The marketplace Etsy has just ponied up 1.6 billion dollars to buy Depop, the British application specialized in second-hand clothes, which has become an essential app among Gen Z. This generation is drawn to second-hand clothing for its budget-friendly prices, but also because it corresponds to their concerns and commitments in terms of the environment, as Florence de Ferran, a professor and researcher in management sciences at the University of La Rochelle, explains.
Why are consumers turning to second-hand on a massive scale?
I wouldn't say they're turning to second-hand on a massive scale. There are indeed several variables that have facilitated the growth of certain types of second-hand commerce. Vinted, for example, is a site that people have been talking a lot about lately. But second-hand is much broader than that. It's not just on apps or websites. It has existed for a long time through flea markets or other places where people buy second-hand products. It has simply evolved over the last 15 years, especially with the sociological demographic referred to as hipsters, looking for vintage products. This enthusiasm for second-hand goods is not new. For the last two or three years, another demographic, namely young people, have seized on this type of consumption because of environmental concerns. There has been an evolution, because they are now buying second-hand clothes and other products for two reasons: it's smart from a budgetary point of view, and it's better for the planet. It's a different approach. They don't go to flea markets; for them it's more about using apps and websites to buy these second-hand products. These days it's become emblematic for clothing and for everything that is electronic equipment.
What are the main reasons for consumers choosing to buy second-hand?
The budgetary aspect, i.e., saving money, takes prominence over all else. Most young people buy second-hand because it's a good deal, because it's affordable, because they don't see the point of paying 20% more for a new garment. The financial aspect clearly comes into play. But others also do it because it addresses their environmental concerns. It's quite a major trend among the younger generations.
Is buying fast fashion on second-hand e-commerce sites really better for the environment?
Every individual, whoever they are, has their own contradictions. Oftentimes -- and probably even more frequently when we are young -- we don't necessarily think about all the implications of our behavior and we often stop at rather basic rationalizations. I don't know if this generation really buys fast fashion on second-hand websites, but in any case, there are indeed questions that they aren't asking themselves. They aren't necessarily asking themselves, for example, about the fact that buying on Vinted implies a series of logistics, sometimes for just one item of clothing; which is extremely polluting compared to a store where logistics are pooled for many items.
Doesn't this type of second-hand purchasing encourage over-consumption?
It depends, there are several cases. If you have low purchasing power, I'm not sure that you will end up buying more. But there is also the idea of buying to resell, so there is a circular process that makes you spend and earn at the same time. The result is that a person can indeed buy at their leisure. But I feel like it's a phenomenon that's fairly short-lived, because it takes work and long-term investment. I think it's something that may be done compulsively but over a period of time that is relatively limited. It is a specific type of behavior, however, which does not affect all consumers.
In recent months, there's been much talk in the fashion world about second-hand, but also about upcycling, renting clothes, or "returnable" garments. What is the best choice to reduce the sector's impact on the environment?
This is an extremely large question, because we must first ask ourselves if it is a question of reducing our pollution on the environment, or a dimension of our pollution that is the carbon footprint. We must answer this question in order to know which axis it's possible to take action with. We must then investigate each of the areas of our consumption and arbitrate according to those that are the most costly compared to others. If we want to limit our carbon footprint, which is the most talked-about indicator today, we have to focus our attention on transportation because it is the most polluting for an average consumer. In this case, it is therefore a question of reducing our use of transports, but also of reducing the amount of transportation used by the goods we buy: consume locally, favor the train for travelling over the plane, etc. This is the first aspect which we can adjust to reduce this carbon footprint.
Will clothing that is responsibly sourced, ethical and sustainable ever be accessible to a majority of people?
Consumption is totally unequal right now. Consumer choices vary greatly according to purchasing power, that's obvious. It is possible to have access to a small quantity of responsible consumer choices when it comes to food even on a tight budget, but on processed products, such as textiles, it is clearly more complicated and not very accessible. There is, however, one thing in our society that we have lost sight of: and that is knowing what a price really represents. For a long time, we believed that good quality products at low prices could exist, but this is false because there is always an actor in the production chain who pays the price. In reality, if you want a responsible product, or one with a social or environmental quality, it necessarily comes at a certain price. While it may be a fair price, some people will think that it's expensive. Except that we, as consumers, have forgotten what a fair price is, because we have been used to a consumer society where everything was accessible without worrying about these values. Of course this creates frustration now for some people who do not have the means to have access to these kinds of products.
Do you think it's possible to envision second-hand stores one day replacing traditional stores?
It's not at all in the realm of the impossible. I think that if Vinted opened a store in Paris, it would definitely work. What is certain is that the circular economy is becoming more and more widespread, and that things will develop around these concepts.
This interview has been translated from French.