Secondhand Clothing

Secondhand Clothing
• Charity and Commerce
• From Thrift to Fashion, from Waste to Recycling
• Global Contexts
• African Secondhand Clothing Markets
• Conclusion: When Old Turns New
• Snapshot: Banning Secondhand Clothing Imports
• Snapshot: Naming Secondhand Clothing
econdhand clothing constitutes a global market of commerce and consumption that has a long but changing history
with complex links to garment production, tailoring, and couture. In Europe and North America, secondhand clothing was
an important source of clothing well into the nineteenth century,
until mass production and growing prosperity enabled more and
more people to purchase brand-new rather than previously worn
garments. During Europe’s imperial expansion, the trade in secondhand clothing reached the colonies. When mass-produced
garments became readily available at affordable prices, the secondhand-clothing trade became export oriented, while charity
shops responded to the clothing needs of the local poor. In the
post–World War II period in the West, the secondhand-clothing
trade expanded and grew in scope globally with patronage from
all segments of society save in countries that ban these imports.
Because most country boundaries are porous and customs regulations difficult to enforce, there is extensive illegal importation
of this commodity. At the same time as the global scope of the
secondhand-clothing trade has increased, growing concerns about
the environment have improved the image of clothing recycling
in the West. What is more, since the early 1990s, the popularity of period fashion has given rise to a diversity of consignment
stores, boutiques, and high-street concessions that resell previously worn garments. When Internet-based online clothing trade
is added to these processes, the entire world is connected interactively through secondhand clothing.
Established charitable organizations are the single largest source
of the twenty-first-century global trade in secondhand clothing, supplying both domestic and foreign secondhand-clothing
markets through their collection efforts. Since the end of the
nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States, philanthropic groups have been involved in collecting and donating
clothes to the poor. In the late 1950s, many charitable organizations introduced store sales, among them the Salvation Army,
whose income in the United States primarily came from the sale of
used clothing. The major charitable organizations in the twentyfirst century include, in the United States, the Salvation Army,
Goodwill Industries, St. Vincent de Paul, and Amvets and, in
Europe, Humana, Oxfam, Terre, and Abbey Pierre, among many
others. When post–World War II shifts in income distribution
and growing purchasing power enabled more consumers than
ever before to buy not only new but also more clothes, specific
garment niches emerged, including fashions and styles oriented
toward, for example, teenage clothing, corporate and career dressing, and sports and leisure wear. Such dress practices produced an
enormous yield of used but still wearable clothes, some of which
ended up as donations to charity.
Charitable organizations dominated the domestic secondhand-clothing retail scene in the 1960s and 1970s. They were
joined during the 1980s by a variety of specialist stores operating on a for-profit basis with names that rarely feature words
like used, secondhand, or thrift. Most of these specialty stores
cater to women, yet some stock garments for both sexes; there
are children’s apparel shops, and men’s boutiques have appeared
as well. Menswear and children’s wear take up far less space in
secondhand-clothing retailing than women’s apparel. The clientele also includes far more women than men. Some of these
stores target specific consumers, among them young professionals who want high-quality clothing at modest prices or young
people keen on retro (revival of past styles) and period fashion,
punk, and rave styles. Some customers collect garments with investment in view. Some of these stores operate on a consignment
basis; others source in bulk from secondhand-clothing vendors;
and some do both. And some of these businesses donate garments that do not sell well to “charity,” while others dispose
of their surplus at bulk prices to commercial secondhandclothing dealers.
The relationship between charitable organizations and textile
recyclers and graders adds a business angle; concerning its profitability there is considerable anecdotal but little substantive information. Because consumers in the West donate much more
clothing than the charitable organizations can possibly sell in
their retail shops, they in turn dispose of their massive overstock
at bulk prices to commercial secondhand-clothing dealers. The
media routinely fault the charitable organizations for making
money from the sale of donated clothing and criticize the textile graders for turning surplus donated clothing into a profitable economic niche. At the same time, growing environmental
concerns in the West have enhanced both the profitability and
respectability of this trade, giving its practitioners a new cachet as
textile salvagers and waste recyclers. As the last but not the least
ironic twist in this process, used clothing has become the latest
“new” trend as consumers across the globe eagerly purchase secondhand garments in local market stalls, stores, boutiques, and
online. The trade universe for the sourcing of secondhand clothing includes informal sites like garage sales and flea markets as
well as estate sales and high-end auction houses such as Sotheby’s
and Christie’s.
The textile-recycling industry is made up of salvagers and
graders, fiber recyclers, and used-clothing dealers, brokers, and
exporters. “Used clothing” comprises not only garments but also
shoes, handbags, hats, belts, draperies, and linens. Soft toys—for
example, teddy bears—have found their way into this export. The
textile recyclers sort and grade clothing and apparel into many categories, some for the domestic retro or upscale market and others
for export; some for industrial use as rags, and others for fiber. In
the twenty-first century, wool garments that used to be exported
to Italy for the wool-regeneration industry in Prato near Florence
are shipped in bulk to northern India for reprocessing. Blue jeans,
especially Levi Strauss 501, the original button-fly jeans created in
1853 for miners and cowboys in the American West, are popular
in Japan. Intermediaries called “pickers” and expert buyers, among
them foreign nationals, lessen the hard work of sourcing by traveling between the large textile-recycling warehouses and selecting
garments with particular appeal to, for example, domestic youth
markets, special period markets such as retro and vintage, and
niche markets in Japan.
Once sorted, the better grades of secondhand clothing are
exported to Central American countries such as Costa Rica,
Honduras, and Guatemala and also to Chile in South America.
The lowest grade goes to African and Asian countries. Most recyclers compress sorted garments into bales of fifty kilograms
(110 pounds), while some press unsorted bulk clothing into bales
weighing five hundred or even one thousand kilograms (1,100
or 2,200 pounds). The bales are wrapped in waterproof plastic, tied with metal or plastic straps, placed in containers, and
shipped. Most of the large textile recyclers in the United States
that are involved in buying and reselling for export are located
near port cities along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and on the
Great Lakes. Many of the large firms are family owned. Since
the turn of the millennium, the focus of the trade has shifted
to Canada, where many now consider Toronto to be the world’s
used-clothing capital. Several of the new operators originate
from South Asia, some of them coming from families with experience living in Africa, and they know the overseas markets
through personal connections. In Europe, for historical and geographic reasons, the hubs of commercial sorting were the Netherlands and Belgium, with easy access to the world’s major ports.
In efforts to save labor costs, some of these firms have moved
their sorting operations to countries in eastern Europe, among
them Hungary.
Because secondhand clothing is a potentially profitable commodity, its charitable collection is challenged by fraudulent practices. Many parking lots and strip malls are dotted with gaily
colored collection bins, put up by established charities as well
as by for-profit groups with the permission of adjacent business
owners or, in some states in the United States, after receiving permission from the local authorities. The logos on some of these
bins advocate third-world relief, while others focus on environmental protection. Collection bins appealing for urgently needed
clothing sometimes feature names of nonexistent charities, and
flyers inviting householders to fill bags with unwanted clothing
have been known to give the impression that the collected garments would be donated to the poor in third-world countries.
The mostly voluntary workforce of charitable organizations
makes it difficult to supervise activities related to collection bins;
therefore, some of them have phased out collection bins entirely.
The items that are collected through fraudulent advertising or
outright theft may enter the export circuit through brokers.
Truckloads of used clothing collected as a result of such scams
eventually reach markets in eastern Europe, Africa, South America, and the Indian subcontinent. In Great Britain and Ireland,
for example, leading charitable organizations have experienced
massive losses to organized gangs from Latvia, Lithuania, and
Poland who battle with groups from Northern Ireland, Scotland,
A high-street Humana resale store selling secondhand clothing, Cologne, Germany, 1996. Humana is a nongovernmental agency (NGO) with headquarters in Denmark. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen.
and England for control of the market in secondhand clothes
stolen from charity bins.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, growing consumer
concerns with self-styled uniqueness and rising preoccupations with recycling in the West have complicated the longstanding association between secondhand clothing and thrift.
The world of secondhand clothing has become a flourishing
fashion scene. In fact, since the turn of the millennium, used
clothing has drawn a bigger spotlight than ever—not as secondhand but as vintage, thanks in part to rich and famous people who have worn vintage garments at celebrity events. At the
Oscar Awards ceremony in 2001, Julia Roberts wore a vintage
Valentino dress. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Kirsten
Dunst, and many others have been spotted in vintage couture
at red-carpet events that draw both media and widespread public attention to dress.
The range of previously used dress options has expanded
as thrift has become associated with charity and period clothing with an assortment of apparel in which “real” vintage dates
to before the 1970s. These developments have been accompanied
by the emergence of specialized points of purchase. The quality
of the merchandise varies with the selling environment and the
ambience. And the clientele tends to differ. Many thrift stores
have a warehouse feel and are crowded with clothing, accessories,
and garments hung on racks loosely classified by type. Teenage
shoppers who do not actually need clothing search such racks
for garments that make a fashion statement. In twenty-firstcentury Germany, for example, the 1960s-style scene of movies,
music, and material culture is popular with young people, who
dress in garments from the 1960s or make their own clothes constructed from old patterns. This retro style attributes history and
authenticity to garments that wearers experience as unique and
personal. Style-conscious shoppers rummage, browse, and look
for clothes in various places with dedication and zeal. Secondhand-clothing shopping offers the thrill of the chase, the bargain,
and the pleasure of making a find or discovery. The interiors of
many consignment stores and upscale resale boutiques are strategically designed with visual stimulation and dazzling displays to
create a fun and eclectic ambience. Offering a mixture of old and
new, many of these stores combine vintage and modern garments
with retro appliances, memorabilia, and furniture. Such stores are
both about the shopping experience and about finding unusual
pre-owned apparel.
Vintage has different meanings for everyone, and the clientele varies widely in the twenty-first century. For a baby boomer,
vintage means clothes from the 1930s and 1940s, whereas for
the twenty-first-century high-school cohort, vintage garments
are from the 1970s and 1980s. Teenage shoppers are attracted
to vintage because it adds glamour to their everyday wardrobe
and shopping at vintage stores offers an experience of playing
dress-up. Other customers search for period dress or costumes
for decade-specific parties; college students purchase items for
themed events, among them, dance marathons. Top celebrities
wear vintage, high-street shops are copying it, and upwardly mobile consumers are purchasing it as an investment as the auctions
of garments owned by Princess Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy
Women choosing garments from a pile at Soweto Market in Lusaka, Zambia, 1992. The Bemba term salaula means
“selecting from a pile by rummaging,” and the quality of these secondhand imports surpasses garments imported
from China. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen.
demonstrate. The blending of fashion with celebrity obsession is
evident also at VIP events that raise money to support selected
charities through the sale of tickets and designer clothes donated
by socialites. Whatever the occasion, people who are keen on
style purchase used designer labels as they do all secondhand garments, because they follow their own tastes and like to purchase
something that is unique.
The development of the World Wide Web has enhanced the
secondhand-clothing market, especially its designer-trading aspect. In effect, the Internet, auction sites, and specific Web-based
sites have expanded the previously worn clothing business vastly.
Hard-to-come-by, limited-edition branded items appear on auction sites, which makes high-end clothing affordable. On eBay,
the global online marketplace, consumers are able to buy just
about anything at auction or through fixed-price arrangements.
In fact, sellers receive a larger part of the profit from eBay transactions than they do in most consignment stores. And because
most garments offered for sale at eBay end up being purchased,
concerns about the disposal of excess clothing are limited. Shopping from home for gently used or pre-owned quality garments,
eBay customers have access to designer items that may not even
be available where they live.
Several trends converge in contemporary preoccupations with
clothing recycling. For one, the secondhand-clothing trade keeps
garments out of landfills, reducing or temporarily postponing environmental degradation. What is more, alteration personalizes
garments, customizing makes them fit, and repair extends the life
span of used clothing whereas a variety of transformations give it
new leases on life. Quality- and style-savvy consumers recognize
the potential that may not be immediately apparent in garments,
and some possess skills to effect transformations by taking apart,
reshaping, and turning used clothing into something else by
means of embellishment, patchwork, buttons, and trim, among
many other practices. Last but not least, since the early 1990s,
established designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons in Paris and Dolce & Gabbana in Milan have featured garments that look recycled on the fashion runway, while in Paris,
Roland Simmons incorporated what the French colloquially call
fripes (from friperie, meaning “used clothing”) among the designer
labels in his boutique. Also in Paris, Mali-born avant-garde designer Lamine Kouyaté has taken a couture-like approach to
recovered clothes in his designer label Xuly-Bët, deconstructing
them into reconfigured one-of-a-kind garments. Then there is
Martin Margiela, known as “fashion’s founding father of recycling, the 1970s revival and thrift-shop style” (Menkes 1993), who
in his Paris studio showcased the recycling of clothes by giving
them new life.
While the recycling of clothing constitutes a creative component of the work of some fashion designers, some consumer
groups have returned to thrifting but with a twist. Changing from
pursuing bargain hunting to a “green” position, some consumers
concerned with sustainability focus on the recycling aspect of
the trade. Eco-conscious parents, for example, may seek out secondhand items made from conventionally grown cotton for their
infants because frequent washing has removed the pesticides.
Infants outgrow their clothes quickly, most certainly before they
wear them out, so returning such garments to consignment shops
reduces their environmental impact even further. Such positions
may be enmeshed with other forms of provisioning practices,
including the purchase of fair trade products, that, when taken
together, represent an ethical rather than merely a prorecycling
consumption position.
The secondhand clothing trade has expanded hugely in both its
economic power and global scope, more than doubling worldwide
between 1991 and 2004, in the wake of the liberalization of many
third-world economies and following the sudden rise in demand
from former Eastern Bloc countries in the early 1990s. In the
twenty-first century, secondhand clothing makes up a specialty
or niche market in much of the West, whereas in many thirdworld countries, secondhand clothing imported from the West
is an important clothing source. The United States is the world’s
largest exporter in terms of both volume and value, followed in
2004 by the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands
(United Nations 1996, 20; 2006, 120–121).
The countries of sub-Saharan Africa are the world’s largest
secondhand-clothing destination, receiving close to 26 percent of
total world exports in 2004. Close to 20 percent of world exports
in 2004 went to Asia, where Japan, Malaysia, India, Cambodia,
Singapore, and Pakistan (in this order) are large net importers.
Other large importers include Tunisia in North Africa and Guatemala in Central America. The export does not target the third
world exclusively. Sizable exports are destined for Japan, BelgiumLuxembourg, and the Netherlands, which all import and reexport
this commodity. In fact, in 2004, Europe, including eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, imported about 25 percent of
the total of secondhand clothing traded, almost the same amount
as Africa (United Nations 1996, 20; 2006, 120–121).
The global secondhand-clothing trade shows some striking
trends. Many large importers of secondhand clothing in South
Asia, such as India and Pakistan, are themselves textile and garment exporters, which puts an interesting spin on arguments
about the negative effects of used-clothing imports on domestic
textile and garment industries. This is also the case for some African countries, for example, Kenya and Uganda: Both are large
importers of secondhand clothing but have textile- and garmentmanufacturing firms that export to the United States under the
duty- and quota-free provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Although the Philippines bans the import of secondhand
clothing, trade in it has grown in the wake of the opening up of
the economy in the mid-1980s. Secondhand clothing only recently
became readily available, illegally shipped to Philippine ports or
arriving via Hong Kong. In Ifugao, a town in northern Luzon,
this trade circulates through channels that are rooted in local
cultural traditions and guided by notions of personalized contacts that women traders make use of in their business activities.
When retailers, vendors, and consumers talk about secondhand
clothing, they draw connections between people and clothes that
constantly change. Such accounts domesticate the logic of the
market and the meaning of this global commodity in terms of
local norms of status and value; in the process, they transform
them. Combining secondhand garments into styles that display
knowledge of wider clothing practices or subvert their received
meaning, traders and consumers refashion this imported commodity to serve their personal and community identities.
A vendor selling secondhand men’s shirts at Main Masala Market in Ndola, Zambia, 1993. Photograph by Karen
Tranberg Hansen.
India prohibits the import of secondhand clothing yet permits
the import of woolen fibers called mutilated hosiery, a trade term
for wool garments shredded by machines in the West prior to
export. Imported “mutilated” fabrics are sorted into color ranges,
then shredded, carded, and spun, to reappear as threads used for
blankets, knitting yarn, and wool fabrics for local consumption
and export in the Indian shoddy industry (the reclamation of
fabric fibers). Domestic recycling of Indian clothing also occurs
through barter, hand-me-downs, donations, and resale. Some Indian consumers donate their still-wearable clothing to the poor
or barter it for household goods. Other practices involve saris
with intricate borders that are transformed into new garments
and household items for niche markets in the West, while the
remains of cotton cloth are shipped abroad as industrial wiping
rags. This recycling of imported and domestic secondhand clothing creates employment at many levels of the Indian economy. In
the process, an export supply chain formalizes what began as an
informal trade.
Secondhand-clothing consumption practices in Africa are shaped
by the politics that regulate these imports and by distinct regional
conventions concerning bodies and dress. Some African countries have at one point or another banned the import of secondhand clothing—for instance, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, and
Malawi. Some countries have restrictive policies—for example,
South Africa, which allows import of secondhand clothing only
for charitable purposes and not for resale. African secondhand-
clothing markets undergo changes not only because of the legal
rules that guide or prohibit secondhand-clothing imports but
also because of civil strife and war. Some small countries like
Benin, Togo, and Rwanda before its civil wars have been large
importers and active in transshipment and reexport. Although
secondhand-clothing imports are banned in some countries, a
brisk trade moves this popular commodity across Africa’s highly
penetrable borders.
There is considerable regional variation in Africa’s clothing markets. In Muslim-dominated North Africa, for example,
secondhand clothing constitutes a much smaller percentage of
total garment imports than in sub-Saharan Africa. The North
African imports consist largely of men’s work and everyday garments like trousers, jackets, and shirts and of children’s clothes.
Dress conventions differ throughout the continent, not only in
terms of religious norms (for instance, whether people are Muslim or Christian), but also by gender, age, class, and region or ethnicity. Taken together, these factors inform the cultural norms of
dress practice, influencing what types of garments which people
will wear and when.
In several countries in West Africa, distinct regional dress
styles that are the products of long-standing textile crafts in weaving, dyeing, and printing coexist in the twenty-first century with
dress styles that were introduced during the Colonial period and
after. In Nigeria and Senegal, for example, secondhand clothing
has entered a specific niche. Although people from different socioeconomic groups, not only the very poor, purchase imported
secondhand clothing and use it widely for everyday wear, Senegalese and Nigerians commonly follow long-established style
A tailor making sweatshirts by sewing unmatched used sweatpants together at a secondhand clothing market,
Soweto, Lusaka, Zambia, 1997. This way of recycling textiles means that clothes are tailored to fit local bodies and
style preferences. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen.
conventions, dressing with pride for purposes of displaying specialty cloth in “African” styles, some of it locally produced; since
the late 1990s, however, much of the printed fabrics are manufactured in China. This stands in contrast to Zambia, where
such textile crafts hardly existed in the pre-Colonial period and
where in the twenty-first century people across the socioeconomic
spectrum, except those at the top, are dressing in the West’s used
clothing. Secondhand clothing flows from the point of donation
in the West through sorting centers for export from where it is
shipped by container and arrives by overland transport in Zambia. There, distribution and consumption practices incorporate
secondhand clothes as desirable apparel into a gendered dress
universe that is informed by a local cultural economy of judgment
and style. Far from emulating the West’s fashions, secondhandclothing practices in Africa involve clothing-conscious consumers
in efforts to reconstruct these garments culturally and materially
and in the process change their lives for the better.
Last but not least, dress, both new and used, is a dynamic
resource in young people’s identity constructions in Africa’s rapidly growing urban areas. Young male street vendors in Zambia
buy oversized secondhand garments, while secondary school
students search for items that create a suitable look to signal
their upwardly mobile status. Youth in Dakar, Senegal, a city
rich in historical exchanges with the rest of the world, search
for feggy jaay garments (a Wolof term meaning “shake and sell,”
or secondhand clothing), brand-name imports, and Chinese
knockoffs to represent their aspired status: as “Boy Town,”
someone who is indigenous to Dakar; “Coming Town,” the rural
migrant; or the “Venant,” a returned transnational migrant.
Engaging with local views of fashion trends, the rich knowledge
youth possess about the specifics of style enables them to read
clothing and to identify the position of others, in this way navigating their way in the city, shaping both themselves and the
urban scene.
The process of recycling clothing never rests. Because every piece
of garment has many potential future lives, the trade in secondhand clothing and textile recycling is lucrative. Garments that sit
on the rack unsold for too long in the consignment store are either retrieved by their owners or donated to charity—for example,
a shelter for the homeless, where in fact they may wear out their
life. Alternatively, unsold garments are disposed of in bulk to textile recyclers who sort and grade them, some for the industrial
cleaning-rag market and more for the secondhand-clothing export market. Once they have arrived abroad, the West’s discarded
clothing in turn assumes new life as such garments become part of
the biographies of their next owners; for example, in Africa, they
not only cover basic clothing needs but also fulfill desires about
bodies dressed in “the latest” as locally defined. Secondhand
clothing provides a dress practice through which people construct gender, appearance, and identity. In secondhand-clothing
consumption, desire confronts emulation. What goes around in
this global process does indeed come around locally, yet with creatively changed meanings. Finally, the online secondhand-clothing market on the World Wide Web has redrawn the global map
of clothing by opening access to it to all.