Business is booming for both Shein and secondhand retailers. The link? We’re addicted to buying clothes for nothing, writes Anna Moloney
Over the past year, a story of two halves has emerged in the fashion retail world: the rise of ultra cheap, ethically dubious fast fashion and the success of sustainably-minded secondhand fashion. Trends which, on the surface at least, seem inharmonious.
Chinese fast fashion giant Shein boasts prices that make the likes of Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing seem upmarket and has quickly become one of the biggest global players in the fashion world. This week, the retailer filed paperwork in the US for what has been slated as a “mega IPO”, one of the largest IPOs in years. Last year the firm was valued at $100bn, more than H&M and Zara combined. Known for aggressive marketing tactics and an extremely rapid production cycle (around 6,000 items are added to the site every day), plus a rather murky supply chain, the narrative, it seems, is clear: fast fashion is booming; consumers have put their ethical qualms behind them.
Yet, at the same time, the secondhand fashion market, known for celebrating a slower approach to shopping for the eco-conscious consumer, is also booming. Online resell platforms Vinted and Depop saw sales rise 51 per cent and eight per cent respectively last year, while Ebay said there was a 20 per cent year-on-year rise in secondhand fashion listings, largely attributed to its partnership with Love Island over the year. Even Amazon, not exactly known as a champion of sustainability, has started promoting the space. UK manager John Boumphrey yesterday said the retailer had a compelling economic incentive to promote the area; the secondhand market has generated over $1bn-worth of Amazon sales in the year so far.
Meanwhile the traditional players in the fast fashion market have been caught in the crosshairs: Boohoo’s profits halved in the last year, Asos’s share price plummeted 92 per cent over the last five years and plunging sales last year forced Missguided to the brink before it was swooped on first by Frasers Group and then by Shein itself. Fast fashion, we thought, was going out of style.
So, what’s going on? Perusing Depop or Vinted may give you a hint. While the missions of these platforms are undoubtedly converse to the likes of Shein, there is perhaps one key similarity: clothes going for pennies. Often they are the same clothes, with Vinted currently listing over 16m secondhand Shein items on its site, among millions and millions more from other mainstream fast fashion brands. Indeed, research shows consumers are not primarily motivated to buy secondhand because of its ethical credentials, they are motivated by cheap prices. Vinted says almost half its buyers use the platform due to affordability, while only 20 per cent are motivated by environmental concerns. Depop encourages lower prices, telling sellers higher-priced items are often left unsold.
The flood of fast fashion onto these platforms has raised some eyebrows. Vestiaire Collective, another giant in the online fashion resale space, is trying to remove all fast fashion, with clothing from Shein, Asos, Zara and 27 other fast fashion brands on their black list.
Others in the industry disagree with this approach. Justine Porterie, Depop’s director of sustainability, deemed it counterproductive to moving people towards circular fashion and said the approach would not be adopted by Depop, which sees secondhand fast fashion as an accessible and realistic entry point for most consumers.
Porterie’s argument is well justified. Buying secondhand fast fashion is better than buying it new and making fashion accessible, especially amid a cost of living crisis, is important. But there is a larger issue at play here: we have lost sight of what things should cost.
When a coat, which we should hope to wear for years, costs the same as a few pints on a passing Thursday, something has gone horribly wrong. There are many things to blame: ultrafast trend cycles encouraged by the likes of Tiktok and Instagram, the increased convenience of online shopping, the eroded worth of our pay packets. But we are also simply buying too many clothes – fast fashion, secondhand or otherwise. And this isn’t a comparison with long-gone generations, this is based on shopping habits a mere decade ago, with the average person buying 60 per cent more clothing than just 15 years ago, according to the UN.
For the generations before us, they were far more likely to make and mend their own wardrobes and they knew what went into producing clothes. Detached from supply chains, and certainly less able with a needle and thread, we’re addicted to cheap clothes, first or secondhand. As long as this is true, fast fashion will still be king.