Could ‘secondhand first’ be an antidote to fast fashion?

Next week, clothes recycling charity Traid will be urging people to wear secondhand instead of buying new. Could instilling pride in wearing pre-owned clothes help avoid wasteful fast fashion?

From encouraging people to rummage for charity shop treasures to extolling the virtues of ‘mending activism’, those at clothes recycling charity Traid want us to reconsider our relationship with shopping. The charity has declared November 21-27 #Secondhandfirst Week with the campaign designed to coincide with the run-up to ‘Black Friday’ on November 25. Often considered the day when Christmas shopping begins in earnest, it will see a projected £1bn spent across the UK in just 24 hours.

Buying secondhand and repurposing items rather than buying new could reduce fashion’s substantial environmental footprint. An estimated 10,000 items of clothing are sent to UK landfill every five minutes, equating to more than 350,000 tonnes of wearable clothes being dumped in landfill each year. Most of us own at least one pair of jeans but few know it would take approximately 14 years to drink the amount of water used to make just a single pair.

How many times have you worn today’s outfit? Research by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) shows the average person wears items only six or seven times before throwing them away. Statistics aside, say those at Traid, more frequently choosing recycled and repurposed clothes could also lead to a more fulfilling relationship with fashion and identity.

“Increasing our use of secondhand goods also includes a social and cultural dimension,” says Traid’s chief executive Maria Chenoweth-Casey. “It has the potential to transform people from consumers into citizens and to loosen the grip of advertising and corporations on shaping our style and identity.”

We have the power to inspire customers to buy less new and reducing demand for the ‘must haves’

Just a week ago, 13 Indian garment workers died in a workshop fire in Ghaziabad, India. Their deaths come three years after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in which more than 1,100 workers died. The disaster prompted some, from brands to shoppers, to reconsider where clothing is sourced and at what cost.

“Fast fashion is one of the dirtiest industries in the world,” Traid’s Leigh McAlea tells Positive News, “coming second only to big oil. In that sense, our #Secondhandfirst campaign is unlikely to cause fast fashion retailers sleepless nights. However, where we do have power is to inspire customers to buy less new and so reduce demand for the so-called ‘must haves’.”

The foundations of today’s fast fashion are complex, but McAlea suggests the disconnection inherent in a hyper-globalised world with extended supply chains plays a large part.

“It is extremely difficult to relate to the workers and processes that bring clothes to our high streets and into our wardrobes. Those making our clothes are so remote as to be barely human, and certainly there is no sense of people with lives and aspirations that may intersect with our own. At the same time, the voices of garment workers are rarely heard, further enabling and normalising exploitation in our supply chains. Despite raised awareness of conditions through devastating events such as Rana Plaza, consumer desire for fast fashion – currently around £44bn in the UK annually – trumps ethics.”

Kit Oates Photography

Kit Oates Photography / TRAID

#Secondhandfirst Week events will take place across London, including late night shopping sessions at Traid’s 11 charity shops and a screening of films made by 50 Cambodian garment workers. Shoppers will also be encouraged to sign a secondhand first pledge: a promise to wear at least some secondhand outfits during the week.

“You can choose what percentage of your wardrobe you want to rebalance from new to secondhand,” says McAlea. “You don’t necessarily need to source all your secondhand in charity or vintage shops, but can also swap, mend and lend.”

It has the potential to loosen the grip of advertising and corporations on shaping our style and identity

Rather than focusing on guilt to motivate people toward changing habits, the Traid team are keen to emphasise the fun and creativity to be had in sourcing fashion more sustainably. So does McAlea have a favourite charity shop find?

“It’s almost impossible to pin down one! Having said that, an antique set of Russian dolls comes near the top of my list, and a vintage cashmere camel coat from Traid Dalston which has seen me elegantly through three winters so far. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in charity shops, but just take each rail at a time and go through it carefully, you’re bound to find something you love.”

Kit Oates Photography

Kit Oates Photography / TRAID

Find out more about #Secondhandfirst Week here.