Second-hand fashion is not the sustainable fashion we need

Examining the popularisation of thrift culture.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

In recent years, the conversation around waste-free fashion consumption has pivoted around the second hand market. Platforms like Tiktok, Instagram and Youtube have remarketed charity shops like Vinnies, Red Cross and Goodwill as trendy for a younger market, fueled by ‘thrift-hauls’ and ‘come thrift with me’ videos. In 2019, around 40% of Gen Z-ers were buying second-hand, compared to less than 30% in 2016 (according to a report by resale service ThredUp). In the next ten years, the second-hand industry is predicted to almost double, according to the same ThredUp report. 

It comes at a time when fast fashion companies are scrambling to respond to greater environmental concerns around consumption behaviours in younger buyers; Mckinsey’s “The State of Fashion 2019” report states “Nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues.” But the rise of ‘thrifting’ is not the solution to our fast fashion problem. In fact, the second-hand trend often falsely reframes mass-consumption of resale items as a sustainable, guilt-free fantasy separate from the fast fashion world. 

The fast fashion industry is well-known as a nefarious pollutant. In the production stages, the textile industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions, producing more than the airline and maritime industries combined. It also uses 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people. 

On the consumption end, mounds of clothing at landfill stations create a grim backdrop to  catwalks and brightly-lit H&M and Zara signs, where greenwashing abounds in the form of ‘waste free’ tote bags, and garments made of so-called ‘organic cotton’. In Australia, people dump 15 tonnes of clothing and fabric waste every 10 minutes, according to Clean Up. Australians also buy an average of 27kg of textiles each year (including leather and homewares) and then discard 23kg into landfill, despite the fact they are mostly non-biodegradable. 

It’s not surprising then that thrifting’s ‘circular’ consumption model has been lauded. 

Yet second-hand fashion is not totally separate from fast fashion. Today, second-hand store owners must work harder to retrieve items appropriate to resell in second hand stores due to the poor quality of donated fast fashion items.  Australian Red Cross Head of Retail Richard Wood says the rise of fast fashion has led to a recent rise in donations, but a drop in quality. Only about 10 – 15% of donated items get sold in the stores, the rest transferred to landfill or exported to low-income countries, where their low prices undercut new clothes produced locally in those countries. 

For some Australian Lifeline stores, ‘A-grade’ section items, or the best quality, dropped to 20% of all donations in 2020, from 50% years ago, according to a paid clothing sorter. In 2018, the Salvation Army charity op shop spent $6 million dollars in landfill fees for rubbish dumped on its site. Moreover, many clothing swaps ban fast fashion for this reason, only contributing to the problem.  

Thrifting also “feeds off the instability and unsustainability of the fast-fashion industry,” according to Anna Fitzpatrick, a Ph.D. student and project coordinator at the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. “Without that, there wouldn’t be such a massive second-hand market,” she says; second-hand fashion, like any business, still operates within a capitalist economy. This is supported by the fact that many resale stores, particularly on Depop, encourage the on-selling of unwanted brand- new fast fashion items, thus fuelling the careless mass-consumption that drives the fast fashion industry. 

In addition, the so-called sustainability of second-hand clothing excludes many. The gentrification of thrift-stores and Depop has made fast fashion the main affordable clothing source for many less socio-economically privileged individuals. This is evidenced by escalating prices, with the “resale market” becoming a $20 billion dollar industry in its own right. Walking down King Street in Newtown, it’s almost impossible to not pass a resale store. The majority are boutique— curated collections where old T-shirts are priced upwards of $40— though even charity stores have upped their prices in response to the influx of potential customers. The same goes for online stores like Depop, where thrift store items are often resold for far higher prices, and new fast fashion is rebranded and upsold as ‘90s’ or ‘y2k’ vintage stock. (Exacerbated by the fact that brands like Brandy Melville emulate the ‘y2k’ style with their new fast fashion products). This generates an elitist culture of shaming those who cannot afford to shop second-hand. The bottom line is that sustainability with a price tag is no longer sustainable. 

In such a fashion market, does a sustainable and affordable model of fashion consumption exist? 

‘Sustainably made’ clothing is nearly impossible to produce, particularly at an accessible price for the average consumer. More than 60% of fabrics are now synthetic blends, meaning they are non-biodegradable and harder to recycle, since different fibres need to be sorted through by hand, and their dyes must also be stripped. Resultantly, less than 1% of materials used to make clothing are currently recycled to make new clothing. Pioneering textiles company Bold Thread’s Microsilk™ is one sustainable yet unaffordable material option; an artificially- produced, biodegradable spider silk. One Microsilk neck tie costs $314 AUD. 

Perhaps a shift in mindset is needed to break the cycle of obsolescence in fashion. According to Fashion Revolution’s coordinator, Melinda Tually: “Older generations grew up considering what value is – which is longevity and high-quality materials and something you could keep season after season,” she says. “Now for millennials growing up, cheap fashion to them is the definition of value. If you can get a T-shirt for under $10, that’s value.”

With the resale market set to outpace the fast fashion industry by 2024, it is time we considered whether our thrifting consumption habits are really just a redirection of the mass-consumerism instilled in us by fast fashion. The next time we donate our clothes to a charity store, we should consider if we are just offloading our rubbish for someone else to deal with, and whether that shirt or pair of jeans is going to end up in landfill in a few months’ time. 

This article was published in ‘Embers’, a pullout in Honi’s Semester 1, Week 11 edition.