Boom of the second-hand industry: True treasures in the closet

Out of the eco-corner: Worn clothing has become a mass-market billion dollar business in Germany. But the trend for cheap textiles is causing problems for the industry.

In Ruben Deppe's small shop in Bielefeld's old town, it takes time to find treasures. The 36-year-old - eye-catching beard, eye-catching DFB retro sweater - stands in the midst of almost 40 packed square meters: a smorgasbord of old leather bags, tracksuits, jumpers, sweaters and sneakers, waiting for their second spring to begin.

Besides a few customers strolling through the store, and a young buyer in their early 20s, who is thirsty for a Helene Fischer tour shirt he bought for a buddy, it's a laid-back day for Deppe. His main business, he says, he does anyway, when it gets warmer and the festival season begins.

The eco-image of yesteryear has become mass-suitable

The assortment of his second hand shop has grown with the customer base. Meanwhile, Deppe estimates that there are more than 1500 parts. The majority he finds at regional flea markets, but he also takes goods in commission. "Most customers are more aware of what their clothes might be worth than through platforms like Ebay," says Deppe. That's also why he has raised his prices in recent years, on average by at least 20 to 30 percent, he estimates.

In metropolises such as Berlin or Hamburg, where weight is often billed, prices rose in some cases by 50 percent or more over the same period. Since it has the second-hand lovers in the East Westphalian province still good.

When Deppe opened the store "Used" together with a business partner in 2009, Secondhand in Bielefeld was a niche. Today, even in the somewhat stiff East Westphalia, this is not the case anymore. A womenswear outlet is around the corner, and an oxfam shop is within walking distance. Secondhand shops have become an integral part of the shopping streets. The musty eco-image, which was second hand long, has long given way to mass suitability.


Flea market on the Theresienwiese in Munich

Since the beginning of the millennium, retail sales of antiques and second-hand products have grown by more than 2.5 billion euros, as figures from the Federal Statistical Office show. The largest part of this is generated in the "Retail sale of other second-hand goods" division, which also includes the second-hand clothing business. In 2016 alone, 617 million euros were generated in this area.

Driver of these numbers is - as with so many trends - a young, well-educated buyer. Today, it is no longer just about keeping second-hand money to save, but rather as a fashion statement: individual, style-conscious and - of course - also a bit sustainable.

If one asks about second-hand buyers in the circle of acquaintances, one learns above all from women, who prefer to buy at regional flea markets or on the Internet, where suppliers such as Kleiderkreisel, Momox or Zadaa pour onto the market. The Finnish creators of the Zadaa app promise no less than "networking the wardrobes of the world".

More and more clothes for less and less money

In German wardrobes so much has accumulated in the meantime. On average, Germans buy five new garments a month, 60 a year. This has resulted in a survey by Greenpeace in 2015. According to this, of the 5.2 billion items of clothing in German closets, just over 2 billion will be worn "rarely" or "almost never" - that's about 40 percent.


Protests in front of Primark branch in Stuttgart (2017)

Elsewhere in the Western world things look similar. In 2013, for example, the average American bought 64 new garments a year. Today, six years later, this number is likely to be significantly higher. Clothing has become a consumer good. Fast fashion is what the industry calls it.

The name describes all too well the timing of the fashion industry, which knows no breathers more: fashion cycles are getting shorter, clothes are thrown faster and faster on the market, at junk prices. If we spend around ten percent of our total clothing and footwear budget in the early 1970s, today's figure is barely five percent. Cheap providers such as Primark and H & M make it possible. They have changed the fashion market and pushed the price war to the extreme long ago. Buy more, spend less. This is good for the purse, but also for the conscience?

Clothing as disposable

"We treat clothes no differently than a yogurt cup or a muesli box - so as a disposable item," says Kirsten Brodde, 54, Textile expert from Greenpeace. Brodde has written several books on the subject. Finally, a guide for those who are tired of disposable clothing.

Brodde recognizes a countermovement to fast fashion, which she wants to give her a voice with her book. For them, the growing second-hand market is part of this movement. "It shows that people are more aware of clothing again," says Brodde.

Even though second hand fashion has generally become more expensive, Brodde still sees enough opportunities to stock up on worn fashion in every price range. She even goes a step further - and lends herself to clothes.

Whatever is already working on cars, music, books or bicycles, Brodde has also been trying on clothes for two years. "This is not only ecological and fair, it also brings new looks in the closet," says Brodde. She lends her clothes via Stay Awhile. Suppliers such as clothing or Myonbelle also deliver a loaner's wardrobe home - tailored to their personal taste.

For Andreas Voget, 61, every idea that makes textile consumption a bit more sustainable is a good one. Voget is managing director of the umbrella organization FairWertung eV, a consortium of non-profit old textile collectors, and he warns of the consequences of the flood of textiles. For the first time, one million tonnes of used textiles landed in the containers last year. "The amount of textiles has increased significantly in recent years, at the same time their quality has deteriorated drastically," says Voget. Only about half of the textiles can still be used for the second-hand market. The remainder will be further processed into raw materials and cloths.

The rest of second-hand clothing is both a curse and a blessing to the countries that deal with it. The worn clothes are offered in Germany, but also sold to Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Africa. First states - such as those of the East African Community (EAC) - campaigned for an import ban on eroded goods from Europe. It should start this year, but enforcement is proving difficult.

Will clothes soon be more expensive?

Voget sees in the large amount of increasingly inferior textiles an "overloading of the entire recycling chain". The recovery was thus a "grant business" in this country, because the cost of collecting, sorting and transporting increase. "If this trend continues, we'll soon have to discuss who actually pays," says Voget.


Nudie jeans shop with free repair service in Gothenburg

In contrast to electronics articles or packaging recycling, for example, where a surcharge for recycling is made when the article is purchased, the supply of old clothes in Germany is free of charge. This worked well for a long time. The market regulated itself by selling used clothes and thus subsidized the inferior textiles. But if the trend continues towards fast fashion, so Voget predicts, this will also have consequences for the second-hand industry: "The supply of second-hand clothing will decline, the prices of naterials by possible allocations rise," says Voget. He therefore pleads for the purchase of durable clothing.

Some companies have already changed. The jeans brand Nudie, for example, offers free repairs, as well as the outdoor brand Patagonia; The North Face sells its own second-hand goods. Tchibo is also a pioneer here, with a rental service for children's clothing. At least parts of the industry seem to have understood. Voget welcomes rethinking - he himself is a convinced secondhand dealer.

That will also remain Ruben Deppe. Maybe even more convinced than before. With "Used" he will soon move to larger premises in Bielefeld. Not 40, but 140 square meters. No one-man operation anymore. "The demand is there," says Deppe, "let's see what works."

In summary: The market for second-hand clothing has grown extremely since the beginning of the millennium. Secondhand fashion has become socially acceptable and meanwhile also interesting for people with a tighter budget. The ever-increasing volumes of poor quality textiles put the industry to the test in recycling.