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.