Second hand is the new fast fashion — used clothes can increase consumption

Second hand is the new fast fashion — used clothes can increase consumption


At best, used clothes are the most ecological option, but at worst they maintain the fast circulation and overconsumption of fashion.

The second-hand clothing market is growing at a dizzying speed. In recent years, Internet shops and brick-and-mortar stores dedicated to selling used clothes have been popping up left and right.

And it’s no wonder. For consumers, second-hand clothes are more desirable than ever. More and more people strive to make responsible purchase decisions—and that’s what a used piece of clothing is, right?

Buying an already existing piece of clothing and extending its life cycle is surely a better choice for the environment than buying a new piece of clothing.

However, there is always a but.

Used clothes come with some problems as well. The second-hand market isn’t univocally good or bad; rather, it ties into the current clothing industry and our consumption habits.

Ideally, second hand means that people buy a good quality piece of clothing when they actually need it and wear it for a long time, repairing it when needed.

In the worst situation, it means impulse buying and clothes of poor quality that haven’t even been made to last for a long time. The clothes may still even have their tags attached as it’s so easy to resell spontaneous purchases.

The latter scenario isn’t a much better alternative than the new fast fashion.

At worst, second hand can increase the sales of new clothes

More and more companies have detected the potential of used clothes. In addition, many traditional clothing store chains have started to include them in their selection.

However, for most of the clothing store chains second hand is just about keeping up appearances. Especially for fast fashion companies, used clothes don’t have an economically significant role; rather, the revenue derives from selling new clothes now and in the future.

Even though many fast fashion companies paint a picture of contributing to circular economy and offer used clothes alongside new ones, there are no changes to be seen in their business model.
Rather, used clothes can be seen as an opportunity to maintain the fast circulation of clothes: when it’s easy to recirculate old clothes, it gives the customers a clear conscience and also a good reason to buy more new clothes.

Furthermore, by selling used clothes companies can also create an impression of being interested in responsibility and being environmentally friendly.

Used clothes may end up in Ghana’s nature

Even though used clothes are sold and used especially in the Global North, in the end a notable amount of old clothes still makes its way from the collection box of used clothes to the other side of the world.

For example, only 7% of clothes donated to Nordic charity organization UFF are sold in UFF’s own stores. Most donations are sold wholesale to other countries.

Very few clothing store chains or charity organizations give precise information on where the clothes donated to them eventually end up. A telltale sign of how difficult it is to get information is that the investigative journalism unit of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) and the Swedish Aftonbladet newspaper have followed the journey of clothes from Finland and Sweden with trackers. Some of these investigated clothes have ended up all the way in Africa.

One of the epicentres of used clothes is indeed located in Ghana on the West African coast.
In Ghana’s capital Accra, fifteen million pieces of clothing are sorted through weekly at the biggest market of used clothes, and 40% of these clothes are directly discarded as waste.

At the moment, sellers of used clothes in Ghana don’t get a sufficient income because costs are high and only a small portion of clothes sold in bales are good enough for resale. The rest winds up as textile waste.

The local waste management system can handle part of all textile waste but not all of it. As a result, most of the waste ends up in Accra’s surrounding nature and beaches where the masses of clothes easily become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, thereby increasing the risk of malaria. In addition, the enormous piles of clothes can destroy oceanic ecosystems, and they can get caught in the nets of local fishermen, thus impeding their livelihood.

Therefore, clothing donations made with good intentions in the Global North may in the end become a nuisance for the Global South.

The ginormous amount and poor quality of used textiles is a big problem. If the quality was better and the amount smaller, the second-hand sellers in Ghana could make a better living with their sales, and the unusable clothes wouldn’t end up destroying the local environment.

Mere recycling isn’t a solution to massive overproduction

The circulation of used clothes and the recycling ecosystem need to be developed so that the life cycle of clothes can be extended and the recycling rate increased.
However, recycling alone won’t solve the fundamental problem of the clothing industry.

As long as new clothes are produced at an increasing rate, the amount of textile waste won’t decrease. And the second-hand mania and the increasing consumption of used clothes won’t solve the waste problem of the clothing industry.

Most of the used clothes won’t continue their life with a new owner; instead, they will end up being a nuisance for the people and the environment in our own country or on the other side of the world.

For this reason, solving the root cause itself is key: decreasing the production of clothes and investing in the design and use of high-quality, long-lasting products.

We need to double down on breaking the consumption cycle

The consumption of second hand clothes has started to follow the same pattern as the consumption behaviour stemming from fast fashion: the uniqueness of used clothes creates a sense of urgency, and the cheap prices are comparable to the clearances of the clothing store chains. The clothes may only be worn a few times and feel irrelevant after that.

The quick turnover of fashion trends and the desire for renewal maintain the consumption cycle, whether it’s about buying new clothes or choosing used clothes.

Therefore, buying and selling used clothes isn’t automatically sustainable, but we can develop it into a more viable system. We can do this by making more mindful selling and consumption choices ourselves, and we can also demand that the companies operating in the industry make much more extensive changes in their business models than what they are making currently, for example, by increasing the amount of concrete circular economy actions.

It all boils down to this: second-hand clothes must replace the production of new clothes, not increase it.

Our recommendations

Recommendations for individuals

  • Consider your purchases carefully, no matter whether you’re buying new or used products.

  • Tell your favourite clothing brand that you would like to buy circular economy services such as repair or maintenance services from them instead of new clothes.

  • Ask companies and organizations where donated clothes end up; you can find a message template at the bottom of the page.

  • Contribute to changing the structures of the clothing industry by becoming a member of Eetti.


Recommendations for companies

  • Invest more in the durability and quality of clothes in design, production, and marketing.
  • Set a clear target for how to increase the share of circular economy services of turnover.


Recommendations for policy makers

  • The Corporate Responsibility Directive: The EU and Finland must promote the introduction of the EU’s Corporate Responsibility Directive into the national legislation as extensively as possible.

  • The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles: Finland and the EU must promote the actions of the strategy in a way where the focus is on preventing waste generation, decreasing production, and extending the life cycle of products, and that takes into consideration the principles of just transition.

Request information on the final disposal of donations

If you’re planning to donate your own clothes to a company, a clothing store chain or an organization, ask first where the clothes will wind up. The best option would be that a piece of clothing will be reused as such and as close as possible instead of ending up as problematic textile waste in the Global South.

Here’s a message template that you can use as such or edit as appropriate:

Message template: Where do my used clothes end up?


I would like to know where my old, usable clothes end up when I donate them to you.

How high is the percentage of used clothes recycled through your organization that end up being reused as such (including clothes circulated through wholesale)?

How high is the percentage of used clothes recycled through your organization that are exported (directly or through European wholesalers) to

  • Asia
  • Africa
  • other areas/countries outside of Europe?

Thank you for the information!

Best regards,


This article has been produced with the support of Kone Foundation.

Logo: Koneen Säätiö