process those returns, not only as profitably as possible, but also in a way that retained consumer engagement and loyalty.

“Amazon for years has had ‘buy new, buy old, buy used’ optionality,” Reasor said. “We’re seeing re-commerce … bring that to any brand, all brands, giving them the ability, [especially] through companies like Arrive or ThredUp.” While American Eagle works with ThredUp, Eddie Bauer chose Arrive.

For smaller entities like many of the merchants on Shopify — the world through which Reasor and Loop operate in partnership with Arrive — facilitator platforms provide a more level playing field in resale and return management. 

Plus, while younger generations have long been fans of both online and secondhand shopping, older consumers are in the mix as well. Geared to the 50 and older crowd, AARP featured new innovations in shopping as its May 2023 Bulletin cover story, specifically mentioning secondhand retail as a smart option for dealing with inflation.

Sustainability: A major force behind resale’s rocketing growth

For those consumers pursuing savings through re-commerce, sustainability may not be at the forefront of their minds, but their secondhand purchases nonetheless contribute to more planet-friendly consumption habits. Still, a growing percentage of consumers do have sustainability in mind when shopping resale.

In its survey of shoppers in September 2021, IBM found that 44 percent of consumers — the largest segment of respondents — chose products and brands based on alignment with their values. In our own survey in December 2022, TriplePundit and our parent company, 3BL Media, learned that over half of respondents were already shopping secondhand, with more intending to do so within six months.

That’s a whopping 70 percent of consumers actively or planning to purchase resale goods. Reasor affirmed the relevance of those numbers to sustainability.

“The environmental impact of re-commerce would be reducing resource consumption,” Reasor said. “When you produce new products, you require significant amounts of resources, including raw materials, energy and water. So, if you are repurposing existing products and you are extending their life, you're naturally not needing to build and leverage all those materials.”

More than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions of the fashion industry come from raw material production and processing, according to research giant McKinsey. Therefore, avoiding product creation from scratch can be a big boost to reducing emissions. Satisfying the customer with resale inventory instead of brand new also saves a sizable investment for companies.

A two-way street of changing behavior: The future of re-commerce and secondhand shopping

As someone who works with the logistics side of sustainability, Reasor noted that companies can use resale to encourage more sustainable behavior by their customers.

“Re-commerce promotes sustainable consumption,” Reasor said. “That starts to change the behavior and the habits of consumers in terms of getting them to think about secondhand being more environmentally friendly and thinking about their own consumption.” 

Loop also partners with the app EcoCart, which enables consumers to get education about carbon reductions associated with order and return choices, as well as to actively make a positive contribution to carbon neutrality.
Fast fashion is still growing, albeit at a much lower rate than resale, and it would be naïve to think that resale alone will put it to rest. But brands and merchants have a huge opportunity to influence consumer behavior toward secondhand shopping. Just as sustainability-minded shoppers have steered companies to provide them with environment-friendly options, companies can educate consumers about resale’s value to both the pocketbook and the planet.

Recent reports on the damage caused by fashion’s disposability in Chile and Ghana provide photographic proof of the need for increasing circularity in the industry, to which all forms of secondhand shopping make a contribution. Re-commerce models optimize the ability to scale those contributions.

Consumers have a lot of drivers behind their purchasing choices, and re-commerce speaks to a number of them — affordability, the value of more durable goods, sustainability, shopping experiences and, yes, the desire for style. The “new to me/new to you” mindset and variety behind secondhand can be as satisfying as shopping for never-worn fashion. For some, resale purchases score a bigger buzz.

Given predictions that re-commerce’s growth will be huge over the next several years — and has grown the last few — resale is unlikely to be a short-lived trend. Sustainability has joined price, value, quality and style as an economic force in retail.

Both companies and consumers save money and get the “cool factor” while cooling the planet. That’s too good a bargain to pass up.

Image credit: cottonbro studio/Pexels

Terry E.  Cohen headshot

Terry is a U.S.-based writer and editor. With an extensive background in business, government and media, she writes about economic equity for women, public policy, education and efforts to improve environmental impacts.

Read more stories by Terry E. Cohen