Secondhand shopping is on the rise. Or rather, it has crept into the spotlight as the solution to sustainable fashion, pioneered by Depop Queens and eBay empires who have honed their haggling skills and have their snipe bids ready. Secondhand shopping is after all nothing new. Thrifters have been perusing high street charity shops for years (before it was cool), but it is only recently that secondhand clothes have shed the stigma of moth infested hand-me-downs, and buying and renting worn clothes has risen to the forefront of retail experiences. Although buying secondhand is still logistically the most ethical choice, it is not without uncertainties concerning the ethics of what we are buying, and from whom.

To understand how secondhand has become ‘cool’, it is worth considering gentrification; whereby richer and more affluent residents move into poorer and underdeveloped urban areas, subsequently changing the character of the area and driving up prices. 

This too has happened with secondhand clothes. Only a few years ago, thrifting was looking down upon and considered a sign of poverty. 

(Where did your mum get that coat? A charity shop?)

Now, in almost complete reversal, pre worn has become popular, with more affluent shoppers mass thrifting clothes from charity shops and online platforms. Oxfam saw an impressive 84% rise in the sale of second-hand items in 2020.

‘Upcycling’ has also become an increasingly common stream of income, with buyers selling clothes on at a notable mark up, occasionally having reworked the pieces, or just marketing pieces from brands such as Zara, Dorothy Perkins New Look under labels such as vintage, rare or Y2K, although they’re only a year or two old and unlikely to prove very cost-effective in lasting much longer. Lockdown in particular has encouraged individuals to turn to online selling, with a huge rise in Vintage Closets and Depop Businesses able to act as a full-time stream of income. On the other end of the scale, buying fast fashion firsthand at stores like Primark for those lacking disposable income has become the new normal for lower-income families who once favoured thrifting. Poking fun at these queueing outside Primark was a hot point of contention during lessening of lockdown, with buying new from certain labels degraded in the same way that shopping at charity shops once was.

Fast fashion signals inexpensive and poorly made clothing, produced en masse by retailers to keep up with constantly changing fashion trends. The clothing industry is also one of the biggest pollutants, responsible for 10% annual global carbon emissions. 

Whilst many buyers now turn to eBay and Depop, assuming this to be a better model of sustainable shopping, these platforms are now also being flooded with once worn (or unworn) fast fashion garments. Is buying from Boohoo, named one of the least sustainable fashion brands in 2019, any more acceptable when it’s secondhand?

Knowing that resale is now so readily available encourages buyers of fast fashion to purchase a garment, knowing that they will be able to resell it. A glitzy bodycon, for example, purchased for one night out without regard as to the ethics of the label, and sold on the next day, or a Youtube who has purchased bags and bags of charity shop clothes for a thrifting haul, only to bin it once the video has been posted. Buying secondhand offers consumers the opportunity to ‘have their cake and eat it’ – to be on trend with new, massproduced styles, yet feel morally licensed through having bought these secondhand.

The popularity of resale platforms has also provided a ‘safety net’ for buyers who are now readily able to sell their purchases on, encouraging sales of some fast-fashion brands as a result.

Despite these new and worrisome drawbacks, we shouldn’t be put off buying secondhand. It has shot to the forefront of shopping experiences through digitised platforms and remains the most sustainable method of shopping, having brought together wider communities to create diverse spaces for clothing exchange. However, buying secondhand is not the definitive answer to all of the fashion industry’s wider issues and should not be used to conceal some of the less sustainable practices at hand, nor blindside consumers who buy into secondhand, wrongfully thinking it to be environmentally friendly and without fault.

That being said, we shouldn’t be put off from online thrifting and buying reworked. We should however remain aware of some of the issues arising from the resale market, particularly through ‘upcycling’. We should also seek to hold the fashion industry accountable for its growing waste problem, currently ranked fourth worst in terms of its negative impact upon the environment, and encourage the use of sustainable and recycled materials.

On an individual level, if sustainability is a concern, research into brand ethics, and shopping with smaller, independent labels who monitor their carbon footprint and pay workers adequately will contribute to a guilt-free fashion experience. Fashion itself isn’t bad for the environment, but how we go about sourcing our clothes is,   

Thrifting is still cool, but do it responsibly.

By Liv Walde

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