The second hand is a sustainable choice, but up to a point

Buying accessories and luxury clothes on portals or in second-hand shops is not just a way for the classic ‘bargain’. It is said to be a sustainable choice, and, in some ways, it is hard to argue otherwise. But not all that glitters is green in this sector because, after all, the second hand is nothing but the other side of the spiral of mass consumption


The most common terms for it are second-hand, re-selling, pre-loved, and pre-owned. Buying clothing and accessories using this mode of trade is becoming increasingly easy, accessible, and, as a result, attracting the younger generation, so the business it drives is booming. According to McKinsey, the second-hand fashion market, worth EUR 25-30 billion in 2020, is set to grow by 10-15% each year over the next ten. Barclays tells us that in 2021 the second hand was worth 36 billion dollars, and in 2025 it will reach 77 billion. This probably includes the phantasmagorical amounts consumers are willing to spend to secure a used Birkin or Chanel bag. Be that as it may, the question here is a different one: is buying second-hand handbags (and more) a sustainable choice?

The ‘yes’ front

Second-hand shopping represents a new and – yes – more sustainable way of shopping. It allows you to add designs to your wardrobe without using additional resources in the production process. Moreover, buying existing clothes and accessories slows down the fashion cycle. Furthermore, it is a cheaper and more accessible shopping model than other forms of shopping.  Building an ethical wardrobe is an interesting start, with a view to not giving in to fast fashion’s cheap (but high-impact) lure.

Thrift flipping and the shadow of ‘no’

Are you familiar with the practice of “thrift flipping“? It consists of buying an item on portals or in second-hand shops to personalise it. Often for personal use. Just as often to put it into new commercial circuits. According to insiders, it is a shadow that casts a shadow over the claim of sustainability of second-hand goods. Why? Basically, it hampers the virtuous mechanisms we wrote about in the previous lines, reducing choice for the most aspirational buyers (who seek luxury accessories at more affordable prices than new ones). Thrift flipping, in short, drugs the second-hand market, reducing stock availability and driving up receipts.

Relieving guilt

More generally, the real crux of the matter is to understand to what extent the second-hand responds to a need or whether, instead, it is nothing more than a different form of mass consumption. “People are looking for sustainable, guilt-free ways to shop,” says Anna Fitzpatrick of the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. There is no doubt that the second hand is not helping to build a sustainable future for her. ‘It doesn’t challenge our addiction to shop or the idea that we can have new clothes whenever we want them. It enables it. Second-hand shopping feeds on the instability and unsustainability of the fast fashion industry. Without it, there would not be such a large second-hand market’.

The (real) sustainable choice

The truth lies in the middle. Yes, second-hand shopping is generally more sustainable than buying new. But we are not on the right track if our wardrobe is clogged with clothes, whether new or used. We should only buy what we really need and then take care of it so that each item can last as long as possible. The only truth, and the most sustainable, is just that.

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