The global trade of secondhand clothing has a long history. Until the mid 19th century, second hand clothing was an important way of acquiring clothing. Only through industrialization, mass production, and increasing income, was the general public able to purchase new, rather than second-hand, clothing.
During Europe’s colonial days, second-hand garments were exported to the colonies and, locally, charity shops catering for the poor sprang up.
Since the 2nd World War, the second-hand clothing trade, globally, has grown considerably. With environmental issues being more prominent and fashion pollution noted, people learn how to be environmental friendly and second-hand/pre-owned stores have become very fashionable and respectable in Europe and the US. Internet connectivity added strongly to the online trade of second-hand garments.
Charity Organizations, like the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Oxfam, are the largest contributors to the secondhand and pre-owned clothing categories. These organizations collect clothes and donate them to the poor beyond their country's borders or re-sell them in brick and mortar retail shops as a fundraising strategy.
Whereas charity shops dominated the secondhand market from the 1960s to the 1970s, more specialized, profit-oriented shops emerged in the 1980s. These shops catered primarily to the fashionable female demographic and offered women and children designer clothes, and occasionally high-end formal wear for men. Resale boutiques specialized in contemporary high-end used designer fashion (for example, 2nd Take, or Couture Designer Resale), while others (such as Buffalo Exchange and Plato's Closet) specialize in vintage or retro fashion, period fashion, or contemporary basics and one-of-a-kind finds. Still others cater to specific active sports by specializing in things like riding equipment, diving gear, etc. The resale business model has now expanded into the athletic equipment, books, and music categories. Secondhand sales migrated to a peer-to-peer platform—effectively cutting out the retailer as the middleman—when websites such as eBay and Amazon introduced the opportunity for Internet users to sell virtually anything online, including designer (or fraudulent) handbags, fashion, shoes, and accessories.
The customer base of secondhand clothing market is usually extremely cost-conscious and often promotes the ideologies of sustainability and environmentalism. Secondhand clothing, after all, is the recycling of used and/or unwanted clothing, and this reciprocal buy/sell/trade transaction between the customer and the retailer saves an incalculable amount of unwanted clothing from dumps and landfills.
On a larger scale, textile recycling warehouses, who grade used or pre-owned clothes have become very prominent and influential in the second-hand trade. These sorted garments are compressed into bales of 50 kg and exported. Unsorted second-hand clothes can be compressed into bales of 500 to 1000 kg. The better graded used clothing is exported to Central American Countries and the lower graded clothing is shipped to Africa and Asia. The hubs for commercial sorting of preowned clothes are in South Asia, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Hungary. The secondhand trade has more than doubled between 1991 and 2004 due to increased demand in former Eastern Bloc and African Countries.
In wealthy Western countries, used and pre-owned clothes occupy a niche market, whether in third world countries, second-hand clothing imported from the west, are a staple source of clothing. The largest exporters of used clothing are the USA, followed by the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.
The world largest importers of used clothing are Sub Saharan countries, receiving over 25% of global second-hand clothing exports.
Some countries, like Philippines and India ban the import of secondhand clothes, in order to protect the local textile industry. Other counties like Pakistan, Uganda or South Africa, which have a flourishing Textile Industry, have no or limited restrictions. South Africa, for example, allows the import of second-hand/pre-owned clothing only for charitable purposes and not for commercial resale.
The second-hand trade varies from country to country, for example in Nigeria and Senegal, second-hand clothes reflect the local traditional styles and are mainly locally produced. In contrast second-hand shops in South Africa or Zambia reflect the western fashion trends. Individual countries, adopted western ways of trading second-hand clothing to local conditions. South Africans use Gumtree, eBay or Craigslist, to trade their second-hand clothing and other goods. In economic hubs like Cape Town, one finds charity shops as well as high end boutique style second-hand designer clothing shops like 2nd Take, to reflect the diverse demand for second-hand fashion.
The cycle of 2nd hand clothing seems to be perpetual and lucrative. This goes for consignment stores like 2nd Take, where designer clothes, that sit too long on the sales racks, are either given back to their owners or donated to charities or stores that will sell unsold garments on to textile recyclers or second-hand stores.