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Rise of secondhand clothing and finding ethical charity shops for clothes

In this article we look at the recent rise in sales of secondhand and pre-loved clothing. 

We also look at how big fast fashion brands are trying to get in on this movement, and compare the top 7 charity shops that sell secondhand clothing.

Research for our new high street clothing guide found that the last two years has brought us the spectre of 'ultra-fast fashion' with new online brands like Shein adding upwards of 6,000 new clothing designs to their website each day. 

This is not exactly the solution to reducing carbon emissions we were hoping for. Our 2023 Climate Gap report suggested a 95% reduction in consumption emissions might be needed in developed economies by 2030. When you look at the main areas of consumption impact like home heating, transport, food, and household goods, it is difficult to imagine anything like that kind of contraction across everything evenly. 

But, a rapid upscaling of repair and re-use in clothing and household goods however is one way of bringing about significant de-growth. 

The good news is that we're seeing this happen.

A boom in secondhand clothing sales

One of the stand-out stats in our 2023 Ethical Markets report was the 49% rise last year in the amount spent on secondhand clothes. Other surveys have spotted the same thing. According to GlobalData's figures, the clothes resale market in the UK grew by 149% between 2016 and 2022. They forecast that it would grow by a further 68% between 2022 to 2026.

Some of this growth will be due to the ending of Covid-19 lockdowns and the consequent rise in charity shop sales. Some will also be due to a genuine change of behaviours. The Guardian reported that there were “signs that the popularity of fast fashion is on the wane”. 

The boom in pre-loved clothes has largely been driven by generation Z. The Guardian quote a research project by Boston Consulting Group and resale site Vestiaire in 2022 showed that this demographic of consumers was most likely to buy (31%) and sell (44%) secondhand items, with millennials close behind. Depop reports that 90% of active users are under the age of 26 and the hashtag ‘vintage’ has 28.7bn views on generation Z’s favourite app, TikTok.

Some of it will also be due to more suppliers and innovators entering the market.

In 2022, it was reported that eBay saw a 24% increase of circular fashion businesses join their site, and searches for pre-loved clothing on eBay UK skyrocketed 1,600% during that period. 

Charity shops also an 11% rise in sales in the three months to the end of September 2022, with Oxfam’s sales up 40% in the run-up to Christmas 2022. See below for a comparison of the Top 7 charity shops.

Our forthcoming ethical clothing guide looks at clothing resale websites for the first time, as well as the usual ethical innovators we have been featuring for years. 

Fast fashion brands cash in on secondhand clothing

Also entering the secondhand market in a slightly more disconcerting way are a range of fast fashion brands

In the last few years, companies including ASOS, Boohoo, H&M, PrettyLittleThing, Primark, Shein, and Zara have launched their own resale marketplaces and secondhand schemes. 

PrettyLittleThing’s platform, reGAIN, is described as “the app that allows you to turn your unwanted clothes into discounts to get cash off your next PrettyLittleThing purchase”. This acts as an incentive to buy more clothes, rather than slow down consumption, and signals to consumers that they shouldn’t feel bad because there’s an app where you can sell it on and it’s all secondhand and ethical don’t-you-know.

In a sense, moves by all companies into reuse and repair should be applauded because they can make important contributions to the rapid carbon reductions human societies need to make. And big corporations have the scale that could make a real impact quickly. However, cynically getting in on the secondhand market, while doing little to address the scale of overall production and the model of disposable clothing is not helping anyone. Companies might be able to greenwash consumers, but you can't trick the atmosphere into thinking it has less carbon than it has.

We need to see scale and ambition here with detailed targets for it to move beyond tokenism and greenwash.

The role of the inequality crisis

Of course, it is likely that much of the growth of interest in secondhand clothing is a result of the inequality crisis we are also living through. "Are you making an ethical choice when you have no choice?" may be an important question for philosophers, but the climate does not care.

And ethical fashion is not just about buying new, or even secondhand, clothes. Running and participating in clothes swaps, making your own clothes from scratch, upcycling, repairing, and renting – all these options are not only financially affordable, but they offer other benefits as well. They can lead to upskilling, building community connections, and greater appreciation around what it takes to make a piece of clothing.

Secondhand clothing and repair is a rare example of where the most ethical choice is usually the cheapest too. This is a good thing, partly because it is inclusive and everyone can join in and reap the genuine benefits, but also because it means that growing rapidly is possible.

Buying clothes from charity shops

Charity shops are often a popular choice when looking to buy secondhand. There's often several different shops in most towns, including local charities and larger national UK charities. 

But as with high street clothing shops, they're not all the same. 

How do charity shops compare on issues like animal testing and highest paid employees?

We have looked at seven high street charity shops in the UK  to see how they compare on issues like pay, funding animal testing, and charitable spending. We choose the seven with the largest number of shops: Age UK, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Mind, Oxfam, Salvation Army, and Sue Ryder. 

Table of seven large high street charity shops and their expenditure, staffing and animal testing position
Charity shop Number
activities (millions)
spending –
% of total
spent on
paid CEO
(from 2022
of staff
Age UK 299  no £125.9 £62.8 54%  n/a £200-
52 Older people
British Heart Foundation 691  yes £351.7 £87.7 29% n/a £190-
96 Cardiovascular
Cancer Research UK 589  yes  £718.7 £425.0 66% £263,100 £250-
261  Cancer
Mind 156  no £73.1 £37.1 63% £159,000 £140-
33 Mental health
Oxfam 564  no £373.0 £230.9  70%  £120,564  £300-
70 Poverty relief
Salvation Army 228  no £281.9 £128.8 57% n/a £150-
51 Vulnerable &
Sue Ryder 407 no £112.7 £54.3 51% n/a £140-
32 Health care

NB Income, expenditure, pay and staff from Charity Commission figures for year ending 31 March 2022.

* Reflects packages which include redundancy payments made to international staff as a result of organisational changes and as required under national legislation in the countries where they were based. 

Charities and animal testing

British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK are two health charities listed by Animal Aid as funding animal testing. Age UK used to fund animal research but it stopped in 2015. The other health charities, Mind and Sue Ryder, do not fund animal research.

Testing on animals is both cruel and medically unsound, giving unreliable results that cannot be applied to humans because of the fundamental differences between humans and animals. 92% of drugs fail in human clinical trials despite appearing safe and effective in animal tests, often on safety grounds or because they do not work.

Oxfam used to offer live animals as part of its Oxfam Unwrapped gift services but it no longer does. It does still offer beekeeping.

Charities, staff, pay and charitable expenditure

500 Oxfam GB employees in Oxfam’s shops and offices went on strike in December over pay. It was the first time industrial action has been taken at Oxfam GB, which employs more than 1,800 people in the UK. An agreement was reached within a week. In 2018 and 2021, reports arose about sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in Haiti and Congo. 43 members of staff were dismissed and Oxfam has now significantly improved its safeguarding strategy. 

More positively, Oxfam has been a key partner with Ethical Consumer over corporate tax avoidance and workers’ rights in global supply chains.

The Salvation Army is a church charity. Around 30% of its charitable expenditure was on ‘church and evangelism programmes’ – Christian worship and the teaching and promotion of the Christian message at their churches.

What happens to unsold secondhand clothes?

Clothes that don’t sell or are dirty or damaged are usually sold to a textile recycler. Damaged or low-grade items might be shredded into rags and reused. But good quality, unsold clothes end up being exported overseas.

A 2015 BBC investigation found that the majority of donated clothes are traded abroad for profit. Wrap estimates that more than 70% of all UK reused clothing heads overseas. Top destinations for UK clothes were Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, and Ukraine.

Used clothing has a significant market share particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, which can negatively affect the textile industries in those countries. In 2015, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda announced that the import of second-hand textiles and shoes would be banned from 2019. While reuse is vital, the system currently allows richer nations to displace their fast fashion problem onto poorer countries.

Furthermore, clothing that can’t be resold in these countries will inevitably end up in landfill. This means Europe is essentially exporting its clothing pollution problem elsewhere.

Repairing, reusing, and upcycling in different ways are therefore useful steps to explore first, before discarding clothes.