Second hand and sustainability: The double edged sword of the second hand clothing explosion

Second hand and sustainability: The double edged sword of the second hand clothing explosion

This month our founding charity Dorothy House is celebrating Sustainable September. We are looking at how important it is to merge sustainable practices with every aspect of our lives, creating a more promising future for people and the planet. We asked our new blogger Eliza Howell to explore whether second hand clothing is always truly sustainable and to investigate if fast fashion is encroaching into this space in a negative way.

'Is it possible to love clothes without contributing to the negative side of the clothing industry?'

'It is difficult to avoid hearing about the toxicity of the clothing industry, with fashion production making up 10% of carbon emissions, and a purported 50% of fast-fashion clothing being discarded within a year of purchase.

'Up until the start of 2022, I was definitely guilty of contributing to the toxic fast-fashion movement - spending hours browsing one of the many unscrupulous online retailers to find an outfit for an event or for an item that I had seen somebody else wear that I just had to have. The convenience of cheap next-day delivery and the thrill of receiving your parcel (especially in the days of monotonous home-working) was difficult to resist.

'I (wrongly) thought that I could offset my fast-fashion purchases by donating them to charity after they’ve been worn once - or not at all.'

'Fortunately, I now know that less than 30% of charity shop donations hit the shop floor, as charity's struggle to sell cheap fashion brands. The quality just doesn't stand the test of even a few washes and the styles are often too trend led, to work into people's every day wardrobes. Literally 'throw away' fashion. Although charities receive 'rag' money per kilo from rag merchants who sell on to other countries, you can imagine the tons and tons of waste clothing now circulating in the system and the carbon footprint of these clothes being transported around the world.

'At the start of 2022 therefore,  I decided to set myself a goal to go a whole year without buying “new”. I decided instead to buy only secondhand, rent clothes or borrow from friends, and most importantly to wear what I already own. For the most-part I have stuck to my goal (save for a couple of pairs of shoes which I do find tricky to buy secondhand).

'Whilst this new approach to buying and wearing clothes has massively changed my attitude towards the clothing industry and my habits around buying clothes, one thing that I have not yet been able to combat is the level of “new-to-me” clothes I buy. I frequent my local charity shops in Bristol several times a week and it is rare that I don’t return with one or two (or three, or four) new items to try.

'It satiates my desire to buy “new” clothes without the guilt of buying into the destructive fast-fashion industry, but I am well aware that I am still consuming far more than is necessary.'

'It is also now apparent that many online second hand sellers buy from fast fashion outlets new items in the sale, in order to resell them online for profit - this means that in some cases second hand selling is actually continue to drive this irresponsible side of the fashion industry.

'This then poses the question, 'how can I love clothes without contributing to the negative side of the clothing industry?' Surely shopping, even charity-shopping, should be about buying things that make you feel great long term - not just a fun pastime and dopamine hit? We need to combat this over-consumption and eliminate the need to always be wearing something different - but how do we go about changing this way of thinking? 

'I think a positive way that we can begin to change our habits is firstly by going through our own wardrobes to re-discover (and in my case, discover) what we already own - to donate what we no longer love, or what no longer suits, or fits us. We can then highlight key areas in which we may be lacking so that we can shop with purpose in order to find real gems that we love and that slot perfectly into our wardrobes. Think “capsule wardrobe” with a bit more flexibility. I happily spend time now going through my wardrobe collating different outfits out of items that have been sat in there for years - at times, unworn.

'I love experimenting with wearing these items in different ways; wearing a dress as a skirt, a skirt as a top, layering, tying, turning around, sewing (I am still learning this one).'

'Even when shopping for these special items that we need to fill a gap in our wardrobes, charity- shopping should be our go-to. Charity-shopping can be such a mindful and rewarding way of adding to your wardrobe, you have to really earn your purchases by spending time hunting for the gems. Nowadays a lot of charity shops (such as Dorothy House) have online shops too, which means that this way of shopping is accessible even for people without the luxury of time to spend browsing in-person. More often than not you find amazing “one-offs” that aren’t necessarily just following fashion-trends - which now seem to go out of fashion quicker than you can say “low-rise jeans” - (please no!!).

'This allows you to discover your own style and wear clothes that suit your body-shape and personality.'

'It is clear that there is a long way to go before any real change occurs in the clothing industry, but on an individual level we can each alter our habits and be more mindful in the way in which we shop and consume fashion. I think that in doing so, not only can we help to make positive changes to battle the environmental impact of the clothing industry, but it can also allow us to love clothes in a different and more positive way.'

Thaks Eliza, a very thoughful post- let us know what you think too!

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