There is a growing trend to avoid fast fashion and opt for secondhand clothing. This is the most significant personal change you can make for the environment.
Lauren Cowdery looks through the rails at the Cancer Research charity shop, Goole in east Yorkshire. She sighs as she looks at a ribbed top. Cowdery seems to be browsing, even though the skirt is too big. Cowdery is determined to not buy new clothes, even if they have been worn by someone else. She says, “I believe you need to look at yourself and ask yourself if you really need it.”
Cowdery is just one of many people who love clothes, but do their best to avoid buying them for sustainability reasons. The average garment’s lifespan in the UK is only 2.2 years, according to charity Wrap, which encourages sustainable waste management. An estimated PS30bn of unused clothing hangs in UK wardrobes, and yet still we shop for more. Maria Chenoweth is chief executive of Traid. She says that each week, 38 million items are bought and 11m go to landfill. Traid works to reduce the number of clothes going to waste. “We don’t have the resources to feed this monster.”
Chenoweth believes consumers are shifting to secondhand shopping or adding an element of pre-owned into their buying habits. She points out a 30% increase in turnover at .Traid stores in 2018 compared to 2017. Her father forbade her from participating in jumble sales when she was a teenager being afraid that people will think that their family is in need. She disobeyed him and dragged her clothes bags through her bedroom window. Chenoweth now considers it a “big gesture of activism” to buy secondhand, a necessity for those who “do no believe in damaging the environment or perpetuating this waste.”
How difficult is it to switch to a more sustainable shopping experience? According to McKinsey’s State of Fashion report, more than half of fast fashion items in the UK are discarded within a year. Is secondhand shopping really an effective way to combat fast fashion?
Cowdery is a marketing officer at the Junction Theatre in Goole. There are plenty of local distractions for a lunchtime: Dorothy Perkins and New Look. Cowdery used “just because they were there” to purchase things. She went to Asos in the evenings. I’d think, “Oh brilliant, a discount coupon! Shipping is free! I will order it! Hmm… It doesn’t fit well. But I don’t have the time to return it. I’ll keep it.”
Cowdery purchased two to three items each month. That starts to accumulate at PS20 per month. “There is a lot of stuff. Things still with tags… I looked at myself and wondered: “What are you doing?”
Cowdery was curious about a Facebook post and decided to visit the Leeds Community Clothes Exchange. This is a local swap shop. She is now one of its three directors and oversees the 2000 items that “designer stuff”, “vintage stuff”, and “wedding dresses” that pass through the Woodhouse community center each month.
Cowdery and Cowdery meet during lunch, when we used to shop. The Clothes Exchange is her source for her skirt, top, and cardigan. Her boots are from Autism Plus in Goole. She explains that at the exchange, everything is one-for-one. There are no value judgements. If all buttons are intact and there are not stains, a garment can be sold. Prom dresses are often worn again and again. People take them, wear them and bring them back. Regulars leave pieces aside for one another. The fitting room is a place to encourage.
Cowdery began to lose interest in the Peacocks clothes exchange as her involvement grew. Its shop floor now struck her as “an explosive in a jumble sales”. Unopened emails from Topshop and Asos were deleted. For a year, she put off buying new clothes. “I thought that I would reach the end and say, ‘I’ve done this. She says, “I’ll move on.” It changed my perception of clothes.”
Cowdery still enjoys clothes, especially velvet, but has found a safe and healthy way to consume them. She can refresh her wardrobe by exchanging clothes. She is able to be acquisitive as long as she gives up the same amount. She now trades between 10 and 15 pieces per month, mainly items she got at previous exchanges.
At Sarah Fewell’s Basingstoke home, clothes come and go. She is so used to receiving parcels that she even knows Jay, her postman’s first name. Fewell, who was 14 at the time, loved to cut up and put on studs. Now, Fewell has made her passion for vintage clothes into a sustainable form of fast fashion.
Fewell owns a shop called Identity Partyn on the website Depop. Since its inception in 2011, it has offered its 10,000,000 users an eclectic mix of eBay-style trading and Instagram-style posting. Fewell loves selling things that have animals on them, such as a good ugly jumper or anything from St Michael.
Fewell was in her second year of a Goldsmiths University of London politics degree when she was looking through charity shops. Fewell already had a Depop profile and had sold unwanted clothes so she purchased the dress and listed it as “very . Phoebe from Friends”. It quickly sold.
During her third year, she sold and bought relentlessly. “When I graduated from university, I realized that I didn’t want to work in a real job.”
Fewell is now a professional in her love for vintage with Identity Party. She does not completely avoid new clothes for her wardobe. They make up around 10%. For example, she buys new gymwear (“It would seem gross to wear secondhand gym clothes.”) She bought them on Black Friday.
We are sitting at a cafe in Basingstoke’s shopping center. Fewell is wearing an Identity Party top, jeans, and an eBay jacket as she runs through her work week. Monday, Fewell posts. Tuesday she takes photos. Wednesday, she uploads. The fourth day is spent in the charity shops in Newbury, Basingstoke and Reading. The fifth and sixth days are spent on additional photography and posting.
Fewell’s days can be long. Fewell is a top seller in Depop because of all the time she spent cutting shoulder pads and removing handkerchiefs. She has sold over 3,000 dresses since her first one, and her customers include her friends who no longer consider secondhand shopping to be “a little niche”.
Fewell states that many people are becoming sick of fast fashion. She was not aware of the sustainability benefits of secondhand clothing when she first posted her first dress in 2017. “I didn’t think: ‘I can push this message.'” It was added to the blog after a few months. She now trades her “handpicked old gems” for sustainable fashion. On the reverse side of her business cards are facts about clothing waste. She urges customers to dispose of any clothing that doesn’t fit them, and to close the loop.
Fewell may never have considered that selling secondhand clothing, which is now the mainstay of sustainability, might be a bad idea. Depop is a mirror of fast fashion in that consumers purchase cheaply and frequently. Fewell points out the recycled plastic used in bags. She would love to be able to buy biodegradable bags. She admits that the downside to being environmentally friendly is shipping and packing. But people will always want clothes to wear. It is best to buy secondhand.
Stephanie Campbell, Wrap’s Love Your Clothes campaign director, states that the key is to keep clothing from going to landfill. In the UK, 430,000 tonnes of clothing is disposed of each year. The number of clothes being sold in 2016 was 1.13 million tonnes, an increase of 200,000 tonnes over 2012.
“It’s a slow, gradual mindset change,” says Zoe Edwards, a sewing teacher and blogger who 11 years ago pledged never to buy new clothes. It’s not like something happens and suddenly it’s: “Right, this’s how I shop now.”
Edwards worked for a “very fast-fashion, low end clothing supplier” in London. Her job was to order trims such as labels, hanging loops and buttons. She was often unable to get the right amount of fabric, so she ordered a lot of trims. This made her feel uncomfortable and was a waste of money and resources. Her passion for sewing was always strong and she enjoyed selling her handmade clothes at Etsy and market stalls. Her two modes of living are now jarred.
She says, “I wasn’t interested in fast fashion anymore.” She quit her job and began sewing clothes. Edwards has only bought “one or two” items in the last 11 years. Edwards’ bras are brand new. She thinks she might have bought a Zara top in 2010. She calls her knickers “me-made” even though they are brand new.
How difficult is it to quit buying clothes? Tania Arrayales, who is a self-described fashion disruptor, has started a New York organization called “Fashion of Tomorrow” to promote a more sustainable approach in the clothing industry. Arrayales was a founding member of Style Lend, a peer-to-peer clothing rental site, and swore off all clothing purchases for a year, inspired by the documentary True Cost. There were times when she wanted to break her own rule.
“The challenge was feeling a bit… I wasn’t as trendy as before. She says that she couldn’t make an impression at an event. I didn’t have anything shiny or new. But I wanted to restructure how my brain saw shopping.”
She bought vintage clothing in her second year. She bought a few pieces of clothing from sustainable brands in the year that followed. Style Lend was her first choice for renting what she needed. There are also lending sites available in the UK, but it is still a small market. “I saw pieces differently. I discovered styling,” Arrayales said.
Cowdery noticed a similar sense for exploration and play at Clothes Exchange. “I have been more adventurous, more liberated with clothes. I don’t keep them for the best. They are mine.” She says that she doesn’t care about the label size.
Secondhand shopping is all about the fluidity of sizing. Fewell, a depop seller, lists clothes in sizes eight-14. Shoppers are encouraged not to judge their own size. Cowdery states, “That’s what the great part about swapping.” Nobody is depressed that something they like doesn’t fit. “Just look at your eyes and ask yourself: “Will it fit?”
Edwards was also confronted with her personal taste. The decision making process for sewing involves a lot of decisions: what fabric to use, how long the dress should be, and what shape of sleeves. Although she buys vintage fabric from thrift shops and refashions them, sewing is not necessarily the most sustainable method of dressing herself. It is possible to still acquire fabric and other materials. There is a tendency to value the making more than the wearing. This means that there is a lot of making that doesn’t get worn. Edwards states that there is a lot of slow fashion in the sewing community. “People are more inclined to use their existing stuff than buy new stuff,” Edwards says.
It is difficult to store all types of clothing – secondhand, new and handmade – in such a large volume. Selling secondhand clothes is difficult. To avoid swamping the secondhand market, or passing the problem on to others, including developing countries where many used clothes are sold in bulk, other technologies, such as fibre-to-fibre recycling, need to be encouraged.
Edwards states, “Clothing allows me to express who I am, my feelings, and what I believe.” It’s a way of communicating with the outside world. Although it’s a great way to communicate with the world, it must be done carefully.
What can someone who is passionate about new clothes, but also wants to live sustainably, do? As Edwards says, if you are spending time on fashion sites, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination or will to switch your browser to eBay, Depop, thredUP, HEWI London or any of the raft of “resale disruptors.” Chenoweth states that it is important to “not keep stuff in your closet if you aren’t wearing it.” Donating clothes helps to get them back in circulation.
Cowdery states, “Clothes tell a story.” It doesn’t matter if you only wear it once and then toss it in the trash. These things should have a story.”