Ethical clothing choices: upcycling, repairing and second-hand

In 2017, waste charity WRAP found that the most significant opportunity to reduce carbon, water and waste in the fashion industry was to increase the active life of our clothes.

Upcycling, repairing, swapping, renting, lending and buying second-hand offer huge amounts of untapped potential, both in terms of addressing impacts and building community.

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.

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 42% more on second-hand clothing for environmentally friendly reasons in 2019 than 2016. In 2020, second-hand clothing app Depop reported a 200% rise in traffic on the previous year, and eBay stated that it sold 1.2% more pre-worn items in June 2020 compared to 2018.

Is second-hand clothing always good?

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 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 (for example, COS Resell) or return them to stores for recycling.

In 2020, COS launched its ‘COS Resell’ platform, where wearers could 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 they that may be key to addressing our unsustainable clothing industry.

Cartoon of person wearing second hand clothes
Image by Mike Bryson

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?
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 scraps.

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

Where to buy second-hand clothing

There are lots of options for buying second-hand:

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.

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.

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

5. Apps and online – 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.

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.

Repairing, altering and upcycling

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 upcycle 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 for buying second-hand. 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 or bowl covers. Instructions can be found online.