A couple of weekends ago I attended an event at The Open Market, Brighton, called Preloved Kilo. This event was based on the idea that you could shop through second hand or thrifted clothes and pay £15 per kilo. Sounds great, right? I’ll be honest, my initial thought was that, “this sounds like a great way to buy something new at a relatively small cost, without adding to the fashion industry’s ever growing problem that is waste”, but does this way of shopping count as being sustainable? Does the fact that your buying something from a second hand event, that is already made and previously owned mean that you’re not a participant of the fast fashion industry, and is this a potential answer to help reduce the rate at which we are filling up landfills with unwanted (and often perfectly decent) clothes?
Well, stick with me and hopefully by the end of this post you’ll be a little clearer as to what you think the answer is.
A big proportion of the clothing that we buy and wear in the UK is originally made elsewhere in countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh and Indonesia by highly skilled workers (80% of which are female), that are paid less than minimum wage. After the clothes have been made, they are then shipped overseas using energy and fuel in order to get there, before being transported to the shops where we purchase them and take them home.
Purchasing second hand clothing tends to use a lot less energy and fuel within the UK as it travels a smaller distance in order for it to get to us at events such as Preloved Kilo. However although this part of the garments lifecycle is reduced, this doesn't necessarily always mean it's better overall.
Second hand clothes tend to either be re-sold by the initial purchaser through sites such as eBay, Depop or Vinted; given to one of the many charity shops; or to brands such as H&M who offer a recycling service where by you can bring in a bag of clothes and they will give you a small voucher to spend in store in return (a great marketing tool if you ask me). Any clothes that don't get re-sold or used within those systems get sold to distributors who then sort through the clothes and send them onto places such as Pakistan or Malaysia in big air-tight, plastic-wrapped parcels before being re-sold or recycled. For most people that live in these places, purchasing second hand clothing is a necessity rather than a choice; the luxury of being able to buy a new outfit by either popping into town or going online is unavailable. Here’s a short video that I came across that shows evidence of this in India.
Now that I've explained a little bit of the process that goes into second hand clothing, let's get back to the event held at The Open Market, Brighton. This event saw hundreds and hundreds of people waiting and queuing for a chance to look through some preloved clothing, myself included. Ben (my boyfriend) and I waited for approximately 30 minutes before were greeted by a lovely northern lady who seemed rather fed up with having to deal with so many rude people at the event that day, but, shrugged it of and used it as a way to make polite conversation with us. We then gave in £1 each and collected a plastic bag that was for us to put any chosen items into.
We arrived at 1pm (3 hours after the event started) and found that there were still rails and rails worth of clothing and accessories to sift through, so much so that staff were hanging around the edge of the area with large tubs full of more stock to put out the minute there was more space. After a little while I found a cream shirt which, (as you can see in the picture below on the left) I was rather happy to find. I took it to the till where I was charged a whopping £3 and was asked to put it in my enormous plastic bag. Unsure if the lady had seen my perfectly empty canvas bag (which I had deliberately brought with me to use), I asked if I could just use my own instead, explaining that I'd rather not use the plastic one if possible. Unfortunately she couldn't allow me to and politely explained that the way they were judging if people had paid was by looking to see if their plastic sacks had a red cable tie attached. Slightly disheartened I left, huge plastic bag in hand (see the image to the right).
After the event, Ben pointed out that although it was a second hand clothing event, and therefore I'd expected to feel slightly better about buying something that, lets face it, I didn't need, that their goal isn't sustainability - as always, it was profit. Plastic bags are cheap, they are durable and due to the size of the ones used here, they were an easy way for them to oversee who had paid.
So, taking all of that into consideration and that the life cycle of clothing often results in a vast amount being sent back to where it began, does this mean second hand shopping is sustainable? Well, I guess the answer is partly no. However if you're buying something second hand that is sourced locally over something new, it definitely reduces the carbon footprint so it's a step in the right direction. And, when you consider that if we were all to extend our clothes' life cycle by just 9 months (which we'd be doing by buying previously owned items) we would reduce our carbon, water and waste footprints by around 20-30% each, then it's definitely a win for the environment!
Although second hand clothing doesn’t eliminate the problem, it is definitely what I would consider to be a #smallshawstep in the right direction and a way of reducing the amount that ends up in landfills, which I'm sure you'll agree is a problem that we really need to address. Overall, I'd say it gets a tick from me and at the end of the day it's about doing what you can, wherever you are, with what you have.
If you want to read around the subject of second hand clothing in more detail I've listed the sources used and few really good videos below.
As ever, thanks for taking the time to read this and please feel free to leave any comments/suggestions/feedback below.