There has never before been a time where alternatives to fast fashion have been so prevalent in debates about climate change and sustainability. Terrifying facts such as 87% of textiles going to landfill, micro-plastics flowing into oceans and the uncovering of hugely unethical practices by big fashion employers are changing people’s perceptions about the fashion industry. More and more people are buying from environmentally conscious brands or rejecting brand new items in favour of second-hand ones.
For most students, myself included, ‘sustainable’ fashion does not mean buying an expensive pair of jeans woven from organic cotton and dyed with natural indigo. It means shopping in charity shops or on reselling platforms such as eBay or Depop. Depop alone has 21 million users per year, 90% of whom are under the age of 26. However, as thrifting is increasingly being put in the spotlight as the best way to find unique styles, we are moving away from its origins as a way of shopping cheaply with a low carbon footprint and moving towards it becoming far less accessible. As one critic, Naomi El, aptly put it, platforms such as Depop are undergoing a process of gentrification as many garments are seeing a massive hike in prices. This hike is justified by the tagline ‘Y2K’ or ‘genuine nineties’, regardless of whether they deserve it.
Of course, we should not vilify a whole industry. Reselling clothes is a business model and one many young people rely on to supplement their income. However, we must not forget that as a ‘sustainable’ sector of the fashion industry, it is not without problems. The more recent trend of price inflation needs to be commented on as well as the buying out of charity shop stock that many rely on. However alongside this there is the often less discussed lack of inclusivity of sizing, which makes lower-carbon footprint, yet still affordable shopping, a lot harder for many.
Many of us will not be strangers to the Depop ‘dramas’ that have been published on social media as humorous illustrations of the potential pitfalls of buying items listed by hopeful sellers. But embedded in the joking cynicism about the audacity of a H&M jumper from 2014 being listed as a ‘must-have vintage piece’, we see firsthand the way that secondhand shopping is becoming increasingly exclusive. Even if people are willing to spend up to and even sometimes over £100 on a vintage Nike or Adidas sweatshirt with holes in the sleeves and a stain on the hem in the name of fashion, the last few years have seen a rise in people cashing in on this business model. The extent to which the profits being made can be justified is debatable.
Of course we must differentiate between rarer vintage items, sourced by experts, and online sellers pushing high-street items for over-inflated prices. The trend of trying to generate a large profit margin from items that otherwise might have been donated to a charity shop and sold at an appropriate price is problematic. It is debatable whether this can really be labelled ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’. Whilst on the one hand, a decision to give the item a new lease of life has been made, on the other, charities who rely on donations and people who rely on the low-cost of charity shops are deprived.
As with anything, trends in ‘vintage’ fashion come and go. Certain items hit the jackpot and become highly sought after. A current example of this is the tennis skirt or, even more mysteriously, the skort, an item definitely reminiscent of school uniform until its recent rebranding. The sudden increase in demand for an item fuels another practice that rather limits the sustainability of a supposedly second-hand, pre-loved piece. As certain brands or styles gain popularity, it is not uncommon for people to capitalise on demand by bulk buying and reselling brand new items at a price higher than the original retail price. A practice that surely defies the principles of thrifting!
Whilst the so-called gentrification of second-hand clothes shopping is maybe more immediately noticeable as a developing issue, other access barriers to more sustainable fashion have existed for a long time. One of the most important being a lack of diverse sizing. Many ethical fashion companies stop at a size 16, and even sometimes a 14. This is usually justified through the claim that an increase in sizing would increase the production costs of an already costly item, something these often small start-ups cannot afford. Although some brands such as The Reformation, renowned for its use of environmentally friendly fabrics, have introduced both plus-size and petite ranges, the lack of inclusive sizing is still greatly apparent in the vintage and second-hand industry. Walking into a vintage shop, one would not be surprised to see the majority of stock ranging from a size 6-10 and petite models styling clothes in larger sizes as ‘over-sized’.
Amongst the inflationary prices of on trend items on sites such as Depop, this notion of second-hand fashion being frequently marketed to smaller sizes is often reinforced. The reselling of last-season Brandy Melville clothes is a good example of one of many brands which sell fast with big profits on the platform. As a brand stocking clothes in just one (very small) size, the hype surrounding their clothes hardly promotes ideas of diversity and inclusivity. Rather it promotes the (potentially harmful) idea that wearing their products equates to looking fashionable. The way that wearing second-hand clothes is becoming fashionable is of course positive for challenging the fast fashion industry. However we must consider that this version of fashionable is becoming a mark of exclusivity as the industry adapts to the increased demand for certain products to maximise profits.
The second-hand market is set to hit a worth of $64 billion in the next five years. Whilst it is great that people are becoming a lot more conscious of alternatives to buying new, we need to consider that by labelling the industry ‘sustainable’ purely because it is second-hand, we are at risk of sweeping important considerations under the carpet. Ethical and conscious shopping is a lot more complex than the umbrella-term of ‘sustainability’ makes it out to be. There is still a lot to be done to change the fashion industry to one that can be fully inclusive.