The trouble with secondhand: It’s becoming like fast fashion #485


Reports from The RealReal and Thredup suggest even when buying used, customers crave constant newness and still overconsume.

Secondhand fashion shares a problem with fast fashion: overconsumption.

Despite its sustainability credentials, a new report from The RealReal suggests shoppers are behaving in a similar manner to full-price and fast fashion collections, with a focus on trends, newness, high churn and overconsumption. That’s troubling sustainability experts, who are raising questions about the growing category’s environmental impact, even if customers are more mindful about a product’s lifecycle and keen to keep products in circulation instead of throwing them away.

“It’s a good thing that resale is growing, but the potential hazard is that people are treating resale like fast fashion,” says writer and consultant Aja Barber. “If you are being thoughtful about fashion, you turn to resale because it’s better for the environment than buying new, not as an excuse to consume constantly.”

More and more people are buying resale, but that doesn’t mean they are buying less overall. This is particularly true of Gen Z and millennials, who now represent 41 per cent of US luxury consignment site The RealReal’s user base. In its most recent annual resale report, the company said its customer base is growing: it attracted 5.3 million new users in the last year, bringing its running total to 28 million. That shows that more customers are making the switch to secondhand, but it doesn’t show the full picture as to whether or not they’re buying fewer new products overall. For The RealReal, purchases grew 44 per cent in the last year.

These customers are using platforms including The RealReal to keep up with trends. Balenciaga entered the platform’s top 10 luxury brands this year, driven by its “celebrity clout” from tie-ups with Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. Meanwhile, collectible archival fashion experienced a 439 per cent sales boost, with Roberto Cavalli, Thierry Mugler and John Galliano-era Dior — all of which have been spotted on celebrities including Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid in the last year — among the most popular designers. Buzzy American designers also saw growth: Erl by 358 per cent, Telfar by 141 per cent and LaQuan Smith by 203 per cent.

Others are using it to turn a profit and maintain a constant churn of clothes. Since the pandemic began, reconsignment — the rate at which users buy and eventually resell items on the same platform — has doubled. Gen Z is flipping finds the fastest, with classic luxury brands among the most resold. Watches from Cartier, Rolex and Hermès retain resale value best over time, as well as shoes from Chanel and Gucci, and bags from Louis Vuitton. Rival Thredup says its increasing customer base is rotating clothes at a higher rate too: in its latest report, published in May, 36 per cent of Gen Z respondents said they now purchase apparel weekly or monthly, the same rate at which they clear out or resell.

Each of these purchases and sales has an environmental impact in the packaging and shipping, something The RealReal says it is trying to address with more recycled and recyclable packaging, as well as carbon offsets. Resale is now facing similar challenges as rental, with neither being the completely guilt-free, impact-free solutions they have been presented as at times. The scale of resale consumption, and the hints at a deeper problem for the category that pegs itself as sustainable. “Consumers are addicted to newness, regardless of whether it’s from the primary market or secondhand,” says The RealReal’s senior director of merchandising Sasha Skoda. “With the rise of social media and the trend for hauls, people are buying in bulk to avoid repeating outfits.”

This addiction is clear in the site’s engagement rates. The RealReal’s new arrivals page, which houses around 20,000 new items every day, is among its most-visited. The average user visits The RealReal 127 times each year, skewing higher among millennials, who visited 104 times on average in the first half of 2022 alone. In the same period, the average user spent 1,475 minutes on the site.

The RealReal is aware of the potential for overconsumption, but says it has to meet consumers where they are. “That behaviour will happen regardless, so shifting those consumers to luxury resale items with a longer lifespan instead of fast fashion is a positive shift,” says Skoda. “The obsession with newness is counterintuitive to sustainability in general but it’s where consumers are right now.”

Vogue Business