Beyond Consignment: The Inherent Goodness of Fashion’s Circular Economy

sign for vintage clothing market - consignment and fashion's circular economy

As we mature into financially independent beings, we develop an attraction (of varying degrees) to clothing. 

Most of us grew up wearing hand-me-downs, a reasonable and time honoured practice of parents around the world. Those of us with a lot of older siblings and locally situated cousins could not expect to sport the latest trends throughout our childhood. As an adult, excitement around a new piece for your wardrobe reflects the celebration of choice. 

You alone are the agent of your appearance. You might purchase a new piece because you like nice things OR because you simply need to replace something worn out or outgrown and you’re better able to afford to to buy what you like. Today, the way we grow our wardrobe is not the same way our parents grew theirs. 

The Value of Fashion Through History 

The value of a garment was very high in the ages of a much slower turning fashion trend wheel. Given the labour and financial costs of producing an article of clothing in the Middle Ages—sourcing and refining fibres to produce usable material—families would pass on a such a valuable item from generation to generation, repairing as needed, until it was no longer feasible or the garment simply fell into irreparable pieces. 

Along came the Industrial Revolution with all its automation, cheap labour and lack of workers’ rights. Fabric mills ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week year round. Suddenly, cloth making became much more affordable and, consequently, so did its end product. At the same time, thanks to increased trade and commerce with other nations, the world began to experience the phenomena of fashion trends. Foreign tastes and domestic politics began to exert influence on how people could and wished to present themselves. 

In the face of today’s global environmental crisis, finding second, third, and even more lives for each piece of clothing produced is critical to the greener way forward. 

Today’s Fashion Economy 

McKinsey & Company estimates that just last year alone, an estimated 100 billion garments were produced worldwide. 
“Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits.”
- Ellen  MacArthur Foundation
Enter the retail clothing players who fuel fashion’s circular economy: firsthand buyers who purchase new pieces from big name clothing retail franchises and boutiques, secondhand buyers who purchase from secondhand outlets and donation recipients, be they family members or consumers via charity organizations. 

Consignment stores and thrift shops are two very different animals. Retail Insider lays out the difference: consignment stores sell clothing items on behalf of the original owner, who receives a percentage of the selling price; thrift shops rely on donations from their surrounding community and were designed to service that community’s members in need. Using low prices to generate sales, the thrift store game is all about helping to clothe the poor and/or homeless for a small price while the proceeds are passed on to a specified charity. 

Firsthand buyers feed the the consignment clothing industry, which feeds secondhand buyers and subsidizes original buyers’ clothing budgets. Consignment passes its rejects to donation sites: shelters, community closet programs and textile recycling facilities. 

In this process, the firsthand buyer receives incentive to spend again, thus driving the economy. The secondhand buyer and the donation recipient experience a better quality of life as well, by way of having the right clothing to open otherwise inaccessible professional doors and have personal goals satisfied. This garment recycling process diverts clothing from landfills too. 

Textile Recycling 

textiles with geometric pattern - consignment and fashion's circular economy

The numbers are staggering: Small Business reports that the textile industry has grown to a nearly $1 trillion industry globally. 

Textile recycling processes old clothing and other textiles as well as scrap created by yarn and fabric manufacture. The United States’ EPA reported that in 2018, textiles accounted for around 17 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in that country, almost 6% of total MSW generation. 

Clearly, textile recycling through any means is a critical pillar of an economic system based on waste elimination and weaning itself off of raw resource dependence. 

The Rise of Resale 

Vogue reported that in 2020 “[f]ashion spending plummeted a record 79% in April, early on in the pandemic,” as people no longer had to update their work and socializing wardrobes. Covid-19 has become perhaps the largest contributing factor to the fashion world sales slump. Secondhand sales industry reporting giant thredUP has predicted that the clothing resale market will overtake the traditional thrift and donation segment by 2024 with a share increase of 36% over 6 years starting in 2019, from $7 billion of the $28 billion annual sales to $36 billion of $64 billion annual sales, more than half.
“The next normal has started to emerge, with consumers indicating they will adopt long-term behavioral changes that will last beyond Covid.” – Kinsey & Company

Vintage clothing stores, an offshoot of the charity shop circuit, have established a glamorous niche in the used clothing market. They just don’t make clothes like they used to. These classic pieces have panache and durability not seen in today’s fast fashion. Between the vintage scene and the upscale consignment market, style mavens and fashion influencers are revelling in their newly widened hunting grounds.

Consignment clothing shopping has gained dramatically increased social acceptance as a fun way for pennywise and well-heeled fashionistas to contribute to our greener future, with thredUp sharing its data that 2 out of 3 people who have never sold their clothing now reporting that they are open to it. 

It is de rigueur to care these days. If you can save some money and/or make some money while saving the planet, why not? Thanks to the likes of Marie Kondo and other gurus of the decluttering craze, the trend of divvying one’s wardrobe into “Keep, Consign, Donate” piles has further augmented the supply for secondhand retailers and consumers alike. 

Job creation is a natural result of second life industry growth. In 2020, the North American apparel, fashion, and beauty industries generated approximately $600 billion in annual revenue and employed more than four million people. Original purchase fashion retail stores, consignment shop, and vintage markets in Canada reported sales of $2,542,673,000 while employing 259,560 workers in that same year. Picker facilities and textile recycling plants would add to that employment figure in the same time period, and all of this in the face of a pandemic and lockdowns. 

All indicators point to a secondhand way forward. Consumers can afford to take care of their own well-being (physical and mental/emotional), parents can clothe children, and, on a global scale of self-improvement, so much can be diverted from landfills, all while employing millions of people. 
Stigma has been replaced by acceptance and even admiration for a sweet score from the used clothing world. Once regarded as a signifier of failure, shopping “previously owned” is a lauded practice. May it remain so.

By Jane Thornton

Feature image: Garry Knight; Image 1: Trang Nguyen