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How to buy second-hand clothes, and repair and upcycle clothing

Each person in the UK throws away over 3kg of textiles on average every year. That’s equivalent to around 20 t-shirts. 

Buying second-hand, repairing and upcycling are therefore important ways to cut your environmental impact – as well as cut down your clothing costs.

Every new item of clothing we buy comes with a hefty price tag in terms of climate, pollution and resource use. Making our clothes last a little longer, or finding life in someone else’s pre-loved item, are therefore our best options when it comes to reducing our clothing impacts.

In this article, we explain why buying second-hand, repairing and recycling clothes is so important. We give our top tips for what to consider and where to buy second-hand. And we provide some handy resources to get started with repairs, upcycling and alterations.

Extending the active life of 50% of UK clothing by 9 months would save 8% carbon, 10% water and 4% waste per tonne of clothing, according to WRAP
Image courtesy of WRAP

Why is buying second-hand, repairing and recycling important?

From growing cotton and dying yarn, to producing a finished item of clothing, each stage of the fashion process comes with environmental costs. 

In the UK alone, our clothing has an annual carbon footprint of 26.2 million tonnes – equivalent to the yearly emissions of over two million people.

Every time we ensure our clothes are used a bit longer – whether that’s through repair or buying second-hand – we make environmental savings. Providing that it means we buy less new stuff, we’re avoiding all the emissions, pollution and other issues involved in the growing, sewing and selling process. 

For this reason UK waste action charity WRAP has found that extending the life of clothes is the number one action the UK fashion industry should take when it comes to sustainability.

How and where to buy second-hand clothing

There are lots of options for buying second-hand. In this section, we outline a few and provide a handy table so you can work out which option might suit you.

1. Clothes swaps – one of the most ethical options and great for building community.

2. Vintage shops – online and on high streets, offering more distinctive clothing. We rate and review the vintage clothes retailer Beyond Retro in our Ethical Clothing guide.

3. Charity shops – remain cheap and contribute to charity. Donate clothes when you can’t swap or upcycle them, and if they’re in a good condition. We rate and review Oxfam second-hand clothing in our Ethical Clothing guide.

4. Freebie sites and apps – like Freecycle or Freegle sometimes list clothing for free.

5. Resale apps and sites – usually targeted at young people. Try to buy from someone genuinely selling second-hand (those with fewer items, less/no designer or limited-edition label, and none still with tags). Options include eBay, Depop, Vinted, Cos Resell and more. You may want to steer clear of resale sites owned by fast fashion brands line Shein.

6. Rental sites – sometimes pricey, but particularly useful for special events. Websites like Rotaro, Hire Street, My Wardrobe HQ and Girl Meets Dress offer one-off rentals or month-long memberships. The By Rotation app allows users to rent from others on the app. A recent report however, claimed to find that renting clothes is “less green than throwing them away”, due to delivery and packaging.

  Free or cost? In person or online? Local or national?
Clothes swaps Free In person Local
Vintage shops Cost In person or online Local or national
Freebie sites and apps Free Online Local
Resale apps and websites Cost Online National
Rental websites Cost Online Nationa

4 things to think about when buying second-hand clothing

Second-hand clothing shops are abundant - whether that’s charity shops, vintage shops or second-hand apps like Depop. Buying-second hand is becoming more and more accessible, so here we give some top tips on what to consider and pitfalls to look out for.

1. Have you checked the fit?

It can be so disappointing to order the perfect-looking item second-hand and then find that it doesn’t even vaguely fit. While second-hand apps and websites will give you a label size, this can mean something very different depending on the brand.

If you’re buying direct from a seller, for example through eBay or a second-hand app, you probably won’t be able to return it, so it’s worth spending a moment working out the fit. There are a few easy ways to do this:

  • Ask the seller to send a photo of someone wearing the item. This will often give you a better idea of the size and fit than a photo of it on a hanger or the carpet, and lots of sellers are happy to do this.
  • Ask what the measurements are, and use a tape measure to work out the size of a similar item of clothes you already own.
  • Do an internet search to find out whether the brand which made the item fits true to size.
  • Ask the seller how they found the fit: they may be able to tell you whether they found it small or big compared to other clothes and brands.
  • Try it on in a shop. Lots of sellers may be trying to get rid of items that they only recently bought because they got the size wrong or just found they didn’t like it. If you’re buying an item that is still available in shops, why not try it on? This can be great for buying only-just second-hand shoes – a great option for well-known, long lasting brands.

2. Have you thought about quality?

Extending the life of any item of clothing is good from an environmental perspective. However, you might want to think about the quality of your item from a value perspective.

Well-made clothing will keep its shape and last much longer than cheap throw-away fashion. It’s also less likely to look worn out from its previous owner.

There are a few ways to check the quality of an item.

Firstly, avoid well-known fast fashion brands like Boohoo or Pretty Little Thing. If you’re not sure whether a brand is fast fashion, check in our guide, or look at the prices on its website: if they look too good to be true, they probably are.

Secondly, think what brands you already know of that seem to make high quality clothing. Brands that charge a bit more can often be better made, although this isn’t always the case.

Thirdly, think about fabric: thin synthetic fabrics will often last longer than cotton, but they are less breathable and harder to recycle, so you may want to stick to natural fabrics.

Orsola de Castro from campaign organisation Fashion Revolution says, “The first thing to do when you’re looking at a piece of clothing is turn it inside out and pull at every piece of string you find. When clothes are cheaply made, the seams are often shabby. If it starts to unravel – don’t buy it.”

Quality will be particularly important if you’re buying a technical item of clothing, for example a second-hand waterproof or other outdoor gear. We talk more about this in our Outdoor Clothing guide.

3. Is it actually second-hand?

Recent years have seen a rise in second-hand clothing. Unfortunately, there’s also been a rise in people using resale apps like Depop to sell new fast fashion items at a profit.

Use the ‘Filter’ settings on resale apps or websites to make sure that the condition is ‘used’, so you don’t inadvertently end up buying new stuff that’s fuelling the fast fashion market. You may also want to check the other items on the seller’s page to make sure that they are generally selling second-hand.

4. Are there other ethical issues you want to consider?

For some people, buying second-hand is in itself the key ethical consideration. For other people, there may be certain additional ethical issues you want to consider. For example, some people may want to avoid animal products like wool or leather, even when second-hand, because it can normalise using body parts for fashion. Others may want to avoid synthetic fabrics because of concerns about the fact that they release microplastics into the environment when washed.

Some may also have concerns about certain second-hand retailers. For example, those concerned about animal testing may want to steer clear of Cancer Research and British Heart Foundation shops, two organisations that fund animal testing. (If you’re interested, the Victims of Charity website has a full list of charities which fund animal testing.)

Is buying second-hand cheaper?

The average UK household spends around £750 on clothing and footwear each year – a big chunk of our disposable income. And it may be about to increase, with data analytic consultancy Kantar suggesting that the price paid per item is up 9% on average since before the pandemic.

Buying second-hand can often be a way to cut clothing costs, but is it always cheaper?

With the rise of fast fashion, the number of brands selling new clothing at scarily low prices has boomed. Brands like Boohoo and I Saw It First are retailing tops starting at £1. Resale platforms like Vinted also have their share of second-hand fast fashion for under £5, but the savings are likely to be marginal, if any, given the cost of buying new items from these brands.

The catch of course is that over the long run you pay for low prices. Fast fashion items are often poorly made, wear out, lose shape or just go out of trend quickly.

On the other hand, for brands that are offering long-lasting clothing, buying second-hand can be up to 50% cheaper. This means that, while it may not always be, quality second-hand can work out cheaper than fast fashion over the long term.

For example, if you wear a second-hand £30 dress 31 times, you’ll already be doing better on value than many £14 fast fashion items (which are on average only worn 14 times).

Of course, it in part depends whether you’re happy to wear an item for years or on repeat, or sell it on again when you’re done.

Watch our short video to find out more about fast fashion

Video: Five things you need to know about fast fashion

Is second-hand clothing always ethical?

Buying second-hand is undoubtedly a better option for the climate than buying new. However, it doesn’t come without its pitfalls and concerns.

Second-hand clothing apps like Depop provide platforms for individual sellers. Unfortunately, some sellers have been criticised for buying up new items and selling them on for profit – further fuelling fast-fashion demand and pushing up prices for those that genuinely rely on second-hand clothing.

The Depop platform has also been criticised for maintaining toxic body images, encouraging model shots that favour those who are young, thin, white and able bodied – with medium and large clothes often inexplicably ‘modelled on size 8’.

Despite all this, their popularity with younger consumers is nevertheless encouraging (over 90% of users on Depop are also under 26, meaning there may be less for older buyers), and many do sell genuinely second-hand or ‘reworked’ clothing, feeding into a circular economy.

Charity shops face concern over the destination of donated items. Only 32% of clothing collected for re-use or recycling is resold in the UK. Charities have to pay “up to hundreds of thousands of pounds each year” to send other items to recycling or landfill. The remaining 60% is exported overseas, contributing to the collapse of local clothing economies and loss of jobs.

In 2015, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda announced that the import of second-hand textiles and shoes would be banned from 2019. The global export trade of second-hand clothing had contributed to the collapse of local clothing economies and the loss of local jobs. While reuse is vital, the system currently allows richer nations to displace their fast fashion problem onto poorer countries in the global south.

However, buying from charity shops supports the charity in its wider aims. Some of the better shops (Oxfam) claim that no clothing donations ever go to landfill.

Corporate second-hand schemes

More and more well-known brands are branching out into second-hand clothing. These schemes encourage customers to resell their own branded items on dedicated platforms online or return them to stores for recycling.

In 2020, COS launched its ‘COS Resell’ platform, where people can buy and sell pre-loved items from the brand. On the continent, H&M runs the online second-hand shop Sellpy, in which it owns a 70% stake. M&S, Uniqlo, H&M and others all offer take back schemes for used clothing.

Often, however, returned items are passed onto partners who integrate them into standard recycling or resale systems. M&S for example, passes clothing on to Oxfam and says that it may be sold ‘to be reused in different countries around the world’, in exactly the kind of textile export scheme criticised above.

This means that companies are less likely to bear the financial burden of recycling the textile waste they have created. Companies even at times offer ‘take back’ vouchers to purchase yet more new clothing. These schemes can also help companies greenwash the fast-fashion problem and assuage buyers’ guilt. WRAP has, however, suggested that they may be key to addressing our unsustainable clothing industry.

Shein’s greenwashing resale platform

In October 2022, ultra-fast fashion brand Shein launched its own Resale Platform called Shein Exchange. The platform, which is piloting in the US with plans to extend it to other markets, will allow customers to resell their Shein branded clothing. Although the company won’t make any money from it, Shein was pretty blatant about the fact it wants to capture the second-hand market, saying “resale threatens to cannibalise the sale of new items.” 

While the brand still pumps out throwaway clothing, its platform looks a lot like greenwash, as campaigners have pointed out.

“Fast fashion brands like Shein are not built to be worn multiple times as the quality is too poor — who can make 500 items a day in a way that is built to last?” fair fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna told Vogue. 

“Without a commitment to producing fewer garments, we have an ever increasing amount of fossil fuel derived clothing, made by people who aren't earning a fair living wage, … with the garments shedding microfibres into our oceans and waterways, heading to landfill and polluting communities in the Global South, all so the greedy CEOs and top executives can make a quick buck.”

Critics also point out that the platform may just encourage customers to continue cycling through new fast fashion purchases, funded by their second-hand resales. 

Cartoon of person wearing second hand clothes
Image by Mike Bryson

How to make the best second-hand clothes choices

These problems shouldn’t stop us buying, selling or donating second-hand, but we may want to ask some questions:

1. Can I repair, alter or upcycle the item?
This is usually the best option for creating new life from your clothing.

2. Can I give it to a friend, swap it or sell it online?
This way, you know with some certainty where your clothing is going.

3. Is it dirty or damaged?
Do not send dirty or damaged clothing to the charity shop: if you can’t wear it, they won’t be able to sell it. If you can’t repair an item of clothing, you could use the material as scraps.

4. Can it be recycled?
A last option is to send it for recycling, for example through a local recycling point. Currently, 87% of fibre input into clothing is eventually incinerated or landfilled. Find your local recycling point on the Recycle Now website.

While people may associate second-hand clothing with village hall jumble sales, the demand for a more ethical approach to clothing means this is far from today's reality.

Repairing, altering and upcycling clothing

Holes can often be patched or darned, bobbles on jumpers carefully removed using a razor, and misshapen items taken in or reshaped using a sewing machine.

‘Repair cafes’ and workshops around the UK are sharing upcycling and repair skills with those less confident. Search online for your local option. If repairing at home, WRAP's Love Your Clothes website has great information on upcycling and repairs.

Alterations are also useful when buying second-hand clothes. For example, if you’re hesitant to buy trousers second-hand because you’re worried about the fit, get a pair you know will be a bit big and use an online tutorial like this one to downsize them.

For clothing beyond repair, make reusable cotton pads, dish scrubbers, storage baskets, draught excluders or bowl covers. Instructions can be found online.

Get inspired: Hear how Kezia and Ellie switched to secondhand clothing

Kezia

As a broke student, I’d often source my clothes by ordering fast fashion online. It was cheap and reliable. But around two years ago, I realised that I didn’t like the new items filling my wardrobe after the initial excitement.

I wanted a way to slow down my clothes buying, so I knew I would truly love the items. I created a rule for myself: I had to look for items second hand first, and would only buy something brand new if I couldn’t find what I wanted. After 18 months, I realised I’d only bought brand new fashion a few times, and decided to no longer buy clothes brand new, ever (aside from basics such as underwear).

I bought less and invested in pieces I’ve kept for longer. This experience has transformed my relationship with my wardrobe. Second hand shopping should take a long time. I feel really connected to so many of my clothes because I spent so long searching for them. 

At the approach of a new season, I identify a couple of items that will fill any gaps in my wardrobe. This can be pretty specific: a green cropped fleece or white wide leg jeans. I will then spend days, weeks or even months searching for the exact item that I want. 

I have also revived my sewing skills - these were really useful when I bought something second hand that didn’t quite fit. I began sewing my own clothes using mostly second hand fabrics such as sheets, curtains or tablecloths, making some of my favourite items.

A side effect has been inheriting great items from friends and family that I didn’t know I wanted. I’ve got jumpers, dungarees and summer vests that I wouldn’t have thought to buy but which have become staples. 

Ellie

It’s 2013 and I’m lugging two full bin bags of clothes to the charity shop on my university campus, hungover and miserable, knowing this wasn’t the first time, and wouldn’t be the last time I had a wardrobe clearout. I knew I had fallen hard into a habit of overconsumption.

I realised I wasn’t going to change overnight. However, I decided that if I was to continue indulging my habit, at least it would all be second hand or handmade going forward. 

Growing up, my mum was very much into upcycling and crafts (salt dough Christmas decorations anyone?). I insisted she taught me how to sew when I was 13 on the beast that was her 80s sewing machine. The only brownie badge I remember getting was the thrift badge (emblazoned with a happy little piggy bank).

I really had the tools from the start, but needed a change in my mindset and motivation.

It’s tempting to replace every fast fashion item in your wardrobe to fit the ideal image of sustainable fashion. But I try not to do this, and use what is already there. I have ‘cheaply made’ items bought years ago that have stood up to wear and washing surprisingly well. Give your ancient or secondhand Primark a chance!

I also try not to be discouraged if I slip back into old habits. Clothes may seem frivolous to some, but can also have emotional ties to our identities, culture, and social lives. Changing a habit is hard, and might have an impact in areas you don’t expect.

That being said, making a change also opens up a world of new potential hobbies, connections and positive challenges. I still keep the first dress I made in a box under my bed (a dove grey 60s style mini dress). It hasn’t fit me for about a decade, but it brings me joy every time I dig it out.

It’s an ongoing process, and as I learn more about sustainable and ethical practices, I expect my opinions and actions will continue to change.

A growing slow fashion movement

Across the UK, community initiatives around clothing are growing – from sewing cafes and repair workshops to swaps shops and upcycling groups. As well as sharing skills and building community, some of these groups are exploring really innovative approaches. For example, the Sewing Cafe Lancaster has launched a natural dyes project, growing plants for dyes at the local community farm and holding workshops on dying from kitchen waste.

Not only do these initiatives offer practical solutions for slowing the fashion industry down, they could change our relationship to and understanding of the production of our clothing.

In recent years, second-hand has also seen enormous growth. Our Ethical Consumer Markets Report found that consumers were spending 25% more on second-hand clothing for environmentally friendly reasons in 2020 than 2019. In 2020, second-hand clothing app Depop reported a 200% rise in traffic on the previous year, and research by eBay found that 25% of consumers bought second-hand clothing in 2021.