‘Pre-loved’ fashion moves from niche to mainstream as retailers join the fray

Sarah Butler
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Younger shoppers are driving a surge in sales of secondhand clothing and furnishings, spurred by the desire to help the environment and find alternative looks to fast fashion.

On eBay, sales of “pre-loved” fashion and homewares have shot up in the UK over the past year, with the company selling more than 60 million used items. Murray Lambell, general manager of eBay’s UK business, said: “There is definitely a change in mindset, driven by younger consumers up to the age of 30.”

A &#x002018;preloved vintage&#x002019; secondhand clothing point in Asda, Leeds
A ‘preloved vintage’ secondhand clothing point in Asda, Leeds. Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

While fashion-conscious teens have been trading previously owned fashion on sites such as Depop and Vinted for several years, older groups are likely to be persuaded by secondhand bargains moving out of traditional charity shops and into mid-market mainstream store chains. Asda announced last week that it is testing out secondhand clothing in 50 supermarkets, and John Lewis and Ikea are launching schemes to sell used furniture and fashion. At fashion website Asos, vintage sales have risen 92%.

There is a new glamour factor. Celebrities from Kim Kardashian to Livia Firth are now prepared to wear vintage pieces on the red carpet. Even Royal Ascot has picked up the trend. This year’s style guide for the race meeting says it is celebrating “the art of conscious shopping” and points out that looking good “doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy something brand new”. It suggests sourcing outfits from “charity shops, nearly-new boutiques, vintage emporiums and resale websites”.

Selfridges now has an outlet for vintage fashion specialist Vestiaire Collective, and handbag label Mulberry which is now refurbishing and reselling its used products online.

The pandemic has accelerated the already growing movement toward more conscious consumerism

Vinted spokesperson

Asda’s move into vintage shows that secondhand “has the potential to go mainstream”, according to Emily Salter at retail analyst GlobalData. Salter believes pre-owned is unlikely to become more popular than buying new items soon and thinks it is “definitely becoming a more important part of how consumers purchase”.

Research in the US, for resale site ThredUp, suggests that 70% of women were prepared to buy secondhand fashion in 2019 compared with 45% four years earlier. It predicts that the resale market will be bigger than fast fashion by 2029 as traditional charity shops sell more items and the for-profit resale market balloons.

Vinted, which now has more than 37 million registered members globally across 13 countries, including 1.2 million in the UK, said it saw an increase of between 16% and 17% in listings in its European markets throughout lockdown. The Lithuanian company, now valued at more than $1bn, says the boom has partly been driven by a lockdown clean-out frenzy during which shoppers turned to the internet to rid themselves of unwanted items they could not offload at charity shops. Vinted adds: “The pandemic has shifted priorities and accelerated the already growing movement toward more conscious consumerism.”

A pilot secondhand Ikea furniture store Eskilstuna, Sweden
Flatpack retail giant Ikea has opened a pilot secondhand furniture store in Eskilstuna, Sweden. Photograph: Reuters

Some of the impetus behind big retailers moving into the secondhand market is coming from pressure to reduce the environmental footprint of fashion. According to a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The report suggested that the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions could surge more than 50% by 2030.

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Companies including Asda, Asos Marks & Spencer, Boohoo and Tesco have all signed up to the Textiles 2030 action plan, which includes commitments to enable clothing re-use, recycle fibres, minimise waste and improve the durability and recyclability of garments.

Financial pressures and fashion tastes are also driving secondhand sales. Households on tight budgets – on furlough, without jobs or working shorter hours – are increasingly selling unwanted goods online. There’s recognition that cast-offs can have a cash value that can be easily realised.

Tracy Diane Cassidy, a fashion textiles expert at Huddersfield University, says that an appreciation of vintage design and a desire to create a more individual look beyond mass-produced fast fashion is also driving the trend.

An interest in repairing and mending items has also been popularised by TV shows such as BBC’s The Repair Shop, The Great British Sewing Bee and Channel 4’s Make Do & Mend.

“Brands are starting to take notice that there is a retail opportunity here,” says Cassidy. “They are going to start losing sales the more that people start buying secondhand. If they are not part of that, where else are they going to make up the lost revenue?”