Expert opinion for article in Knack Weekend: How sustainable are second-hand clothing platforms like Vinted really?
Article including Jasmien’s expert opinion in Belgian magazine Knack Weekend, written by Merel Thiers
Online second-hand clothing platforms such as Vinted, Vestiaire Collective and Depop have seen explosive growth in the last year. The benefits are many: you make room in your overflowing closet while giving items a second life and earning money on the side. But are the platforms as sustainable as they like to make out?
Vintage has long since shed its dusty image, but the second-hand clothing market seems to be booming like never before. According to large-scale research by online secondhand store thredUP, the secondhand market will double in size by 2025, meaning that it is growing eleven times faster than the regular clothing market. Online resale platforms, where you can buy or sell second-hand clothing, are meanwhile mushrooming. The online second-hand platform Vinted is the unsurpassed front runner in our country. The Lithuanian company settled in Belgium in 2018 and can now count on more than a million Belgian users.
Larger chains are not letting the second-hand trend pass them by and are jumping on the bandwagon by setting up their own second-hand platforms. Zalando, for example, expanded its offer with a “pre-owned collection” and H&M launched its second-hand fashion platform “Sellpy” at the beginning of June. In both cases, the platforms largely take care of the sales, while the users simply send the clothes. At Zalando you can exchange your credit for a Zalando gift card or donate it to charity, while from Sellpy you get a percentage of the proceeds.
Two sides of the coin
The benefits of second-hand clothing platforms seem to be self-evident: you make room in your overflowing closet and give items a second life while still earning something yourself. In other words, you bring clothes back into circulation instead of throwing them away or letting them gather dust in your closet. On the other hand, buying a second-hand garment is also good for your wallet. According to sustainable fashion platform COSH, in addition to saving money, you also save an average of 1 kilogram of waste, 3040 liters of water and 22 kilograms of CO2. The second-hand platforms are happy to play their part in the evolution towards a more sustainable, circular clothing industry.
Yet critics question this sustainable role. Business of Fashion writes that resale platforms may just be fueling “binge shopping,” by providing a market for quickly discarded items. Melissa Watt – ethical fashion journalist and author of “Not What It Seams,” a newsletter on fashion and sustainability – also believes that resale platforms mimic the fast fashion cycle. After all, the model is equally dependent on a constant influx of new items, most of which are barely worn. This is also evident on Vinted, where most items are sold under the label “unused without a price tag” or “little used. According to Watt, users wear a garment once or twice and resell it, after which other members buy the trendy pieces for a fraction of the original price. ‘This way it is easy to get caught up in an endless treadmill of trends. In other words, online reselling can unintentionally feed our disposable relationship with clothing,’ she writes.
Hilde van Duijn, an expert in the field of sustainable textiles, fears that the second-hand platforms will be used by chains as an excuse to ‘consume even more cheap clothes with a clear conscience’, she told de Volkskrant. Fast fashion chains like H&M and Zalando seem to offer their customers a ‘guilt free’ alternative: a golden mean between fast fashion and real awareness, which still binds the consumer to them.
According to Jasmien Wynants, sustainable fashion expert at Flanders DC, the issue is twofold: ‘If you can give something a second or third life – whether through second-hand sales, swapping, swishing or swapping – then you extend the life of that garment, of the energy and of the raw materials that were needed to produce it. So you are always reducing your impact on the environment when you resell a garment instead of throwing it away. But if it is an excuse to just buy something, wear it once, and resell it, then you can question its sustainability as a whole. However, it is not that simple to find out those motivations’.
Consumer also responsible
Marie-Julie De Bruyne is a PhD researcher at Ghent University and studies customer engagement in the circular economy. She agrees that the question requires even more research, but emphasizes the role of the consumer, in addition to that of the companies themselves: ‘We need much more than just the value chain to be as sustainable as possible. In the case of resale platforms, where users are not only consumers but also sellers, the user plays a crucial role to effectively achieve the sustainability objective’.
De Bruyne states that according to research, the economic benefits in clothing alternatives are still the main motivator for most consumers. ‘If they then buy second-hand at a slightly lower price, consumers naturally have more money available to possibly buy more. Then you see that the intention of giving a second life to one garment, might be giving life to several new garments, which negates the positive effect. Also, if you buy a lot of second-hand clothes but quickly throw them away and don’t bring them back into the circle, there is a limit to sustainability’.
According to research by Vestiaire Collective, second-hand platform for luxury goods, buying new items was found to be the main driver for thirty percent of sellers. Similarly, The RealReal, also a luxury second-hand platform, indicates that the majority of their sellers use their commission to store in the regular clothing market. With models like Zalando’s, where you get a Zalando gift card in exchange for your discarded garments, one can wonder to what extent that will lead to the purchase of a new item on the webshop, rather than a second-hand one. Jacintha De Graaf, head of Zalando Benelux, says of their pre-loved collection, “We know that our customers like to make sustainable choices and exchange items they no longer wear to make way for something new.
So what should we look for in resale platforms? After all, according to a recent Finnish study, reselling clothes is still the most sustainable option, compared to other alternative options like recycling or renting clothes. It seems that, as consumers, we should be especially aware of our own motives and where we (re)invest our money. ‘Of course it is still best to buy less but more qualitative and take care of your clothes,’ says Jasmien Wynants. After that it is best to give your clothes a second life in your own environment, through acquaintances or Swishing exchange events for example. That way you keep the chain short and you don’t need a middle man or extra transport.
Niki de Schryver, founder of sustainable fashion platform COSH! agrees: ‘Vinted is actually a spin-off from a transport company. That transport of course has CO2 emissions, and a big disadvantage is that before the sale you don’t know how far the garment will eventually go’. COSH! developed a step-by-step plan that helps you make choices when donating or selling clothing. Via their overview of recognized clothing and textile collection points, you know where your donated clothes will end up or at which local second-hand sales points you can resell your clothes.
Concrete tips for sustainable second-hand shopping:
Go through your closet again and ask yourself how you can wear or combine certain items in a new way. Can you still repair, adjust or upcycle the item? If you really want to get rid of it, first ask yourself if someone in your environment would like to take it over.
Do not buy an item just because it is second hand or cheap, but think carefully about what you buy. Most platforms allow you to save items, giving you another night to think about them.
Pay attention to the location of the seller and buy as locally as possible. You can specifically track sellers in your area and even meet in person to eliminate transportation.
Ask for measurements of the garment to avoid unnecessary returns. One brand’s M is not another brand’s M. As a seller, you can take on-the-fly photos and list your measurements so buyers can better judge how a garment will look on them.
Read a seller’s reviews to avoid scams and other woes. Beware, for example, of drop-shippers: sellers who resell new products, often from Asian webshops such as Shein and AlieExpress. The products are often fake and anything but durable.
On many platforms you can already enter filters such as sizes and brands for the items that appear in your overview. If you are looking for a specific item, you can enter search filters. The result: less aimless scrolling and a lower risk of impulse purchases.
At Vinted you can indicate Homerr as a shipping option. Homerr uses collection points and existing routes of logistics service providers. It sometimes takes a little longer for your package to arrive, but it is much more sustainable.