Attention shoppers: Why the buy-sell-trade clothing economy is taking off

How millennials are changing the shopping game. And it's not how you think.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Six months after giving birth, Stacey Strul realized she was sick of her old clothes that no longer fit her new body or suited her new style.

So she decided to sell them through a buy-sell-trade app – earning $2,000 in the process.

"I'm really happy," said the 29-year-old Thornhill teacher, who sold the items over two months. "I've slowed down now because I've pretty much sold my whole closet."

Marketing experts and resale shop owners say Canada's buy-sell-trade clothing economy is taking off, thanks to millennial consumers' increasing interest in sustainable shopping, more online websites and apps to facilitate demand, the de-cluttering craze and a shrinking stigma around wearing second-hand clothes.

"We're returning almost to that wartime view of, 'Do we need to buy things? Can we reuse them and fix them?'" said Joanne McNeish, associate professor of marketing at the
Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University. "The previous generation… did it out of economy and lack of resources. These guys do it as part of the way they see the world."

McNeish said millennials are becoming more conscious of where their clothes come from, wanting to know if people were exploited in the manufacturing process and wanting to cut back on their eco footprint.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average American throws out 37 kilograms of textiles, including clothing, footwear and bedding, among other items, each year.

By shopping second-hand, consumers can buy guilt-free, knowing they're contributing to the sustainable shopping economy, McNeish said.

And it's popular.

A new report commissioned by Vancity credit union found 97 per cent of people in British Columbia participate in the second-hand market, which totals around $1 billion a year in sales.

McNeish said it helps that millennials are already well-acquainted with the sharing economy — catching rides through Uber and renting vacation accommodations through Airbnb — and they shop online. When it comes to buying second-hand clothes and other items, they're now quick to embrace buy-sell-trade apps, websites and online forums, such as the Facebook group, Bunz Trading Zone, where cash is not allowed, she said.

Stacey Strul and her daughter

One app capitalizing on the second-hand demand is Chicago-based Fam, which launched in April and now has 65,000 users worldwide and 3,000 in Canada.

To use the app, users first download it and then request to join groups where they can buy, sell and trade specific brands of apparel or types of clothing. Sellers list their clothing in the group pages, where they can communicate and negotiate with buyers. When the item is purchased through PayPal, Fam takes nine per cent of the profit.

"It's kind of like a virtual mall," said Brett Keintz, Fam's co-creator, adding that many millennials already use sites like Instagram or Pinterest to find clothing styles they like.

As apps and online shopping proliferate on the web, they're adding competition for existing bricks-and-mortar resale and consignment shops, but those owners say they're not concerned.

Joy Mauro, owner of Turnabout luxury resale stores in Vancouver, said demand for quality second-hand clothing has "exploded" in the last five to ten years.

Mauro said she's found a sustainable niche for herself in the second-hand market by offering quality mid-to-high end items, avoiding competing with thrift store chains such as of Value Village, where prices are much lower.

As for demand, she suspects the rise is thanks to the decluttering movement, sparked by the likes of Marie Kondo and her cult book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and by a shrinking stigma attached to buying second-hand.

Reused clothing's popularity has come a long way since she opened her first shop 38 years ago.

"Back then, people would never admit to buying things from me," Mauro said. "Wealthy people didn't … want anyone to think they couldn't afford to buy at Holt Renfrew."

Rebranding could also have something to do with it, said Ryerson's McNeish.

"We take what was used clothing and call it vintage," she said. "It becomes something different."

As for Strul, who sold around 30 pieces of Aritzia-brand clothing using the Fam app, she used some of the extra cash to buy herself a purse and buy her daughter baby clothes. The rest she saved.

She has no regrets about emptying out her closet.

"I looked at it as though, 'OK, I've bought some really nice clothes. I've worn it a couple times, I'm tired of it or it doesn't fit me — at least I can make a little bit of money off of it," she said. "I just wish I had more clothes to sell."

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends.