Secondhand chic as websites feed trend for used clothing in France

By Sarah Elzas - RFI
France  Chi PhuongRFI
DEC 3, 2023 LISTEN
© Chi Phuong/RFI

Buying secondhand clothes in France was once done by those who couldn't afford to shop on the high street. These days used clothes have made a seamless transition from thrifty to trendy as online platforms such as Vinted – now the country's top clothing website – upend taboos. This shift in attitude, however, has come at a cost to the country's traditional, solidarity-based charity shops.

“Today, second hand is a new fashion,” says Eva Cerio, a teacher at the IAE Angers business school who researches secondhand practices in France.

Younger people go to thrift stores to “find a piece that is not the same as anyone else” because they want to stand out, Cerio tells RFI – but this wasn't always the case.

While French people have long enjoyed browsing flea markets and looking for rare finds in antique shops, wearing secondhand clothes was seen as a last resort. 

“Ten years ago, many people did not want a piece of clothing that had already been used,” says Cerio. Now taboos are lifting and online platforms have made buying and selling secondhand a mainstream practice.

Listen to an interview with Eva Cerio in the Spotlight on France podcast

An estimated 20 percent of online clothing sales in France are from secondhand platforms, with Vinted the largest by far.

Launched 15 years ago in Lithuania, Vinted came to France in 2013. Now France is its biggest market, accounting for 23 million of its 80 million users.

Traditional French charity shops such as Emmaus, which sells secondhand items to fund programmes to get people back into the workforce, have seen a drop in donations.

Cerio says that over the last two years “quality donations”, or items that can easily be resold, dropped from 60 percent of what was donated to 40 percent.

'Taste for buying and selling'

Instead, people are selling their clothes and items online.

The Covid pandemic and the lockdowns got people clearing out their closets, and they got a taste for selling – and buying.

“Many consumers say they resell for eco-friendly reasons,” says Cerio.

Buying secondhand clothing is ecological, even with the logistics of sending small packages to different buyers across the country, or even across Europe.

“It's always a better choice to buy a secondhand product than to buy firsthand products, even if you buy more secondhand products,” Cerio says.

But she has observed that the potential to make money and buy for less tends to be more of a drawcard than saving the environment.

Some see the income as a way of buying more clothes.

“It's like a fashion budget for buying other piece of clothes or other items,” says Cerio, adding that they feel comfortable buying more because of the lower ecological impact of a secondhand item of clothing.

Cerio herself says she got interested in the topic for her research because of her personal experience, growing up with a father who loved going to flea markets.

“My father visited every flea market of the weekend," she says.

She started reselling items, and then she started using Vinted but has since gone off the platform, as have others she has interviewed for her research.

Challenging work  

It is a lot of work, especially those who have turned their accounts into small businesses – scouring flea markets for brand name items to sell at a profit, presenting them with nice photos and marketing.

“You need to be connected each day, you need beautiful photos and fashionable items,” says Cerio. “It takes up a lot of your daily life.”

Plus, interactions with buyers – like many online interactions – can turn negative.

“Between a seller and a buyer there can be a dispute with people who are rude," says Cerio.

Other platforms, like Le Bon Coin, which started as a way to connect people in person, foster more face-to-face interactions. So too do community Facebook groups, where people donate or sell children's clothes, for example.

Cerio says older people are still interested in donating their items, to feel like they are having a second life.

“They like exchanges with their neighbourhoods, their families. And they want to help people. So they used to give to charities and they don't want to stop that,” she says.

Brands themselves are jumping into the secondhand marketplace, launching their own platforms to keep clients from reselling their clothes on Vinted.

“It helps the brands to be better in terms of ecological footprints, but it raises ethical questions,” says Cerio, pointing to traditional charity shops with social missions, like Emmaus, which depends on sales of donations to run its programmes.

Listen to an interview with Eva Cerio on the Spotlight on France podcast, episode 103.