Fashion

2020 Was a Big Year for Old Clothes: How Vintage, Secondhand, and Upcycling Took Off

“The opportunities we can create in this space with technology and data are unlimited,” Farfetch’s Belloli adds. “I see this becoming more relevant and important, and it will be a bigger part of every brand’s business. We’re already seeing it in other markets, like the car industry. Brands need to start to see more value in what they’ve already sold.”

A word of caution: Maxine Bédat of the New Standard Institute, a think tank focused on fashion’s footprint, worries that the terms circular, secondhand, and upcycling are already being misused by brands engaging in blatant green-washing, just like sustainability has been. Using deadstock cotton isn’t upcycling, for instance—it’s just using a pre-existing fabric—but plenty of designers will tell you it is. NSI has cited research that we actually consume more when we believe something is recycled or billed as “circular.” The projected growth in the market (read it again: $64 billion) will only make brands more eager to jump on the movement and create flashy marketing campaigns around their efforts.

“I love that secondhand has become not just accessible, but cool,” Bédat says. “When I traveled to Accra, Ghana, to visit the secondhand markets, the people there were truly some of the best-dressed I have ever met. Many are buying secondhand there because they want things that are unique. It’s terrific that more people are waking up to this concept, and that brands are getting in on it and finding a way to adjust their business models. Having said that, we can’t just ignore the research that has found that recycling symbols lead to more consumption… In order for us to actually curb our impact, it has to be [implemented as] a shift in the business model, and not just an additional revenue stream.”

That shift would require some other big changes, including potentially creating less new product. Promoting circularity doesn’t really gel with nonstop new arrivals, and a “fewer, better” approach could lead to more luxurious, higher-quality items that retain their value and enjoy longer lifespans. This year, nearly every designer spoke of a desire to commit to sustainability, produce less, and design only what they believe in—ideas that sound great on paper, but may not be easy to implement IRL in a business based on growth. These are radical changes that would demand new bottom lines and KPIs, with a focus on longevity, resilience, and environmental impact rather than short-term profits. Let’s hope 2021 pushes the conversion beyond words and into action.


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