Young But Retro: Why Millennials Are Driving the Eco-friendly Used Clothing Trend

Secondhand fashion is both sustainable and savvy. Here's why the generation that invented dabbing is leading the way in renting high fashion, re-gifting and saving the planet.

If you ever thought young people don’t know much about old things, now is the time to think again. In a world that increasingly places value on new and trendy, old and classic secondhand items are being embraced by a young generation of savvy shoppers.

The Millennial and Gen Z love for used clothing is evident in the numbers. In 2019, resale platform ThredUP reported that today’s resale market is worth USD $24 billion, with predicted growth accelerating to $51 billion by 2023. That’s a growth of 21 times faster than classic retail in the past three years. Granted, these numbers were being bandied about before the coronavirus epidemic brought global retail activity to its knees, but it’s still worth considering why secondhand fashion is (or had been) so popular. These two cohorts of young consumers have a few specific qualities that have driven the growth of the resale and secondhand market, and that also has implications for our planet.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE THRIFTY SHOPPER

In a world where social media is king, the need to repeatedly produce insta-worthy or pinterest-worthy posts is quickly driving young, savvy people to expand their wardrobe—fast. If you don’t want to be seen wearing the same item twice, you’ll either need a massive budget, or you’ll need to look to more economical ways to subsidise your look. Enter the clothing rental and clothes swapping market.

Besides the ability to stretch a dollar, clothes-swapping is appealing to the younger generation for a particular reason. The clothes-swap movement has taken off amongst local communities, where users are able to exchange items with other nearby individuals through the program. (Community “outsiders” can also rely on courier services to access clothing swaps.) The idea of sharing items within a local population is highly appealing to Millennials and Gen Zs, who place great value on building up and sustaining relationships with peers.

Clothing-exchange communities are taking off partly because it is just that—a community. And that’s perfect for Millennials and Gen Zs.

Based on the idea that unworn items from a wardrobe can be loaned out and higher-value garments can be rented out, this method of wardrobe management is both considered more eco-friendly and easier on the wallet for Millennials and Gen Z’s—hence its large appeal.

Outside of Asia, Gen Z was raised in the recession that Millennials graduated into, which has made both groups rather budget conscious. According to YPulse.com’s survey, 57% of 13 to 37-year-olds say they “never pay full price for clothing”. Thrifty shopping is a preference that is inbuilt into this cohort.

As the world’s economy continues to suffer the monumental impacts of coronavirus and reduced consumer spending, the clothing resale market is likely to be an even bigger competitor to classic retail (ie buying new). Having less-expensive clothes delivered to your door via courier is also likely to compete with shopping in a physical store.

Online consignment platforms like US-based resale company ThredUP and The RealReal are likely to emerge from the coronavirus epidemic with a significantly increased market share, as will rental services like Rent the Runway and Haverdash.  An Information Resources Inc survey took the pulse of US consumer’s buying behaviors in the midst of the epidemic in April 2020 and found that 50% of respondents favored buying from private labels more often, while 50% of surveyed were willing to give up favorite brands. Meanwhile, 50% of respondents also were in favor of slashing spending budgets by trying lower-priced brands. Secondhand buying, while not included in the IRI survey, fits the profile for the type of fashion merchant that is soon to become ‘the new normal’.

MORE MINIMALISM, LESS CONSUMERISM:
QUARTER-LIFE-CRISIS LESSONS

For many Gen Zs and Millennials, a smaller wardrobe is increasingly important. Thanks to the Marie Kondo house-tidying revolution, there is a hugely popular movement that eschews owning less. In a domino-effect, Gen Zs and Millennials are embracing the idea of reducing their working hours so that they could also reduce their reliance on consumerism. The idea of “getting out of the rat race” is a common revelation of the increasing number of young adults who have experienced a quarter-life crisis, as is the emphasis on work-life balance. The notion of buying and owning more is losing its appeal with young urbanites, whose limited financial ability is quickly becoming a reality as they consider the likelihood of more permanent investments, like owning a home.

Reflecting back on their own lifestyles, disappointed Millennials and Gen Zs are finding that a cycle of working long hours in order to earn a high salary is not bringing them the contentment that they had hoped for, nor is an increased focus on buying more—whether that means buying fast fashion or fast cars. Along with their shrinking earning power, wardrobe shrinking is also making sense for a lot of quarter-life-crisis individuals, who are reviewing their consumption and buying habits to see what is not “sparking joy” in their lives. In light of this, buying secondhand clothing and clothes swapping is a perfectly logical alternative to a Great Gatbsy-like lifestyle of excess—which isn’t that easy to attain, anyway.

A LOVE FOR ECO-LOVE

Fashion has always had a bit of a bad rep for being a rather polluting industry. In fact, it’s only a close second behind the oil business, which is regarded somewhat of a necessary pariah. On top of that, the textile industry’s workers are often placed in unethical working conditions, with low salaries that fall below their own country’s living standards.

All those factors put together have driven consumers to prefer buying from ethical and sustainable brands. Once, the higher-road approach was a realm accessible mainly to the rich, thanks to the high price point of these elevated-status goods. But recent trends have moved towards the resale market, where buying secondhand items are deemed to be able to extend the lifecycle of items and reduce environmental impact.

Environmental pundits propose that if products are circulating in the economy for longer before meeting their end in a landfill, this would justify the costly expense brought to the planet by the production of raw materials and all the labor deployed in the item’s manufacturing cycle. Hence, fast fashion and its disposable nature has increasingly lost its appeal to shoppers, says a recent survey by resale app Mercari. With mottoes like “Wearing secondhand is a vote for the planet”, circular shopping is encouraging young people to be proud of their used clothing.

Just how much does an increasing focus on throwaway clothing hurt the planet? Data from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 showed that textile waste has increased 811% since 1960, with the vast majority of this going into the landfill. Of course, the global population has also grown since the sixties, but there’s no ignoring that currently, 84% of all purchased clothing ends up in landfills and incinerators. The EPA also found that in the past 15 years, the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn before its discarded has dropped by 36%, but it is still far fewer than the amount of brand-new or little-worn items that are simply being dumped because of consumer preference for fast fashion.

MAKING YOUR WARDROBE SUSTAINABLE

The good news is that regardless of someone’s age group, it’s possible to dress more sustainably. Anna De Souza, Mercari’s chief stylist and organizing expert, recommends keeping a focused selection. This “capsule wardrobe” approach would ideally be 37 pieces (including shoes and jewellery) that is rotated each season. “Focus on clothing that washes and wears well, and invest in fabrics and brands that are sustainable,” Souza advises. “While it can be pricey, begin weaving them into your closet slowly.” In essence, buy better rather than buy cheaper.

If your personal budget isn’t big enough to incorporate a wardrobe overhaul every season, you can work on taking care of your existing pieces. “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,” says Souza.

A VERY CRITICAL MASS

Gen Zs and Millennials are a generation that is always happiest when they are marching to the sound of their own drum. Secondhand buying, selling and trading play right into the hands of this young cohort, because these eschew uniqueness and sharing. Being bohemian is a large motivator for embracing secondhand wear, as vintage items and rare finds are proudly shown off in Instagram posts to envious followers. And the booming clothing resale movement is also just an offshoot of the sharing economy, which has fueled the likes of Turo and Airbnb.

It’s also not surprising that Gen Z and Millennials are the type of consumer that is quite ready to try “re-gifting”—that is, using secondhand items as Christmas gifts. Deloitte’s 2019 consumer survey found that overall, 27% of total consumers polled had planned to give a used item as a holiday gift. Amongst that group, 61% of Gen Z and 43% of Millennials planned to give used gifts, while only 25% of Gen X and 13% of baby boomers were open to the idea. Although being more sustainability-focused during the holiday season was the smallest motivator for the yes-to-regifting group (other bigger motivators being saving money and being able to afford a premium brand), being practical seemed to be enough motivation to buy fewer new items in a season normally associated with excess. 

Whatever their limitations may be, there are two things that Gen Zs and Millennials are not lacking in: one is passion, and the second is practicality when it comes to saving the planet. If this strong-willed cohort can also utilise crowdfunding and the strength of the critical mass, sustainable fashion consumption could grow from just being a kickstarter-stage idea to becoming the next new normal.

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