Second-hand garments staging a dramatic comeback
It was in the era of President Nixon when commercial import and selling of second-hand garments became an obvious alternative to millions of Bangladeshis who could not afford new outfits. Trading centres of those second-hand garments somehow gained their identity as Nixon Market. Demand for reusable garments, however, waned slowly with the economic advancement of the country and supply of cheap new garments bearing top global brand names coming through so-called stock lots of export-oriented industries. Some of the remnants still cater to the needs of low-income groups in urban centres.
Now, after almost five decades, Nixon markets are making a dramatic comeback. It's happening in the west utilising the advantage of up-to-date technologies. The most striking elements of this new phenomenon are: i) it is driven by millennial and Generation Z; and ii) their concerns about the sustainability of the earth. These younger generations are seriously concerned about the impact of climate change and keen to cut emissions in every possible way. This new market of second-hand and unused garments and other consumer items is called fashion resale market or re-commerce and it is largely based on e-commerce platforms.
Until recently, trading of unused garments and luxury items in the western hemisphere had been almost an exclusive exercise by charity organisations like Oxfam, cancer Research Societies or Heart Foundations. It has been a long established culture to exchange gifts among family and friends during religious and New Year celebrations. As a result, many people get too many gifts including the same items which they do not need. Charity organisations open their doors for receiving those "unwanted gifts" as donations which in turn allow them to cash in, albeit, at a reduced price. But, this resale market no longer remains their exclusive domain, instead it emerges as a very attractive business model for tech-based companies. Besides, many sought-after brands themselves have started their own recycling programmes by encouraging return of unused items and reselling them.
The fashion resale market is growing so fast that some experts are terming it "supersonic growth" as they claim that it is 11-time faster than the broader clothing retail sector. Projections show that in the next five years the size of the resale market will be reaching somewhere between USD 65 billion and USD 75 billion. One of the largest online resale platforms thredUP says the growth is driven by a greater quality of products on the resale market by more and more keen sellers as it gets easier to quickly offload pre-loved items online. It notes that an estimated 9 billion clothing items are still sitting idle in consumers' closets in the US alone. Wall Street is also finding investing in these firms attractive and promising. Last week, a NASDAQ-listed company, Etsy completed its acquisition of resale fashion app business Depop for more than USD 1.6 billion. Depop now has a community of approximately 30 million registered users spread across nearly 150 countries.
A 2019 consumer survey by First Insight, known for predicting Gen Z's behaviour, found that 62 percent of both Gen Z and millennials prefer to buy from sustainable brands. It showed some of them now shop almost exclusively second-hand for apparel and footwear. The reasons given were access to higher-quality products they might not otherwise be able to afford and to minimise their consumption footprint.
US magazine Forbes, quoting a recent survey from Boston Consulting Group, reported that sustainability's impact on the buying decisions of consumers of all ages grew from 38 percent in 2019 to 53 percent in 2020. First Insight too suggests that a majority of every generation now says they prefer shopping from secondary markets. Another premium and luxury resale platform is Bestiaries Collective which has more than 10 million members worldwide. Its CEO Max Bittner says, "If a 15- or 16-year-old is doing it today, chances are pretty high that you and I will be doing the same thing in a few years."(Source: McKinsey & Company, Insights, December 2020.)
Fashion Revolution, a non-profit advocacy group, has been pressing on all fashion brands and retailers to become transparent about their carbon footprint. It has started publishing annual Fashion Transparency Index of global brands and the index includes sustainability standards. Research carried out by European Environment Agency estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. It also says textile production is responsible for 20 percent of global pollution of clean water. It suggests laundering synthetic clothes accounts for 35 percent microfibers released in the environment. These statistics are quite crucial in judging the sustainability of the textile sector.
Bangladesh being one of the top sources of readymade garments supply in the world has already felt the question of standards, in particular concerning workplace safety and workers right to organise unions. Some of the suppliers have been coming under increased pressure on sustainability issues—especially use of water and pollution. Now less consumption and recycling are emerging as essential acts on the part of consumers for the future of our world. As the world is experiencing weather extremes like more frequent floods, drought and forest fires, these younger generations are moving towards a lifestyle that cuts carbon emission. Technology also enables them to keep track of their carbon footprints.
Affordable and cheap supply of garments, though attractive for consumers, is not that good for the future of our world. The world seems to be moving towards less consumption, particularly of such consumables that harm the environment and is opting for recycling. We too need to catch up.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist and his twitter handle is @ahmedka1