All washed up: uncovering the hidden environmental cost of second-hand clothes

Initiatives like Second Hand September are intended to combat the environmental impact of fast fashion. But can buying second-hand clothes really save the world?

September 18, 2019
Second hand clothes can cause different kinds of environmental damage. Photo: Pixabay/Prospect composite
Second hand clothes can cause different kinds of environmental damage. Photo: Pixabay/Prospect composite

“What do you really want; what do you really need?” asked British model Stella Tenant regarding the average consumers’ unconscious desire for new things. More than two weeks into Second Hand September and the outcry against fast fashion has never been louder. This year, an Extinction Rebellion protest sought to cancel London Fashion Week in its entirety, writing, “in recognition of the existential threat that faces us, we ask the British Fashion Council to be the leaders the world needs now and to cancel London Fashion Week.”

The Second Hand September campaign, led by Oxfam and supported by Tenant, seeks to encourage shopping at local organisations and charities as alternatives to fast fashion brands such as Primark and Boohoo in the name of saving our planet. As innocent as mindless scrolling through online shops may seem, such consumers are unintentionally—or perhaps even knowingly—contributing to an industry that uses more energy than aviation.

Fee Gilfeather, Oxfam’s sustainable fashion expert said, “the carbon emissions from new clothing bought in the UK every month are greater than the emissions from flying around the world 900 times.” The textile industry is considered one of the most polluted in the world, second to oil. Harmful chemicals, transportation and non-biodegradable packaging are all factors detrimental to our environment.

Fashion is worth £32bn to the UK economy, and Brits buy more garments than any other country in Europe, so it comes as no shock that many of those clothes end up in UK landfills each year: 300,000 tonnes of them, to be exact. This waste of clothing is destructive to our planet, releasing greenhouse gasses as clothes are burnt as well as bleeding toxins and dyes into the surrounding soil and water. As ecologist Chelsea Rochman bluntly put it, "The mismanagement of our waste has even come back to haunt us on our dinner plate.”

It’s not surprising, then, that people are scrambling for a solution, the most common of which is second-hand shopping. Retailers selling consigned clothing are currently expanding at a rapid rate, growing 21 times faster than the wider retail market over the past three years according to research from GlobalData. Not only do they reduce transport emissions, support local organisations and lessen the demand for cheap labour, but the temptation to toss a garment in the bin simply because you’re bored is reduced, extending the life of that piece. If everyone bought just one used item in a year, it would save 449 million lbs of waste, equivalent to the weight of 1 million Polar bears.

“Thrifting” has increasingly become a trendy practice. London is home to many second-hand, or more commonly coined ‘vintage’, shops across the city from Bayswater to Brixton. And that’s just in bricks and mortar shops. RealReal, an online marketplace for authentic luxury consignment, boasts 9 million users and an estimated 500 million US dollars in annual revenue. 64 per cent of its millennial sellers say that environmental impact is the key reason for using the service. This business proves that second-hand does not necessarily rule out luxury. It seems one can both help the environment and look great doing it.

*** So you’re cool and you care about the planet; you’ve killed two birds with one stone. But do people simply purchase a second-hand item, flash it on Instagram with #vintage and call it a day without considering whether what they are doing is actually effective?

According to a study commissioned by Patagonia, for instance, older clothes shed more microfibres. These can end up in our rivers and seas after just one wash due to the worn material, thus contributing to microfibre pollution.

To break it down, the amount of microfibres released by laundering 100,000 fleece jackets is equivalent to as many as 11,900 plastic grocery bags, and up to 40 per cent of that ends up in our oceans.

This particular study, carried out by researchers at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, experimented with four different types of synthetic Patagonia jackets and one budget fleece jacket for comparison. A regular warm, 30-minute cycle was used to wash each item before applying a 24-hour “killer wash” to stimulate the ageing of the garments, after which they were washed again.

The results were conclusive. On average, jackets shed 60 per cent more fibres after the ageing treatment, a significantly larger amount.

So where does this leave second-hand consumers? Ways must be found to counteract the release of microfibres by using filter bags, washing garments less or better still, buying high-quality items that shed less and last longer—of which Patagonia have been pioneers in advertising. Buying high-quality combats both microfibre pollution and excess garments ending up in landfills.

It is reasonable to suggest, that while second-hand shopping is a step in the right direction, perhaps it is best to simply buy less but buy better; to get off the seasonal treadmill and only purchase when you need to. Matt Connelly, the chief executive of the dry cleaning service, IHate Ironing, agrees, saying “while it is a nice marketing angle from Oxfam, it’s not a solution to the bigger issue. There is no guarantee that these second-hand items won’t end up on the rubbish dump.”

Luxury brands would rather not circulate their latest season stock around the globe to be sold at a cheaper price, which is why companies like ThredUP, a US fashion resale marketplace, have not yet caught on in the UK. There will always be a market for consignment but there is also a whole generation of people who have been taught that only buying new products is the norm; second-hand luxury goods are not in their psyche. Ben Whitaker, director at Liquidation Firm B-Stock, told Prospect that unless recycling becomes cost-effective and filters into mass production, with the right technology to partner it, “high-end retailers would rather put brand before sustainability.” One such brand admitted that they “understand sustainability but just don’t care.”

By definition, sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level, which makes ‘sustainable fashion’ quite the oxymoron. Fashion is ever-evolving—miss a beat and it’s hard to catch up; perhaps why retailers are finding it hard to adapt to a slower production pace that delivers a lower turnover but helps the planet. When you are in an industry that is used to throwing away what is no longer deemed ‘in’ you find there is no internal pressure to become eco-friendly.

The parallel between the fashion industry and technology encourages immediacy and the expectation to always meet the latest trend, supplementing the human desire for new things, something that high-end brands thrive off of. “The enemy is our insatiable desire for the new” Tennant points out, revealing that she has never been a seasonal shopper, and challenges others to follow suit.

Ultimately, high-end brands must comply with consumer demands—and while consumers are now “asking the right questions,” as Fashion Revolution founder Orsola de Castro puts it, there is not enough demand for change. At the moment, sustainability still hangs over retailers like a thundercloud that will not dissipate, but if major players don’t embrace it, we will find ourselves in a disastrous conundrum. The fashion industry is a two-way process: only when we change ourselves we will begin to see a change in the world’s leading brands.