By John Ogundele
On a classic rain-soaked Manchester evening, sheltered under the roof of a photography studio, I had an aha moment. I was, in fact, attending Manchester’s Sustainable Fashion Party, an event celebrating local businesses and independent creatives working to make fashion more sustainable.
I wasn’t struck with the solution to Hawking’s Black Hole paradox, but I did come to realise that my shopping choices and habits have an impact beyond my wardrobe. This pushed me to reflect on my journey into the world of sustainable fashion.
My not-quite-epiphany provoked mixed feelings. There was a modest sense of pride in knowing my relentless purchases of pre-loved clothes over the years was helping to reverse the fashion industry’s ravaging of the planet. That Britain bins a billion tonnes of clothing every three years was just one of many sobering facts I learnt that night. My pride was tinged with guilt, however. In my quest to curate a ‘vintage’ aesthetic I was blind to the importance of sustainability.
The fashion industry has been variously pronounced as the world’s second largest polluter, pipped to the pole position of environmental destruction by the oil industry. Almost 60 percent of all clothes end up in incinerators or landfill after a year of being produced. More than 8 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries.
Textile factories around the world dump untreated toxic wastewaters into nearby rivers. These wastewaters are used in production and contain substances like lead, mercury, arsenic, among others, that are environmentally harmful. Aquatic life and the millions living by these rivers directly see the effects of this harm. Many synthetic fabrics including nylon, spandex and polyester may not fully biodegrade before 20, or even 200 years. Sustainability in fashion looks to restructure the entire supply chain and life cycle of an item of clothing. This means looking at where and how it is made and the journey to its most likely destination, the landfill.
I must admit I was not always a keen thrifter. Before I began my love affair with second-hand fashion I was fully at the mercy of ‘fast fashion’. ‘Fast fashion’ refers to the inexpensive designs sold by popular high street retailers. They tend to replicate trends, are rapidly produced, and made of poor-quality materials.
A report published by McKinsey, a Management Consultancy, estimates that shoppers throw away clothing after just seven or eight wears. This is a fact exploited by fast fashion retailers that churn out up to 25 collections a year. Topshop, according to Elizabeth Cline in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, adds up to 400 new styles a week to its roster.
Topman was the fast fashion retailer that held my wallet in a vice-like grip. My memories of a quarterly subscription to Topman’s skinny jeans, which would rip in the exact same spot every three months, were not fond. I also did the rounds at H&M, River Island, Primark, and to a lesser extent Zara.
My eventual scaling down of purchases from these stores to invest more in second-hand fashion is, I was shocked to find, caught up in a much broader trend. According to Christopher Morency in The New Luxury: Defining the Aspirational in the Age of Hype, millennial and Generation Z consumers are flocking to second-hand fashion twenty-eight times faster than other age groups. In the past three years, the pre-owned clothing market has grown twenty-one times faster than the retail market. It is poised to surpass fast fashion by 2028.
I am fond of ‘vintage’ or pre-owned clothes, firstly, because of the stories they carry. These include the stories behind their production, of their previous owners, and even the why and how they were purchased.
My first second-hand purchase took place in my native Liverpool. After spending some time sifting through the rails of the self-described ‘No. 1 Vintage Shop in the UK’, I eventually came to a black windbreaker. A lightweight and functional windbreaker that sported the ‘swoosh’ of Nike in an embroidered orange. On the right side of the chest was a bold embroidered crest of what I supposed was an American National Football League or National Hockey League team. I was clueless as to which one and so were the staff. After some thorough googling I realised I was the owner of a training jacket of the Mizzou Tigers, the University of Missouri’s American football team. This would be my first taste of the thrill of uncovering hidden and unique gems. A quest that would take me as far as Barcelona.
I’m also reminded of a Ralph Lauren button down shirt that, like the beginning of many a love story, caught my eye in the middle of a crowded room. Like Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat, its potential was clear and the outfits it could feature in flashed before my eyes. The only problem was that it draped over my slim frame much like a tent. It was at this point that I discovered the synergy between second-hand purchases and alterations. After a trip to a local tailor I was able to fully realise my plans for this one-of-a-kind shirt.
There are many more stories where those came from and it would be an understatement to say I have enjoyed my journey across the world of sustainable fashion. My love for vintage clothing, however, goes beyond stories and comes down to a heady mix of luxury, nostalgia, and uniqueness.
The second-hand market has allowed me to secure household brand names at prices I could only dream of. I’ve discovered pieces from Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger, Yves Saint Laurent, and other luxury brands, at heavy discounts as well as the sportswear giants Nike and Adidas (which the rules clearly state shouldn’t be worn together).
Most of my favourite items were produced in the 90’s. A different time for fashion and much else. And the decade I landed, quite fortunately, on planet earth. That ‘they don’t make them like they used to’, though a cliché, rings true when I think of the many unique pieces you would struggle to find on the high street today.
The positivity that frames my devotion to thrifting as a result of the Sustainable Fashion Party has, however, in recent months, been dampened.
While vintage may suggest abandoning relentless fashion cycles, vintage stores are, as the authors of Fashioning Identity suggest, “living cemeteries in which the style stock is curated to fit the shifting fashion currents”. Once driven by need, the quality of clothes being pre-owned has, in part, become a social currency and status symbol (a trend I have been guilty of). Resellers on platforms such as Depop set unaffordable prices for second-hand clothes to exploit this dynamic.
I was quite taken aback to hear from an employee that wished to remain anonymous that a popular vintage store chain paid its staff minimum wage. And, further, has stringent profit and sales targets. It would be unfair to compare this behaviour with huge fast fashion corporations as most vintage stores are independent retailers, but it does provide food for thought.
Sustainable fashion has provided me with items I will cherish for a lifetime. It has also opened my eyes to the destructive impact on the planet of an industry many of us take for granted. While pre-loved fashion is not without its problems and sustainable solutions need grand and structural change, I urge all of us to see how we can, where possible, shop more sustainably. And in doing so begin to stem the tide of wasted garments and environmental pollution washing over our planet.