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Secondhand vs. Goliath: A Historical Look at Hand-Me-Downs

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

The history of recycling clothing goes waaay back. What can the past teach us in 2022?

During our first pregnancy, my wife and I quickly learned what an expensive venture it would be. After pricing cribs, baby carriers, and baby accouterment (clothing, bottles, mobiles, stuffed animals, books, toys), we realized our combined paychecks wouldn’t cover much.

Recognizing this, we got thrifty. We scoured yard sales, visited thrift stores, and graciously accepted hand-me-downs from friends and coworkers. When Jordan finally arrived, most of the stuff we had assembled for him was secondhand.

That was in the early 2000s when secondhand fashion was still the purview of college students and the poor. Two decades later—after a never-ending Great Recession, a global pandemic, and a growing awareness about climate change—it is a $14 billion industry. Nowadays, when I pass by a local thrift store, I regularly see expensive cars intermixed with the more affordable ones the rest of us drive.

How did secondhand fashion become so fashionable?

Waste not, want not

According to archaeologists, early humans’ wardrobes consisted of leaves, grass, bones, and colorful shells. With improvements in weapons and hunting techniques, they eventually shifted to fur and leather. Sewing needles appeared about 30,000 years ago. Carved out of bone, these needles enabled humans to stitch hides of leather and fur together, creating tunics, dresses, and other kinds of clothing with complicated patterns.

Following advancements in weaving and spinning, wool, flax, silk, linen, and similar fabric types became available. And tending to all that fabric were teams of tailors and seamstresses who cut, sewed, and stitched by hand. The process was time-consuming and expensive, but it produced well-made clothing handed down from one generation to the next. If something wore out, it was repurposed again and again. When it became too threadbare, it still had worth as stuffing for chairs and mattresses. Nothing went to waste.

By the Middle Ages, recycling clothing was a full-blown industry, with scores of tradespeople making the worn-out new again. But cloth was still expensive, so all levels of society continued wearing and giving away secondhand clothing. In truth, clothing didn’t become affordable until around World War II with the development of synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, and spandex. That’s when mass-produced and cheap clothing began filling our closets and drawers.

Bill of materials

Clothing is so cheap that the average American discards 82 pounds of it annually. Some discards (about 11 pounds or 13 percent) are recycled and may end up in secondhand stores; the remainder is landfilled or incinerated. By themselves, these statistics are humbling. But when paired with others from the fashion industry, they demonstrate just how unsustainable the sector has become. To get a better idea, let’s examine one aspect of its bill of materials.

Every year, we produce 100 million items of clothing. To make all that material, we expend around 100 million tonnes of resources to grow the crops, manufacture the fibers, dyes, and clothing, and transport them between each step. Those crops and dyes gobble up vast amounts of freshwater, upwards of 25 billion gallons, much of which ends up polluted with fertilizers, pesticides, and chemicals from manufacturing. And what about those colorful, long-lasting synthetic fibers? They siphon about a billion barrels of oil annually. All told, 10 percent of global carbon emissions are attributed to this industry alone, second only to the oil and gas sector.

Media from Wix

These numbers are shocking, but they also push our comprehension. A billion of anything is unintelligible, much less 25 billion. To make them more conceivable, I’ll compare them to something simpler: a humble t-shirt and an unassuming pair of jeans. So, what’s the environmental price tag for these two items?

T-shirt – 715 gallons of water; 15 pounds of carbon dioxide

Jeans – 1,800 gallons of water; 74 pounds of carbon dioxide

Seventy-four pounds sounds like a lot. Ever wondered what just 1 pound of carbon dioxide looks like?

The first thrifts

In 1897 the Salvation Army created the first thrift store in the US. Working out of the basement of a men’s shelter, its “salvage brigade”—shelter residents who plied the streets with carts, asking for clothing and other castoffs—gathered the store’s inventory. The concept took root, and in time more stores appeared in cities large and small across the country. Originally established to underwrite the Army’s mission work, the thrift stores accounted for half of its annual revenues by the 1930s. Goodwill followed suit in 1902, and within 20 years, it had a thousand-truck fleet transporting its inventory.

Another kind of thrift store appeared in the 1950s: the consignment store. Rather than taking in all types of clothing, consignment stores were more demanding and selective, their decisions heavily influenced by their store’s theme and clientele. Given their exclusivity, they appealed to the more affluent, who were willing to pay for one-of-a-kind garments. Near the end of the 20th century, thrift stores like eBay and Craigslist became available, giving people access to millions of secondhand deals. Since then, apps like threadUp, Depop, and Flyp have simplified the process of thrifting even further.

Secondhand benefits

It’s no wonder then that secondhand shopping has grown in popularity. Motivated to save money, be sustainable, or find great deals or unique one-offs, US shoppers rank thrift stores as their third preference, after department stores and apparel stores. This might explain why 41 percent of consumers start with secondhand when shopping for apparel. Among Generation Z and Millennial shoppers, that number jumps to 62 percent.

Environmentally, it’s a positive. The average American wears a piece of clothing only seven to 10 times before discarding it. If, however, they wore that item several more times, its carbon footprint would decrease. Or they can donate it, extending the item’s usefulness indefinitely and diminishing its environmental toll.

Rack of secondhand clothing by tables of thrift goods
Media from Wix

That certainly wasn’t on our minds in the months leading up to Jordan’s birth. Money was tight, so we listed our priorities and decided what had to be new. Everything else came from someone’s backroom or basement, a yard sale, or a thrift store.

Some of it was junk, like the collapsible stroller from hell—already a couple of decades old judging by its condition and smell. Appearances aside, it was a pain to open and a supermassive @#$*& to collapse again. There were also gems, like the bouncy infant seat and the many, many, many books and clothes.

We thought we were being clever. Who knew we were also being environmentally conscious?

Further reading

Blakemore, Erin. “How Thrift Stores Were Born.” JSTOR Daily, October 16, 2017.

Ethitude. “A Little History of Second Hand Clothes.” Medium, January 19, 2017.

History of Second Hand Thrift Shopping.” Trvst, September 9, 2021.

Resale Report, 2022.” threadUp, 2022.

Updated: How Thrifting Is Helping the Environment.” Thrift World, November 24, 2021.

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