Recipes, people, places and things we love — every month. Head to Substack to support our work. Visit  Later

Fashion industry

Why everyone should buy and wear secondhand clothing. The truth behind what we give and throw away

Photography by Tracey Creed
Assisted by Amandine Paniagua
Words by Tracey Creed

Published March 16 2023

For this article, Amandine and I visited Saturdays, the second-hand store operated by Koha Apparel, for a photoshoot. All sales support the mission to uplift those experiencing material deprivation in Aotearoa. Amandine tried on some outfits so I could photograph a few items for the online store, and we both found things we liked. Most of our wardrobes are pre-loved.

So while there is much to be hopeful for, there is a long way to go. Fashion is a powerful engine for cultural change, and the industry has a tonne of influence so we need to push that influence towards this cause, rising to address the environmental crisis of which it is a part. For this reason, writing or producing photography that raises awareness and celebrates second-hand or those manufacturing in more ethical and environmentally responsible ways remains vital. Ultimately, the purpose is to provoke thought about our choices regarding where and how we shop.

Should fashion pay for its waste colonialism?

Every second, somewhere in the world, a truckload of textiles is landfilled or incinerated. Millions of tonnes of old clothes are shipped to lesser developed nations, which have become the dumping ground for textile waste produced from Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. I recommend watching Foreign Correspondent’s ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’ on YouTube. There’s a lot of subject matter covered, and the numbers are staggering – almost too much to consider when approaching your seasonal wardrobe clear-out.

I don’t know how many of us realise that the clothing dumped in clothing bins or sent to charity stores is bailed up and made someone else’s problem. As the quality of clothing has declined thanks to fast fashion, so has resellers’ ability to earn a living. Much of these clothes are worthless, and this article discusses the realities of what we give and throw away and that, ultimately, it is an insult.

Published in 2021 by author, activist, and Slow Factory board member Aja Barber, Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism is worth a read. It’s a much-needed history lesson and warning about how forces like colonialism and capitalism bleed into our consumer society, down to the clothing we choose to wear and keep.

The book urges Western fashion companies and sustainability advocates to consider the workers and people of the Global South who produce our clothes and contend with our waste. The pace of how fashion is manufactured, sold, and bought in the West has a direct impact on developing nations, and Barber argues in the book: “This [fast fashion] cycle doesn’t just harm everyone within the supply chain, it harms those at the end of the supply chain as well.” Non-Profit The Or Foundation and Vestiaire Collective are lobbying for regulation that benefits the countries where these garments end up.

Vestiaire Collective’s fight against fast fashion

When Paris-based luxury resale platform Vestiaire Collective’ announced ahead of Black Friday last year they would ban fast fashion from their platform; the move raised questions over how fast fashion should be treated by circular business models. Fast fashion has no value, and even less in resale, explained Dounia Wone, Vestiaire Collective’s Chief Impact Officer.

Rejecting fast fashion was the latest step in Vestiaire Collective’s three-year plan, and there’s a list of brands they do not accept, though we’ll likely see this evolve. Recently B Corp. Certified, Vestiaire Collective is working with a third-party agency to create a set of criteria that will help eradicate low product quality and poor working conditions to lower its overall carbon footprint. So where will fast fashion go once discarded now that it can’t have a second life on Vestiaire Collective? The obvious answer is where it’s been going all along – landfills.

Is sustainable fashion elitist?

The impact we have on our environment and the urgency with which we need to change our behaviours make it an issue fraught with frustrations, particularly debate surrounding the accessibility of lower-impact fashion. The Business of Fashion published an article recently on a Tweet critical of fast fashion as classist, widely interpreted as shaming poorer consumers. But it reads like people protecting and preserving activities that they engage in. The same people also complain about resellers, and at the root of their entitlement is the idea that some people don’t like when others are paid for their labour. They believe they get to define what work is and what it isn’t.

When discussing how exploitative the fashion industry is, people with economic privilege claim it’s classist to criticise the system. But the fact that most consumers are buying fast fashion is hardly about needs. When we consider that the people making those clothes are the most poverty-stricken in the equation, if the “poor people” in those arguments aren’t including garment workers, that’s not a valid argument. It’s not lower-income people keeping fast fashion brands afloat. But yes, exploitation and pollution can happen at every price point.

Regulation is coming

The fashion industry will shift from self-regulation and non-legally binding pacts to meaningful sustainability legislation as products manufactured and imported into the European Union are given new standards to abide by, as outlined in their strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. The 14-page document outlines how the production and consumption of textile products impact the climate, energy consumption and the environment and what is required from industry in response.

Not only will clothing labels have to include information on how sustainable and recyclable they are, but the companies manufacturing them will have to ensure that textiles placed in the European Union market should be “long-lived and recyclable — made to a large extent of recycled fibres.’ Alongside promoting enduring quality and reducing the incineration and landfilling of textiles to the absolute minimum, the commission seeks to end the destruction of unsold or returned goods. Including an obligation on companies to disclose unsold products would also be an effective disincentive. I believe in people having the liberty to make their own choices, and there are better ways to spread a message than by being preachy. Societal change needs to occur to shift our spending, and subsequently, it’s vital to realise that people hold power in the consumer marketplace. We can stop buying from a company or change our actions.

Yes, regulation needs to happen first and foremost. But there is a connection between consumer interest and the momentum we get from elected politicians. Corporations lack incentive to change if we just shrug our shoulders and keep giving them our money. People should be sceptical of major retailers and realise corporations aren’t considering reducing scale or seasons to make more impactful, longer-lasting clothing unless forced. I aimed to raise awareness about how much we as a society in the West consume — what we throw and give away and what this does outside of our bubble. It also highlights to disparities between those with economic privilege and those without.

The connections between our clothing and the resources used to produce them are hidden behind complex supply chains, making it all too easy for us to avoid a sense of responsibility. The more we can remind ourselves of the implications of our purchases, the more intelligent and responsible are the choices we are apt to make and the less likely we are to remain complicit. Despite being a small nation, New Zealand produces more waste per capita within the OECD with low recycling rates. All opportunities and possibilities for circularity—whether reusing, recycling or resale work to keep clothing out of landfill must be explored.

In full transparency, I work alongside Charli Cox, founder of Koha Apparel, and much of this work is centred on enabling community work to continue in the absence of grants. We believe in resource sharing—in that when people have excess, they can share, and we can work towards reducing inequalities. Koha Apparel provides sustainability pathways, partnering with brands who donate their end-of-season sample and headstock, solving a critical problem for the textile industry. It’s a responsible alternative to landfilling or the destruction of new garments under the guise of recycling. To date, Koha Apparel has diverted over 20,000 garments from landfill.

Public donations are accepted, though not unlike the situation at town landfill, the quality of donated garments has also declined. We have partnered with Upparel to recycle these. Every garment kept in circulation provides a tangible opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint of textile waste. While democratising access to secondhand fashion, the hope is to make secondhand more desirable than shopping fast fashion.

Koha Apparel is a non-profit initiative clothing people in need at no cost that welcomes your support to continue thriving. All sales fund the community work — pays for gas and storage, et cetera and items are added weekly. Items from our photoshoot can be purchased online.

Dive deeper

© LAGOM 2024, All rights reserved