Thrifting is losing its stigma: second-hand clothes are sustainable — and cool

Sellers of second-hand clothes are enjoying a boom in business right now in part, they say, because consumers' growing concern about the environment is leading them to turn away from the fast fashion industry, with its throwaway garments and carbon footprint.

Altruistic and ecological reasons gaining ground as motivation for consumers, Kijiji survey finds

Upscale second-hand clothing stores such as Toronto's Common Sort are seeing an increase in demand due to concern about the environment. (Marc Baby/CBC)

Canadian attitudes toward second-hand clothes are changing, and businesses are cashing in. 

Not long ago, the idea of shopping at thrift stores brought to mind images of rummaging through racks of random, tatty, sometimes smelly clothing. 

Now, climate concerns are driving a boom in a newly energized resale industry. 

"It was a $12-billion market by our research when we started. It's now a $24-billion market, and we expect it to be a $50-billion market in no time," said Chris Homer, co-founder of San Francisco-based ThredUP, an online marketplace for used clothing that expanded to Canada last year.

"In Canada alone we've seen almost 70 per cent growth year-over-year on our platform."  

Canadian entrepreneur Chris Homer is one of the co-founders of San Francisco-based ThredUp, which bills itself as the world's largest online thrift store. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

The fashion industry has been criticized for its impact on the environment, both for the throwaway, so-called fast fashion that piles up in landfills, and for its carbon footprint, which is estimated to be larger than that of the shipping and airline industries combined.

Buying used clothing helps alleviate these problems.

'Altruistic' shopping

It appears as though consumers' attitudes are starting to change. A report just released by online marketplace Kijiji confirms a shift toward "community-minded commerce." Its annual survey on Canada's second-hand economy asked participants about what motivates them, and directed them to assign various motivations a score out of 100.

The findings show that cost motivations are down four per cent, while altruistic and ecological motivations are up six per cent. 

Environmental concerns were top of mind for a lot of shoppers at a Value Village thrift store in Toronto's west end.

"Clothing waste is one of the biggest pollutants, so this is obviously helping because we're not buying more new clothes," said Daniela Baiocchi while browsing through the coat department. 

Brett Bélanger, 20, said she's passionate about thrifting because of the damage the fashion industry causes to the planet.

"All the fast fashions these days are just polluting our earth, so it's nice to be able to reuse other things that people don't want," she said.

Christine Riddell is a district manager with Value Village in Ontario. She says the popularity of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has helped boost the chain's business. (Marc Baby/CBC)

In September, fast fashion chain Forever 21 announced it will close all of its international locations, including 44 stores in Canada, amid flagging sales. 

Retail consultant Bruce Winder says fast fashion's target market — young, style-conscious shoppers on a budget — are also among those most concerned about the health of the planet.

"The younger millennial specifically, along with Gen Z, are incredibly environmentally conscious," he said. "And they look at every brand and every product in terms of what is the impact on society, but also what is the impact on the employees and the environment."

No sacrifice in terms of style

Zero-waste consultant Sophi Robertson is proud to show off her closet at home, which she says contains only one piece of clothing that was bought new; everything else is second-hand.  

"These jeans I'm wearing, they hadn't even been worn before," she said. "And they're an Italian brand that normally retails for well over $100. That was a win."

She paid $30 for the designer denim, she says. 

Sophi Robertson is a zero-waste consultant whose wardrobe is almost entirely made up of second-hand clothing. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

One of Robertson's favourite shopping destinations is Common Sort, a small chain of three boutique-like thrift stores in Toronto. She describes its merchandise as being carefully "curated." A browse through the racks reveals labels from J. Crew, Wilfrid and Club Monaco.

Common Sort owner Nicole Babin says she and her staff are very selective.

"We get a lot of sellers in every day with a lot of stuff," she said. "So we're going through all of it picking the best of the best."

She also takes pride in having a retail store that smells good — no scent of mothballs or damp basements lingers in the air.

"We steam everything that comes in the store so it looks nice, and if it's not clean we wash it," said Babin. "So you don't have the odour that you would have in some vintage stores."  

'Stigma' is fading

But even with upscale stores to choose from, there's no question that not everyone is eager to embrace resale items.  

At Value Village, district manager Christine Riddell acknowledges there's a stigma about second-hand items.

"When I was growing up it was not as cool to wear second-hand clothing. It represented people not having the money to spend on new clothing."

ThredUp is an online marketplace for used clothing, founded in the U.S. So far Canadian consumers can only buy clothes on the site, not sell. (ThredUp)

But, she says, that's changing quickly, and she credits the education system.

"My 14-year-old son is learning about environmental issues at school, so as they're the future leaders of our planet, they're taking responsibility at a much younger age, which is so wonderful to see." 

Riddell also points to the Marie Kondo craze for sending donations through the roof, after her series Tidying Up debuted on Netflix in January. The show "definitely helped bring awareness to the importance of downsizing in the home, as well as recycling responsibly as opposed to it going into landfills," said Riddell.

Value Village's sales have seen "a healthy lift," according to vice-president of recycling Tony Shumpert. 

"The fact that it takes over 700 gallons of water to manufacture a cotton T-shirt and over 1,500 gallons of water for a pair of jeans, consumers are wanting to make smarter choices," he said. 

Robertson, the zero-waste consultant, points to research that Canadians throw away 37 kilograms of textiles on average, per person, every year.

"Using things that are already in circulation is the way to go, as far as I'm concerned."