The first book I read for the Twitter Sustainable Book Club (the what? Find out here) was a timely one. Recently I have thinking about how to dress sustainably and plastic-free. When discussing sustainable clothing, buying second-hand, along with clothes swaps seems like a no brainer. Of course buying from charity shops is a greener option and from the plastic-free point of view ideal in that it is packaging free. But how sustainable is it?
I have my doubts that buying second-hand helps reduce consumerism. Rather it creates another market but this time for second-hand goods. Furthermore you cannot influence, with your purchasing power, how the clothes were made and by whom. Buying second-hand clothes made in sweat shops is not to my mind guilt free merely because they are second hand..
And there are other issues which have been well documented in this easy to read case study..
Clothing Poverty – The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes by Andrew Brooks
“Following a pair of jeans, Clothing Poverty takes the reader on a vivid around-the-world tour to reveal how clothes are manufactured and retailed, bringing to light how fast fashion and clothing recycling are interconnected. Andrew Brooks shows how recycled clothes are traded across continents, uncovers how retailers and international charities are embroiled in commodity chains which perpetuate poverty, and exposes the hidden trade networks which transect the globe.”
The following summary is way too simple but basically this is what is happening
Those in the richer countries are encouraged to buy and discard clothes on a regular basis a movement described as fast fashion. We wear a lot of clothes. Here are a few statistics
- The major products consumed were: 420 thousand tonnes of trousers, T-shirts and pullovers 530 thousand tonnes of carpets
- From 2001 to 2005 spending on women’s clothing grew by 21% and that on men’s by 14%. During the same time – as the end of the quota arrangement approached in 2005 – prices actually dropped by 14%
Consumers in the UK spend about £780 per head per year, purchasing around 2.15 million tonnes (35kg per person)
A few months later those new clothes are discarded. Most are thrown away but a small percentage are donated to charity shops. However charity shops can only sell a percentage of those clothes back to U.K. customers. The demand simply isn’t there. So they sell the unsold clothes to international clothes traders. These clothes end up on third world markets.
So clothes are made in the third world then transported to the first world to be worn for a limited time before being given to a charity who sell it back to the third world. These are sold to private market traders who sell them back possibly to those who made them!
Amongst other things Andrew Brooks argues that this impacts adversely on the development of local textile and clothing markets. Both in Africa and at home. It certainly impacts adversely on the environment!
You can see more posts on this here
Charity Shops & Over Consumption
I have long considered giving to charity shops to distract from the problem of overconsumption. For many gifting good quality clothing justifies buying more. Which does nothing to address the issue of buying too much. At worst it adds a kind of beneficial, even charitable gloss to going out shopping. But while mine is a gut feeling Andrew Brooks explores this in-depth and comes to similar but far better documented conclusions.
Charity Shops & Poor Quality Clothes
I am not against the sale of second-hand clothing or the money raised going to charity. But only as part of a very different clothing cycle.I remember when charity shops sold good quality second-hand clothing from decades ago. You could buy collarless granddad shirts and woolen overcoats as seen on the Smiths Basically dead mens clothes! Because back then most clothes were made to last a life time and only discarded when your granddad had gone to place where he wouldn’t be needing shirts.
Now charity shops are stuffed full of cheap and badly made clothes that are not much cheaper than Primark. It might be that I am shopping in the wrong area.When I went on a trawl of charity shops in Tunbridge Wells they were posh! But generally the faster turn around in clothes means they are of poorer quality. Andrew Brooks who also documents this aspect of the clothing trade.
Charity Shops and Fair Trade /Environmental Issues
If you choose to buy secondhand you lose the chance to influence how your clothes are made by whom and out of what. Any purchase is a vote with your cash and an opportunity to influence the market. Buying second-hand clothes made in sweat shops, out fibres grown unsustainably, by unethical companies is not, (to my mind), guilt free.
So how can we clothe ourselves in a fitting manner
Fair Share Fabrics My Global Share
Before charity clothing shops can come back into their own, we need to tackle overconsumption and production of poor quality clothes. Of course one mans over consumption is another’s nothing to wear so how to decide what is sustainable?
This is how the equation works for me
We cannot exceed current levels of production
We cannot expect others to want less than we have.
Therefore we can only consume our global share
Which works out at 11.74kg of fabric per person, per year. 3.8 kg is natural fibres the rest is synthetic fibre. You can check my figures here.
So I use no more than my share of fibres and because I hate non-biodegradables I keep my use of synthetics to a minimum. The fibres I do use have to be sustainably sourced.
You can see how I manage with fabric rationing here…
Fine Quality Worn To Shreds
A very similar approach and one I really love is that of Mrs M. She buys quality clothes and wears them till they fall apart. One reason for that is that she only allows herself the amount of clothes she could have had under the war-time rationing system. And those clothes have to be ethically sourced. Her clothes have a value. Catch up with her fantastic blog here.
Sharing, Swapping and Mending
Zoe too has some great tips for more varied ethical dressing including how to approach the tricky second-hand clothing issue
1. Use up or give away to friends / family / strangers (in this country) our unwanted clothes
2. Go forward with only:
- buying really good quality ethically sourced long-lasting clothes containing only sustainable natural fibres and/or
- buying or receiving unwanted secondhand clothes from family, friends and strangers and/or
- making your own good quality long-lasting clothes from environmentally conscious and ethically sourced fabrics
3. Hire clothes that will only be worn once or twice e.g. suits and dresses
5. Swap clothes if you want a wardrobe refresh (whilst still in good condition) with others.
You can read more here plus her great Clothing Poverty Review over here