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Fast or Slow? Getting Closer to Ethical Fashion

Ed Smith takes a look at the repercussions of the fashion industry and whether we should consider second-hand shopping

Photo Credit:  Retail Gazette
Historically, trends in clothing, shoes, hair styles and especially make up, has been subject to the whims of the tastes of society. It only takes a search of ‘dance through the ages’ on youtube to be overloaded by a wealth of content that portrays the diverse fashion trends that seemingly change at 11:59 on the turn of the decade.

Nevertheless, with rising anxieties and fears over climate change, the impact of changes in fashion trends is subject to increasing implicit and explicit scrutiny, especially from Millennials and Generation Z. However, it must be negated that even among academics, the environmental impact of fashion has become increasingly contended with explorations into the rate of consumption regarding fashion and the attitudes of consumers towards more sustainable fashion choices, becoming a growing field of literature. Albeit, this is unsurprising as the global fashion industry produced over 1.2bn tonnes of carbon emissions in 2015. This has led to a growing concern among the government and the Environmental Audit Committee, who last year investigated how to reduce the environmental impact of fashion, whilst maintaining the £28bn economic benefit that the fashion industry contributes to the UK economy. Similarly, it was reported at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit that 92 million tons of solid waste dumped at landfills each year is a result of the fashion industry. This is the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles dumped every second.

The environmental impact of fast fashion, is thus, catastrophic. The need to change our behaviours regarding fashion is of utmost importance and solutions are of course at every corner. Most interestingly of these solutions is the growing use and demand for second hand or ‘vintage’ fashion.

The demand for ‘vintage’ wear has surged in recent years, with appeal for older trends becoming more desirable. This growth in desirability of vintage apparel has been coupled with rising avenues for the distribution of recycled and reused fashion, including online through Depop, ASOS Marketplace and ebay to name a few. I spoke with Sarah Fewell, a seller on Depop, who since establishing ‘Identity Party Shop’ on depop in 2017 during her second year of university has amassed over 60,000 followers, with an emphasis on “bohemian” style clothing.

Now operating out of a spare room in her parents house, I asked why she decided to start selling second hand clothes. Sarah replied “it’s just fun”, especially as the mass of clothes available in charity shops across Hampshire provides both quantity and “amazing quality.” Furthermore, Sarah’s online shop and expertise in charity shopping now provides those who are perhaps slightly too lazy, myself included, to trawl and rummage charity shops, with the opportunity to buy sustainably more flexibly, such as being able to apply filters. This is something that Sarah specifically aims for with her Depop shop as she contends that “my shop is trying to mirror unique second hand pieces in a curated collection that are easy and convenient to buy”, clearly trying to rid ‘charity shopping’ or buying second hand of the tainted image that it still carries.

Nonetheless, there has been some pushback against people such as Sarah, as many of those in charge of high street retail owners and 50% of the general public believe that fewer charity shops should be on the high street to ensure that it is “healthy”. Furthermore, arguments have circulated that people who buy second hand when they can afford to buy from high street retailers, undermine those people who may not be able to purchase new clothes. Also, there are opportunities to buy in an ethical and environmentally friendly way through brands that use sustainable sources for their clothes such as Patagonia.

However, chief executive of the think tank Demos, Claudia Wood, argues this research negates the economic, environmental and social impact of charity shops, as charity shops reduce annual carbon emissions by an estimated 6.9 million tonnes per year (as of 2017). Secondly, people are entitled to buy from wherever they choose to do so and if this reduces the amount of landfill, this is surely a good thing, especially as buying second hand is a very effective in mitigating current emissions levels that far exceed the necessary level.

In a similar nature, a long-standing argument against fast fashion is that the dynamic of fashion is too fast-paced for any kind for second hand shopping to stay relevant or in touch with current fashionable trends. Though, this is something Sarah further contends, as she convincingly argues how trends are so cyclical as there are so many clothes, albeit after serious rummaging, that mirror current trends. In addition, Sarah argues that these clothes are not just one-off or singular items but are there in bulk, which she has successively benefitted from, enabling more of us to buy cheaper and more sustainably.

Obviously there are certain items that are not hygienically viable for second hand use, i.e. underwear, although this does not stop the possibilities of buying from brands which use renewable or sustainable sources and in my own personal experience they last a lot longer than cheaper brands. Nevertheless, it is completely understandable if the money barrier prevents a lot of people from buying more ethically, and this is a clear repercussion of more sustainable choices, collectively. However, I do think where possible, whether buying second hand or from sustainability orientated retailers, there is always an opportunity to be more environmentally friendly and ethical when it comes to dressing ourselves or any other parts of our life.

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