Sustainable fashion enthusiast?
Nodding? You will likely have heard the mantra that ‘second-hand isn’t second best’ you might also have seen the burarchy of needs suggesting that second-hand is where you should shop first. This article is here to both agree with this idea, and bust open some of the flaws in argument for secondhand clothing. Let’s chat the good, the bad, and the ugly of all things secondhand shopping.
We Aussies have a passion for fashion. We like to look great and enjoy getting our fashion fix. According to the crew at War on Waste shopping for fashion is one heck of an Australian past time with an annual spend of over five billion dollars on fashion! Our passion to look good is becoming increasingly affordable. Fast fashion is making beautiful, on trend, and often quality clothing accessible to everyone no matter their income. On the surface clothing that is easy to find, fits, washes pretty well and costs less than a burger meal deal can seem like a fashion lovers dream. Sustainability minded people know that this is too good to be equitable, and that fast fashion is harming people and planet somewhere along the production chain.
As fast fashion and the availability of cheap clothing has become widely accepted our textile cast offs have grown. Seeing Aussies throw away more than half a million tonnes of textiles and leather end up in landfill each year. This is enough to fill the MCG two and a half times over. To drive the point home the War on Waste team worked out that this equates sending six thousand kilograms of clothing to landfill every ten minutes. That’s a LOT of clothing!!!!
Fortunately many of these clothes come through charity reclaim at some point. Australians like to give to charity and according to NACRO (Australia’s leading body for post consumer waste collection) we recycled 300,000 tonnes of goodies to charity stores in 2012. Sustainability minded shoppers are well aware that this 300,000 tonnes of goodies are a bounty of awesome finds that can adequately fill closets and homes across our nation.
Even if you weren’t great at math (and I’m not so please feel free to pick holes in my argument) you would have noticed that we are donating 300,000 tonnes of stuff per annum and throwing away 6 tonnes of clothing every ten minutes and that doesn’t seem to add up to perfect outcomes! If my calculations are right, using the War on Waste stats, we are sending 864 tonnes of clothing (alone) to landfill every day and over a year. If we subtract the NACRO reclaim of 300,000 (imagining that for arguments sake it’s only fashion they reclaimed) there are hypothetically still more than 15.5 thousand tonnes of clothing still heading to landfill. Obviously this is a very rudimentary calculation but it should hopefully clarify that charity is not going to solve the puzzle of an abundance of clothing in isolation.
There seems to be a bit of gloss in sustainable fashion circles about second-hand clothing. It’s often presented as the ‘get out of jail free’ card to shop as you would fast fashion. You can thrift freely, spend whatever you like on as many items as you want, flaunt them all over social media without guilt, and give them back to charity when they don’t serve you any longer. In a sense there is some truth to this, but it’s not as simple as an endless circle of second-hand clothing giving and getting. Charity stores aren’t dumping zones (most are actually businesses), clothes don’t remain in wearable condition forever, and your donated clothing doesn’t always stay in Australia.
Let’s get to the truth of second-hand fashion. If you can’t find what you want second-hand you aren’t looking hard enough. The second-hand clothing market is in surplus of stuff and you are just one thrift store or eBay search away from owning whatever you like from whatever brand you desire. It isn’t a world that exists outside fast-fashion in some ‘recycled clothing’ heaven, it’s PART of the fast fashion world. It is the pit-stop for fashion (vintage, sustainable, ethical or fast) between birth and it’s inevitable demise in landfill.
When you purchase an item second-hand you are diverting it momentarily from landfill, but ultimately, at some point (even if it’s after you are long gone) your clothing will end up being thrown ‘away’ either in clothing form, or some other recycled or biodegradable form.
You know how they say ‘you are what you eat’ the same is sort of true in the sense of ‘you are what you wear’. If you shop second-hand you might inadvertently become a billboard for a fast-fashion (or not so ethical or sustainable) fashion label because you are still buying into a labels look when you buy their items secondhand. Your decision to shop secondhand, while a good choice for the hip-pocket and a great way to recycle, is also a decision to not fund a more sustainable or ethical business. Sadly many small ethical and sustainable clothing and accessory labels flounder or fail because their target customer (myself included) can find everything they want and need secondhand. While it’s nice to like or follow labels that do good, money is what they really need to be truly sustainable and ethical!
The REAL ugly side of second-hand fashion (outside of the piles of clothing we send to the rubbish dump) is that we produce far too much textile waste than charity stores can handle. NACRO reports that in 2016 charity stores in NSW alone spent seven million dollars disposing of soiled, damaged, broken and unfit for reuse. That is seven million dollars that could otherwise have been used to support people, animals, or the environment.
Of all the usable stuff that gets donated, not all of it is sold in Aussie stores. Check out this image to see where your donated goodies might end up (sourced from here)
Are you surprised that your clothes may have found there way from your closet to UAE, or Angola (at $455k)? The global secondhand market is HUGE and it’s not all above board. Some argue the good in this industry, showing that the introduction of surplus western clothing to markets globally allows for greater creativity, autonomy for individuals wishing to set up small business, and creating opportunities for tailors, designers and other creative types. On the flip side there is a common rhetoric that secondhand clothing cast-offs sent overseas are putting local garment manufacturing supply chains, and traditional artisans out of business. Whatever your stance on this issue (if you have one) there is no denying that clothing sent offshore still ends up going back to the earth eventually, biodegradable or not!
Where to from here?
So is secondhand clothing a legitimate option for shopping? I believe it is- but like all good things- it should be in moderation. When you shop secondhand you need to keep in mind that the dollars you spend in a charity shop (or elsewhere) is only supporting charity- and showcasing the work of whatever brand your clothing item is. Shopping secondhand is not encouraging a more sustainable or ethical fashion industry. It’s literally just keeping items out of the garbage a little longer. The reason why the fashion industry has openly embraced the idea of shopping secondhand is that it knows that you are doing their recycling for them. They don’t have to take responsibility for their end of life clothing and you are still proudly wearing their labels but in a more ‘eco’ light. You also represent the charity you have chosen to support. Do you even believe in their values or what they choose to invest your money in?
In no way was this post designed to turn you off shopping second-hand. In fact I LOVE shopping second-hand. It was designed to make you think little harder about the blanket statement that has spread far and wide across the fashion landscape that secondhand is a flawless way to shop.
If you can, try to assign a little of your shopping budget to shop from ethical and sustainable labels that you deem worthy of your support. This shout out comes on behalf of all the little fashion labels out there working unethical hours to make their vision come to life off unsustainable funds. You are their only target market (fast-fashion shoppers rarely leap from a $5 tee to a $55 organic tee and consume them at the same rate) and you are the only people who can keep them going.
- Shop infrequently
- Shop secondhand from people or charities you would like to support.
- Understand that you are still a ‘face’ for the label you wear even if it’s secondhand.
- And splurge occasionally on new (upcycled, recycled or consciously designed) items from brands that really support the world you want to live in.
- Try to keep your clothes out of landfill for as long as possible.
Using this formula will make you feel better knowing that you are truly consuming your secondhand clothing in the most conscious way.