Why millennials are filling their closets with other people's 'trash'

MONICA HERNDON   |   Times Ericka Leigh works on a bow tie in her studio at her home in Tampa, Fla. on July 18, 2018. Leigh's company, Sewn Apart, reuses old clothing and fabrics to create bow ties and other designs.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Ericka Leigh works on a bow tie in her studio at her home in Tampa, Fla. on July 18, 2018. Leigh's company, Sewn Apart, reuses old clothing and fabrics to create bow ties and other designs.
Published July 26, 2018

TAMPA — The sewing machine pedal buzzes against Ericka Leigh's bare foot as she hunches over a work table.

Behind her sits a bookshelf stuffed with piles of folded fabric. Heaps of other, unsorted textiles fill dresser drawers and bags hidden in the garage. None of it is new.

Most of it would have ended up in a landfill had Leigh not accepted them as donations. Some of her inventory is stained, old, tattered.

To her, the piles are not trash. They're raw materials in the right hands.

"I think of it in terms of bow ties," she says, gesturing to a pile of mismatched scraps. "Like, this piece is four bow ties; this can make 12."

Leigh, 32, started a business out of her northern Ybor home making fashionable neckwear out of discarded fabrics. She stopped buying clothes at the mall three years ago and relies mostly on second-hand goods.

With the staggering amount of fast fashion that winds up in landfills each year in mind, Leigh is one of the growing number of shoppers whose sustainability ethics guide her spending and career.

"There's a plethora of clothes out there and no shortage of materials," she said.

At a time when sustainability is in vogue and foregoing a plastic straw at Starbucks is hip, more consumers — mainly millennials — are choosing second-hand shops, websites and apps to fill their closets.

That's left the big guys playing catch up in an ever-evolving retail space.

Staggering statistics

The clothing industry's pollution rate is second only to the oil industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 85 percent of the 25 billion pounds of clothing waste produced each year winds up in landfills. That means just 3.8 billion pounds are being donated or recycled annually. That's not even considering the amount of power, water and energy it takes to produce the billions of pounds of new garments made each year.

Each American, on average, contributes about 70 pounds of clothing and other fabric waste a year, according to the EPA.

It's these stats that the resale market leans to in convincing shoppers to wear something someone else has worn before.

Not only can shoppers help save the planet, they remind them, but they can save money doing it.

Related coverage: Plastic pollution in Tampa Bay is bigger than straws

When second-hand becomes first choice

Jessica Joy Gronewold opened a buy-sell-trade store called Revolve in 2006. She identified a gap in the Tampa Bay market: no place to take your unwanted items and swap them for a vintage concert tee.

She now has two locations: the original in Ybor, and another in St. Petersburg.

In the early days, she dealt with some skeptics — people drawn inside by trendy outfits in the windows but turned off by buying used clothes.

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"The business always fluctuates here," she said, "but we have definitely noticed more of an interest now. People are more open to it."

In 2008 there was a surge in first-time thrifters retail experts say coincided with the financial crisis. But even as the economy improved, the second-hand market kept its footing — likely thanks to the internet.

ThredUp, launched in 2009, works like any online retailer — except its inventory is second-hand clothing and accessories. Users looking to clear their closets mail in unwanted clothes in exchange for cash or credit to shop on the website.

Just like Revolve and other brick-and-mortar competitors, ThredUP donates or recycles any items it doesn't buy to resell.

Then there's Poshmark, where users post items they want to sell directly the platform. It largely cuts out the middle man, but the site takes a commission. Since its 2011 launch, the company has surged to 4 million users.

ThredUp publishes its own study every year to examine the resale market. Among its findings:

• 44 million women shopped second hand in 2017, up from 35 million the year before.

• 40 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds shopped resale last year, more than any age group under 45.

• Buying a used item extends its average life by 2.2 years, reducing its carbon, waste and water footprints by 73 percent.

• 77 percent of millennials prefer to buy from environmentally conscious brands.

It likely has never been easier, or cooler, to buy second hand. It only helps that wallet-conscious shoppers — like millennials strapped with student loan debt — are easily attracted to brand names at reduced prices.

Big retailers play to shoppers' consciousness

While it's common for small and local businesses to market how they're sustainable, it's becoming a norm among big retailers, too.

On a recent afternoon inside the H&M at Tampa International Mall, an ad played over the loudspeakers touting the store's recycling program: Drop your unwanted clothes or shoes in the cardboard box near the front of the store to be recycled and get 15 percent off your next purchase.

The fast fashion behemoth has also launched a brand it calls "H&M Conscious" using fabric created from recycled textiles. The company reported it used 35 percent recycled textiles last year to make clothing, and plans to use 100 percent by 2030.

"It's not just that companies want to do good," said retail expert and author Nicole Leinbach Reyhle. "It's that they want to continue to appeal to their customer base."

Related coverage:'No Straws St. Pete' sends a message: Stop using plastic straws

The "conscious" clothes are labeled with green tags. The items — a rack of men's black T-shirts, denim dresses, sweaters — were sprinkled around the Tampa store among traditionally sourced items.

"They're trying to target an audience that cares more about sustainability than generations have in the past," Reyhle said.

While the Federal Trade Commission has a "green guide" in attempt to keep businesses from faking out shoppers, it's mostly up to shoppers to discern ifcompanies are as environmentally conscious as they advertise.

The future is sustainable

For Leigh, sustainable sourcing isn't some passing fad.

Three chickens peck aimlessly in her backyard. She uses their eggs to make breakfast. She has a large blue tub that collects rain with which she waters plants that sit in soil she made in a compost tumbler.

She doesn't dismiss the power of fashion or how empowering dressing well can feel, the jobs the industry — and even her small business — can create.

Leigh says she has a story sewn into each stitch — one that was spawned by her late grandfather, who was rarely seen without a bow tie.

She calls her brand Sewn Apart — an ode to being torn down, then put back together as something new, whether that be in fashion or in life.

"I want to change the world," Leigh said. "And I want to look good doing it."

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Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.