Not so long ago, buying second hand was seen as a last resort. Charity shops were there for the people who really needed them – though there have always been bargain hunters who love seeking out gems amidst the faded tea sets and battered copies of The Da Vinci Code. The only time buying second hand had any sort of glamour attached to it was when you were ‘going vintage’ or shopping for antiques.
Things have changed. We’re now starting to see that buying second hand benefits more than just our wallets; it’s a way for us all to do our bit for the environment. Buying second hand means things get used for longer. There’s less production, and therefore less waste.
Looking at the clothing industry, “if it continues on its current path, by 2050, textiles production will use over 1/4 of the carbon budget for 2°C global warming,” comments Charlotte Morley, founder of children’s clothing rental company thelittleloop. “However, doubling average garment wears would reduce GHG emissions by 44%.”
As Morley points out, the UK’s annual cost to send textiles to landfill is around £82 million, while the global fashion industry could unlock $150 billion by encouraging the reuse of products at scale. Her vertical is childrenswear, which is ideally suited to the reuse model given the speed with which children outgrow their clothes (staggeringly, the average child grows out of over 1,000 items of clothing before they reach adulthood). Second hand clothing is particularly popular among parents, 30% of whom have simply thrown away children’s clothes.
Morley’s rental marketplace addresses the fact that second hand children’s clothing can be difficult to source, typically taking place at a local level in a limited capacity, such as on Facebook Marketplace or eBay. Instead, thelittleloop offers a subscription model that makes it possible to scale up second hand childrenswear into a viable business model.
“Working on a share of revenue basis with the clothing brands, who are also provided with data on clothing performance, ensures they take responsibility for the durability and circular potential of their products,” explains Morley. “And a unique system for valuing garments by their age and condition means garments can be kept in circulation for as long as they are wearable.”
So this is second hand many times over (or third, fourth or fifth hand!) through rental, facilitated through careful management and centralised ownership.
Buying second hand increases the lifespan and the reuse of products – two big ticks for the circular economy (a system that aims to keep products in circulation for as long as possible and eliminate waste). As an operator in circular economy, it’s important to flag that it’s not about reducing consumerism in a blanket fashion; it’s human nature to covet new things, and that will never change. It’s about getting those things from the right kind of companies, so that those scaling wants are not a problem. Sustainable companies. Companies that operate in the circular economy.
Second hand business models that work
There are numerous companies out there proving that second hand works. Furniture company Vitsoe, for instance, provides spare parts to allow their furniture to be fixed free of charge, even to second, third or fourth owners – and they keep their high-quality pieces in play for years, so they remain current. This supports a second hand market that’s independent to their business, winning loyalty and love, although not adding directly to their bottom line.
In the fashion space, Nudie Jeans runs a take-back scheme for jeans for when you’re done with them or they need refurbishing, and also does popular second hand drops on their website. Denim is known for its second hand appeal anyway, but it also opens up the brand to a new market who perhaps can’t stretch to the price tag of a brand new pair.
Over in the tech vertical, pre-owned tech store Relove Technology tackles the issue of e-waste head on at a time when it’s generated at a rate equivalent to dumping 9,023 phones every second. Paul Crossman, founder of Relove Technology, comments: “As smartphone prices have continued to rise, eventually hitting and exceeding the £1,000 mark, behaviour has started to change. Secondhand sales, as a result, have started to take off, and it’s the fastest growing marketplace within mobile.”
Indeed, 10% of the 24 million smartphones sales in 2018 were secondhand devices, and that’s forecast to rise 7% year on year. But there’s a challenge: rapid growth has created issues around the questions of quality and trust. “Consumers have had varying experiences of buying second hand with no real accountability from the various vendors that have sprung up on marketplaces like Amazon and eBay,” Crossman told me. “Many items were either faulty, stolen, counterfeit or simply not as described.”
That’s the raison d’etre for Relove Technology: to be the trusted source for buying second hand and refurbished devices, each one of them data wiped, vetted and tested before being sold on with a fresh 12-month warranty and a 30-day no quibble guarantee.
“We are a socially responsible company and we actively reduce the impact of e-waste on our planet, but also reinvest our profits back into the community to drive social change,” Crossman says. “We want secondhand to be the new norm, where we extend the product lifecycle, encourage multiple ownership and get the manufacturers to support better support to extend end of life. This will dilute carbon emissions, reduce demand on valuable resources and reduce the growing problem of e-waste.”
A consumer perspective
Of course, it’s all very well companies having the right ideas about offering more sustainable choices in the form of second hand products, but these good intentions only have an impact if they’re in line with consumer behaviour. Second hand certainly raises questions. Can you trust the seller? Will it be as described? Will you be able to return it? I asked Antonia Timpany – founder of pre-loved luxury fashion company Timpanys, for an insight into the minds of her customers.
“Once you’ve dipped your toe in the second hand pool a few times, you’ll be wanting to swim in it forever,” she told me. “Welcome to guilt-free consumption as you reduce your personal impact on the earth and on your fellow humans. Whether it’s finding the perfect item at a price you think ‘that must be wrong’ or squeezing some extra equity out of an item that you haven’t used for a while, it is just fantastically, addictively, fun.”
So, from the raft of bricks and mortar second hand and vintage stores, to established sites like eBay and Gumtree, to the newer kids on the block – the companies operating in the circular economy – consumers do have options, whether they’re after clothes, tech, furniture or anything else. And initiatives to encourage second hand, such as Oxfam’s Second Hand September, also help to nudge things along.
As the outdated reputation of second hand being second best is gradually shed, relevant industries should rise to the challenge of supporting preloved sales and second hand markets for their products – and let’s embrace a new name too – “recommerce” sounds so much more appealing than second hand! And small details like the name may make all the difference in changing consumer mindsets (there is still a fair way to go). Ask yourself whether you would feel comfortable buying someone a gift that was second hand?
The Government should also do their bit, too. Scrapping the payment of VAT on second hand items (or should I say, on recommerce) would be an excellent first step, serving both to drive businesses into this area and to incentivise customers to buy second hand. In the future, I’d love to see them going even further and offering business grants and incentives to support businesses in this space. But one thing at a time…