An ethical guide to second-hand clothing
An overview of all your second-hand fashion options, rated on climate, ethics and cost - and the answers to common ethical second-hand shopping dilemmas.
By Kezia Rice
Have you ever heard of the streetstyle term ‘wavey garms’? Let me tell you that, as a former Bristol resident, I definitely have.
This fit consists of a mish-mash of vintage kilo-sale sportswear with box-fresh trainers, the odd floral shirt or puffer jacket, all topped off with a bucket hat or Connel’s chain-worthy necklace. It’s no wonder my ex boyfriend (a Bristol local) used to question if Bristol students got dressed in the dark.
I’ve nothing against the craziness of these looks. I often need an injection of this wavey energy when my minimalist wardrobe is beginning to repeat itself (hello poloneck, my old friend).
Similarly, the popularity of vintage with students is a huge bonus for slow fashion and the reduction of waste, right? Vintage kilo sales and resale platforms such as Depop continue to grow, and how could that be bad for the anti-fast fashion movement?
But is the popularity of second-hand just surface level deep?
'The ethical and environmental implications of both fast and so-called ‘slow’ fashion are nuanced and intertwining.'
How many people mix their vintage pieces with fast fashion purchases? How many use Depop to buy endless new items that will languish in their wardrobes after the outfit is rendered worthless after its Instagram debut? How many prioritise what their clothes look like over their environmental or human impact?
The ethical and environmental implications of both fast and so-called ‘slow’ fashion are nuanced and intertwining. Buying clothes ethically can feel like a minefield full of greenwashed traps.
Below, I’ll be breaking down the climate and ethical impact of all your fashion options, as well as answering some common dilemmas I’ve had myself.
Where to buy
For comparison purposes, I’ll begin with a run-down of our old nemesis: fast fashion.
Don’t skim over this content thinking it doesn’t apply to you: the following rating and facts apply to mid-range fashion with a fast mindset, including but not limited to Zara, H&M and ASOS.
You might be paying a higher price for those brands, but the only one laughing is the CEO’s - larger profit margins for the same old shit.
Cost: 8/10. Online retailers including Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo start non-sale prices at £5 a dress, and on the high-street Primark matches those prices. The low quality of these clothes means you will be repeat buying more often, even if you only buy when you need.
Climate: 0/10. Mass producing clothes as cheaply as possible comes at a cost. The process creates incredible amounts of pollution, requires high amounts of water, and generates harmful microplastics.
Fast fashion will never change its ways if we keep buying it.
There are countless statistics I could share with you, but I’m going to leave you with just one: a lorry-load of used clothing is incinerated or buried in landfill every single second.
'The only thing they’re empowering is our own planet’s death sentence.'
The fast-paced consumption and throw-away culture that fast fashion brands not only encourage but rely upon for their own survival is undeniably detrimental to our future on this earth.
Don’t believe the empowerment messages in their advertising. The only thing they’re empowering is our own planet’s death sentence.
Ethics: -100/10. There is no score low enough to reflect the human rights violations and mass industrial homicide fast fashion industries are responsible for. Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 - the collapse of five garment factories in which at least 1,132 workers were killed and a further 2,500 injured - 109 further industrial accidents have occured in garment factories.
Cost: 9/10. Charity shops are awash with bargains (prices start from £1), and I often find that the joy of finding a cheap item is amplified by the journey of hunting for it.
Do watch out for boujee charity shops that charge seemingly excessive amounts for their overly ‘curated’ content - but if you want to splash the cash on quality pieces, there’s no better place to do it. I often think of charity shop purchases as a donation to the charity in question if they’re particularly pricey.
Climate: 10/10. Lots of internet delving has brought up exactly zero climate downfalls of charity shopping. A big bonus is that clothes stay local, reducing shipping emissions.
Ethics: 9/10. Unless you’re buying to sell on at a markup (more on that later), you can look like a snack in your new clothes and feel the warm glow of being a generous, climate-conscious human being.
Vintage shops and kilo sales
Cost: 7/10. Vintage kilo sales often charge a £3 entry price, plus £15 a kilo, which comes out at about £5 a shirt or £25 a pair of jeans. Vintage shops will set you back a bit more.
Climate: 8/10. Wearing clothing that has already been produced can only be a good thing for our planet. However, the shipping involved in transporting these items across the world docks a couple of points.
Ethics: turns out - it’s complicated.
I remember walking into my first vintage kilo sale in, you guessed it, Bristol, and seeing rails of carbon copy dungarees, patterned shirts, 80’s sportswear, and a distinct lack of variation. Where do all these identical vintage clothes actually come from?
This week, I made a call to a UK based vintage wholesaler, and posed this question to employee James*. His response: ‘I wouldn’t actually know, to be honest with you. My boss keeps that stuff pretty close to his chest.’
I felt uneasy.
'How can buying second-hand clothes in an effort to save the climate and avoid fast fashion have a terrible ethical impact?'
I called another wholesaler, and spoke with boss Alex* who has been in the business for 20 years. Alex was more forthcoming: his clothes come from rag houses in America.
(Rag houses are sorting factories for fashion - they buy second-hand clothing by the tonne from donation plants. Here, clothes are manually sorted by employees who divide them into categories - with one of the categories being vintage fashion.)
The more I probed, the more Alex revealed. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, similar rag factories sell product much cheaper. The reason they’re able to keep their profit margins so low?
If your heart just fell into your stomach reading that, you’re not alone. How can buying second-hand clothes in an effort to save the climate and avoid fast fashion have a terrible ethical impact?
Dan*, another vintage wholesale business owner, confirmed the claims that Alex made. He had personally visited rag houses in Pakistan and observed conditions that ‘weren’t right - I don’t like to see people who are clearly having to work beyond what they’re capable of; I don’t think that’s right. I wouldn’t be part of it.’
Should we believe this information? The internet brings up scant further leads. My gut instinct is yes. There are no regulators in this industry, and what reason would the wholesalers have to lie to me?
Where does this leave us as consumers of vintage?
I know what personal conclusion I’ve reached on the subject. But until I find more concrete answers, I’m hesitant to make sweeping statements about the whole vintage industry.
The advice I can offer is to question the source of your clothes - ask a Depop seller or vintage shop which wholesaler supplied them, and then call that wholesaler directly.
The questions to ask are: ‘which countries do you source your stock from?’ and ‘did you personally visit the factories?’. Their reaction to these questions (guilty silence or defensive indignance was the response of a few wholesalers I called) should tell you all you need to know.
Resale platforms - including Depop, Vinted and eBay
Cost: 8/10. Undoubtedly cheaper than buying new - and you can haggle (just be careful you don’t end up on @depopdrama).
Climate: 6/10. Is it just me, or do apps like Depop encourage unnecessarily frequent purchases that seem eerily reminiscent of the pace of fast fashion? Another downside - a lot of long-distance shipping is involved.
Not everything you find on Depop is second-hand (be wary of pages selling repeats of the same item or stocking multiple sizes). But a platform for selling and buying second-hand is still a great way to keep clothes in use.
Ethics: 5/10. Depop sellers have been criticised for stripping charity shops of quality clothes, only to sell them on for profit. In particular, plus-sized clothes, which can be hard to come by second-hand, are snapped up by Depop sellers, who sell them on as ‘oversized’.
My biggest concern remains the prominence of vintage clothes on the platform. The supply chain of vintage may be long and murky, but trace it as best you can if you want to establish that your purchase was ethically sourced.
Go local - including clothes swaps, Facebook marketplace, inheriting from family or friends
My final option: source clothes in your local area. Scour your family and friend’s wardrobes, search on Facebook marketplace or free stuff Facebook groups, or - in non-pandemic times - attend or host a clothes swap!
'Look at these options with an open mind and an upcycling mindset - and you may just find your new favourite piece.'
Look at these options with an open mind and an upcycling mindset - and you may just find your new favourite piece.
Cost: 9/10. Most of these options are free!
Climate: 10/10. No shipping or travel means I can’t fault this.
Ethics: 9/10. Apart from borrowing something you shouldn’t from your sibling’s wardrobe...ethically this option is pretty sound.
Should you be...
Buying fast fashion second-hand?
This dilemma has haunted me since I began my second-hand pledge. If I purchased fast-fashion items in charity shops or through Depop, would I be indirectly supporting the industry?
My conclusion is: no. There are enough clothes the world over that re-wearing what already exists should be a priority. So long as you’re not repeat-buying from someone who buys fast fashion simply to resell - use your gut instinct here - purchasing fast fashion second-hand is a valid option.
I’ve even gone as far as to search for specific fast fashion items (think: ‘Topshop wide leg jeans’) on Depop or eBay, and found a second-hand version that satisfies exactly what I was looking for, with less damage to the planet.
Donating your wardrobe to charity shops?
Having a clear out and donating your clothes to charity shops is a classic feel-good task. But once again, we must ask the question: where do your clothes actually go?
In his book Clothing Poverty, Andrew Brooks writes that up to 90% of our donations are exported overseas rather than sold in our local charity shops.
Problems abound: some donations will end up in rag houses; many are sold on to Sub-Saharan Africa. The continent is overwhelmed with Western waste to the extent that clothes are often burned rather than sold. Furthermore, the second-hand industry is massively damaging local economies, completely destroying once-thriving textile industries.
Donate only the highest quality items to your charity shop
Ask charity shops personally what items they need
Take stained, ripped or unwearable items to textile recycling banks
Consider a charity that runs its own recycling plant (Oxfam and Salvation Army)
Think locally: are there friends, family or neighbours who would want your cast-offs?
Upcycling your clothes?
I was intrigued to read that Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution, advises against upcycling, saying that ‘amateur upcycling often generates more waste.’ In the last year, I’ve become an avid upcycler (see my sewing experiments part 1 and part 2) - and I can attest that mistakes are made and failed upcycles do go unworn.
I would 100% advocate asking for help and advice with your upcycling projects if you’re a beginner. If the project is complex, paying a professional is a simple, quick fix option - I’ve paid just £10 to replace a broken jeans zip before.
I’d also recommend trying non-permanent garment changes first: roll up your jeans before cropping the bottom, tie your top in different ways, add removable patches or badges to your clothes.
But I still think we should re-educate ourselves with simple upcycling skills that are entrenched in the muscle memory of previous generations. And if a bit of trial and error is involved, then that’s just a consequence of breaking eggs to make an omelette.
The overarching solution?
Stay local. From shopping in charity shops, to borrowing, swapping or upcycling clothes from friends, family and neighbours, knowing the direct source of your clothes and reducing the distance they travel is paramount to reducing the climate and human impact of your fashion consumption.
In September of 2019, I made a pledge to make second-hand fashion my first choice when buying new clothes - only turning to brand new alternatives when I’d exhausted second-hand options.
'My only brand new purchases during those 18 months were workout clothes, underwear and one pair of jeans.'
This pledge was pretty open-ended, but it slowed down my clothes-buying process - and my only brand new purchases during those 18 months were workout clothes, underwear and one pair of jeans.
This Fashion Revolution Week, I want to encourage you to also put your commitment to second-hand fashion into writing with a personalised pledge. Head to Instagram to share yours on the hashtag #secondhandsmyfirstchoice.
I’ll leave you with my new commitment to second-hand fashion:
I pledge to source every item of clothing (excluding t-shirts, pyjamas and underwear) second-hand.
Second-hand is my first choice, now and always.
*names have been changed.
Kezia Rice is happiest finding greenery on her runs and swimming everywhere from Lancashire rivers to Berlin lakes or Croatian beaches. She has previously written for imprint about everything from living without a car to the problematics of Love Island to her passion for charity shopping to dressing as an angel and using less makeup. Read her lockdown sewing experiments, part one and two. She also writes poetry: read here and here.