The rise of fast fashion encourages us to choose convenience at the cost of quality. Here’s how secondhand shopping will improve your wardrobe and ethics.
In my first post I talked about why I decided to stop buying clothes firsthand. Inspired by a low bank balance and a desire to stop buying clothes that would inevitably fall apart after 2 months, I swapped high street brands for charity shops and set myself the challenge of secondhand only, for a month. A year and half later, the challenge is now a lifestyle. Some benefits to going secondhand were immediate and obvious (what a novelty to realise I now had even more money to waste on food instead) and others more unexpected. In this article I address the issues with fast fashion and discuss how secondhand shopping can lead to a more meaningful and eco-friendly wardrobe.
If you want to find an item that you like quickly, charity shops are not the way to go. Unless you’re really lucky you won’t find those Next jeans that everyone’s been wearing, or those new Converses that look so cool on that hipster girl in your seminar. Indeed, the whole market for such items is in the name: fast fashion. You know what I mean: endlessly-changing window displays of this season’s must-haves (and did you know there are about 20 fashion seasons a year?) on every high street. The list of wardrobe items you Absolutely Can’t Be Without grows each time: daywear, nightwear, casualwear, loungewear, sportswear, it’s every-wear.
And it’s just so easy to get exactly what you’re looking for: you only have to look on ASOS to see a dazzling array of filter settings. Put in your size, exact style, colour, brand and it will offer you Page 1 of 12 of results. Get what you want and get it fast. After all, if it’s not fast enough it might go out of fashion again.
The market that encourages this frequent and often mindless spending (how many of us have a wardrobe cemetery of shirts we bought after being momentarily motivated to have a style makeover that in the end, never quite materialised?) and perpetuates mass production. But mass production, as it turns out, is rather expensive. In a bid to keep production costs down, companies outsource their suppliers to countries where it’s cheaper than the UK or Europe.
But ironically enough, this cheapness comes at a price. And a fatal one. It would be remiss of me to talk about the personal benefits of giving up fast fashion without also pointing out that cheap production is cheap for a reason. We’re all familiar with our clothing labels that read Made in China or Bangladesh or Pakistan. Places far away from the familiarity of the UK high street – so perhaps it’s not surprising that we fail to be affected by tale after tale of the shocking working conditions, child labour, low wages, toxic waste and cheap materials associated with clothes production for major high street chains.
Yes, it’s true that after the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 certain companies were inspired to act: 38 brands including H&M, Mango and River Island signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (a move that seems akin to tackling a fire with a cup of water), and the public were outraged. We were all outraged. But has anything changed? (That question on its own is worthy of another article). Five years on and we still pop into TK Maxx for a quick browse, treat ourselves to a nice shirt from Primark and turn a blind eye when the clothes suit us. Our outrage has never been enough.
If we really care, we have to stop demanding change and instead be the change. What’s the cost of a human life to you? £10 for a nice dress from New Look? Perhaps that’s melodramatic, but the 1,100 workers who died at Rana Plaza probably wouldn’t think so. I don’t mean to preach, I’m as guilty as anyone else. How easy it’s always been to dismiss the scandals in the news with a tut and an awkward laugh and Yeah I guess it’s really bad isn’t it? I know I shouldn’t keep shopping there but it’s just really convenient, ha. (You could probably look back through my life and quote me saying this at some point).
Buying second-hand means giving up a lot of the convenience that came with fast fashion shops. However, losing this benefit made me realise for the first time how fast fashion had so easily become mindless fashion. There was always a guarantee I’d see something I liked in Topshop – not so much in the British Heart Foundation regularly patronised by elderly ladies from the local retirement home.
In the first month of the secondhand challenge I got into the habit of checking the charity shops in my hometown whenever I went past – and seeing as it was the holidays, and all my friends were away, this meant I was there with alarming regularity. I began to worry that the till volunteers thought I had a problem. Maybe I did.
Second-hand living – I mused philosophically as I stared at shelves of discarded Primark scraps – has a lot to do with the slow lifestyle. You have to stop expecting to have the thing you want straight away. Instead, you develop an enthusiasm for the process of discovery itself. Going into the same shops and leaving empty-handed day after day meant that when something finally caught my eye, there was far greater satisfaction than I ever previously got from buying clothes (in my experience always stressful and involving a 20-minute debate over which shade of blue to get the identical jeans in).
Not only that but the chances of me regretting a purchase were much lower. I had tirelessly marched day after day to Cancer Research and Age UK and that one place where I’ve never really understood what it does, so when I found a piece it was going to be the right piece, damnit. Now I’ve never been one to claim style expertise but my friends tell me I’m looking pretty fly. I couldn’t possibly comment.
It’s true that secondhand shopping in this way doesn’t directly address the problem of cheap production by fast fashion brands. For more direct action you can get involved with Fashion Revolution Week or the Clean Clothes Campaign. But at the very least, shopping second-hand helps rid you of the mentality that convenience and cost are all that matter. You stop paying those companies wrapped up in scandals and give your money to charities instead, often for the exact same items. You buy fewer items and reduce the amount of waste and clothes going to landfill. You can afford higher quality items that don’t need to be replaced every two months, and if we all start shopping with this mindset, retailers will notice. Slow fashion is part of the change, and the change is being Made In Our High Streets. The change is happening fast.