By John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporter

ANINA A. MIGUEL, 23, spends her weekends scouring secondhand clothing stores — “ukay-ukay” in the Filipino vernacular — for unique pieces you won’t find in your everyday retail stores.

Her obsession with thrift shopping began while growing up in Baguio City, widely considered as the thrift shopping capital of the Philippines.

“Thrift stores can be more inclusive compared with regular retail shops because they cater to a wide array of styles, sizes and budgets,” she told BusinessWorld. “They have one-of-a-kind pieces that make every trip feel like a treasure hunt.”

Reselling “pre-loved” clothing online has become more common amid a coronavirus pandemic, with some vintage items going for double their original retail price, Hazel T. Biana, a philosophy professor at De La Salle University, said in a 2020 study.

These pieces were being sold on online selling platforms such as Carousell and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

“I get that there’s a target market for those items and platforms, but I would personally stick to going to thrift shops in person,” Ms. Miguel said.

While many global fashion brands and retailers struggled during the pandemic, consumers’ secondhand fashion consumption accelerated as an alternative to new clothing purchases, according to a March 2022 study by Naeun Lauren Kim and Terry Haekyung Kim, who did an online survey of South Koreans in 2021.

“Consumers are motivated to engage in secondhand fashion consumption for different reasons depending on the impact of the pandemic on their daily lives,” they said. “While cost-saving and social motivations were significant drivers for the high-impact group, the attitudes of the low-impact group were mainly influenced by sustainability and variety-seeking motivations.”

In August, Senator Rafael “Raffy” T. Tulfo proposed to legalize commercial imports of secondhand garments and tax small vendors in the process.

Commercially imported used clothing is outlawed in the Philippines and violators face a fine of as much as P200,000 and a jail term of up to five years. But even before the pandemic, ukay-ukay has been popular among Filipinos.

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, who heads the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers should review the law on used clothing.

“We cannot fault the retailers for selling used clothing because I don’t think they know it’s illegal,” he told a Senate committee hearing in August. “Many of the retailers pay business permits but they sell secondhand clothing.”

Shortly after, Albay Rep. Jose Ma. Clemente S. Salceda filed a bill seeking to legalize used clothing imports — an P18-billion industry, according to his estimates — allowing these to become formally part of the economy.

The global secondhand clothing market was estimated to be worth $71.23 million (P4.2 billion) this year and is expected to increase to $282.75 million by 2032, according to Future Market Insights.

House Bill 3845 seeks to repeal the more than 50-year-old Republic Act 4653, which bans bringing secondhand clothing into the country to safeguard public health and the nation’s dignity.

In 2014, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus B. Rodriguez and his brother, former Party-list Rep. Maximo B. Rodriguez, proposed a similar measure, saying the government could earn as much as P700 million by taxing imported used clothing.

The congressmen argued in their proposal that the used clothing industry has created jobs for many Filipinos.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr., founder of free market think tank Minimal Government Thinkers, agrees with the proposal, saying all sectors should be taxed.

“If Congress must amend the tax law to include secondhand clothes, they should also amend the tax rate downward,” he said in a Viber message.  “The law applies equally to unequal people and sectors. No one is exempted.”

Access to secondhand clothing grew in Southeast Asia after World War II, mainly through donations from nongovernment groups, according to a 2015 study by anthropologist Lynne Milgram.

The United Nations donated a billion dollars in relief items to Asian countries after the war, she said.

Ging Antonio, who works as a saleslady at a secondhand clothing store at the Makati Cinema Square near the Philippine capital, fell on hard times during the global pandemic.

“Our business has been going sideways after pandemic lockdowns caused our operations to be on and off,” she told BusinessWorld in Filipino. The store still struggles to earn a steady income even in the absence of lockdowns, she said.

Jairus D. Espiritu, a philosophy lecturer at Mapua University, said thrift shopping for Filipinos could be seen as a resistance and an alternative to fast-fashion — inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.

“We can go around what is supposed to be a capitalist trap by enjoying its by-products instead of what is supposed to be its products,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

Prominent clothing chains such as H&M and Zara use business models that rely on the speedy production of cheap clothing to meet the latest fashion trends, Hong Kong-based environmental group said on its website.

The rapid turnover of pieces within these stores encourages customers to buy in large quantities and get rid of old clothing after a while, Ms. Biana said.

Filipinos are fascinated with shopping for secondhand clothes since it is embedded in their culture to avoid putting things to waste, Mr. Espiritu said.

“It doesn’t just imply waste but its pejorative connotation wants us to make the most out of what we have, and that includes secondhand clothes,” he pointed out.

Ms. Milgram said secondhand clothing appeals to a wide range of people regardless of social status.

“The meaning of secondhand clothing worldwide has shifted from its humble origin as an inexpensive functional product fulfilling the clothing needs of the poor to a useful yet fashionable commodity pursued across class and space,” she said.

“My decision to go to a thrift store really depends on my mood on a particular day,” said Ms. Miguel, the ukay-ukay shopper. “There are days when I go with a wish list in mind, but usually I prioritize the sale section to get more of my money’s worth.”