From September 2014 till September 2015, I gave up going to high-street clothing stores, almost exclusively buying clothes that were either second-hand or made from recycled materials. Exceptions to this were some bamboo socks (to supplement my wealth of second-hand socks from friends, don’t judge) and a pair of trainers (that one’s a story in itself). This started off as yet another self-challenge - I wanted to see how long I could go without buying clothing from a ‘proper shop’, without succumbing to the stereotype of ethical fashion and wearing hemp and patchwork skirts.
What woke me up
I grew up in England, in a mixed-culture household, visiting family in Malaysia now and again. I guess seeing the apathy of a throw-away society for 48 weeks of the year, juxtaposed with the remaining four weeks spent sitting with my auntie as she repaired underwear to pass on, left me questioning the western attitude towards possessions as disposable nothings. My Malaysian family could well afford to buy new clothing - it probably costs the same these days with cheap goods available throughout town - the point is that the concept of throw-away fashion is abhorrently wasteful to them. Whilst in a big city like Kuala Lumpur, government encouragement of waste minimisation is a ‘thing’ just like it is here in the UK, for many homemakers in small towns and more rural areas it’s pure common sense. Photos of my grandmother from my trip to Muar last month show her wearing the same clothes as in family Polaroids from the 70s, and she wouldn’t label herself an eco-warrior.
One day last September, I was chatting to a colleague who said she sourced most of her wardrobe from eBay and charity shops, and I would never have guessed. It got me thinking about the stories behind our clothing - frugal and eco-friendly often go hand-in-hand - but, in the case of fashion, the cheapest options on the market are often the least ethical ones. Like many of you, I know I would avoid buying garments made in factories with terrible conditions, paying their staff unfair wages and making them work unfairly long hours, if it were in front of me to witness - so I decided to stop living unaware and start making more conscious choices when buying clothes.
I started off with a good month or so of not purchasing any clothing at all, as a little detox and to detach myself from the world of consumerism. That really helped, as I got out of the habit of wandering into shops off the street and by the time the month was up I saw my old behaviour as pretty excessive. We’ve all got enough in our wardrobes to see us through one month, and the detox really highlighted that.
After this, it really was as simple as avoiding high street stores and heading to places like Traid and British Heart Foundation instead. You’ll need to do a little digging, but you’ll have less temptation to shop so often, because charity shops aren’t x1000 on your walk between the train station and the office. The time you’ll spend digging, you’ll save by avoiding Topshop. I promise.
For specific items, apps like Vinted and eBay are great for fast browsing and thorough filtering. The internet is your oyster.
Why I stopped only buying second hand
You might be wondering why the end of my challenge came about in September this year. I was speaking with a supplier of sustainable fashion who was telling me all about farming and fair trade. She mentioned that the issue of recyclability is equally as important as a material having been recycled already: organic cotton, for example, can be recycled into something new once you’re done wearing it, whilst a blend of recycled plastic bottles with spandex is at the end of its life once blended.
With this in mind, and having discovered H&M’s Conscious range, the next time I needed a top (which was in Malaysia, having brought no non-sports top and having a dinner to attend) I galloped into a KL branch and bought an top bearing the green Conscious tag. It was actually overwhelming to be able to choose from different colours and sizes, and it made me realise just how conditioned we are to expect such broad choice. It felt very sterile and soulless compared with being inside the walls of friendly London charity shops like I was used to, but I was happy to support the more sustainable offerings of a big, influential company like H&M.
What about stuff that's gross to buy second-hand?
You might also be wondering about things that would be gross to buy second-hand, like underwear, sports bras and swimwear. I actually haven’t bought any new underwear for over a year, because I was a bit of a junkie before and had plenty to last. I wear sports bras most days because I live in sportswear and love being able to go for a spontaneous jog whenever I feel like it, and because looking how magazines tell me to look is dropping steadily lower on my list of priorities, although I’m definitely still deeply pressurised, like the vast majority of females in this country are. It's hard to break, but there's something liberating about wearing sports bras most of the time and wearing 'normal' bras just on chosen occasions. It's probably also quite good for the boobies.
I’m considering buying new underwear soon as I’ve finally come across an ethical lingerie brand whose underwear doesn’t look like it was made for a loo roll doll. I’ve made my few existing sports bras last the year and have recently found out that some Nike sports bras are made from recycled polyester, and I have 2 bikinis that have seen me through my travels too.
What I've learned
What I've learned from my year-long challenge is that we really think we need shit. Lots of shit. And that we can throw it into the abyss once we’re bored of it. I’m trying to be mindful of two things:
(1) We don’t need most shit, and at the same time it’s up to us where we draw the line. I still paint my nails sometimes and call it self-expression. I most definitely don’t need to do this, but beating myself up on a micro level about consumerism when I’m the product of an entirely consumerist society straight-up messes with my mental wellbeing and makes me want to run away and live in a forest. I can’t spread my lovely eco-yoga message from the forest, and I like when my nails look like coral.
(2) Matter can never be created or destroyed. (That's physics. I got one-third of a GCSE in it in 2008.) Unsustainable fashion takes from the earth’s resources at a faster rate than we can give back, and we have the choice, with every £ that we spend on fashion, to either fund the production of unsustainable clothing or direct it towards sustainable & ethical options. This goes beyond fashion and applies to consumerism and our throw-away society as a whole.
For ethical fashion to work (IMO), it has to:
- Be as popular design-wise as the mainstream clothes it’s substituting
- Cost around the same as mainstream clothing
- Be easily findable/not a headache to research
Ethical fashion can be split into three camps right now: (1) cheap and ugly, (2) pretty and insanely expensive (made for the yogis of Notting Hill), and (3) charity shop/second-hand lucky finds. The second of these three camps doesn't fit the 'cost' bracket, and the third camp doesn't fit the 'easily findable' bracket, and so I wholly understand why most of us prefer to dash into high-street stores, grab what we're looking for and go home stress-free. The problem is that the more we buy ethically-questionable clothing, the more big retailers will stock it, and the further we are from having affordable, covetable ethical clothing on our doorstep.
We need to shop more minimally and more consciously, and we can take small steps to start improving right now. November 27th is 'Buy Nothing Day', proposed in response to the consumer-fest that is Black Friday that falls on the same day. Why not pledge to go 24 hours shopping-free? If you want to take things one step further, you can get involved with Traid's #secondhandfirst week, running Nov 23rd-29th, and pledge to source a percentage of your clothes second-hand.
For help finding brands or to discuss all things ethical, comment below or contact me here. I have a whole mental inventory of sustainable brands I'd love to share with you!