This second hand mens jumper arrived in the post today for my husband. Its arrival did cause a little angst between us. Although I do have to agree it is a gorgeous jumper did he need it and was it a better buy than a new jumper?
Our first instinct is to say “Of course it is! Aren’t we all being encouraged to buy second hand?” Spend more than a few minutes online or watching television and you will be inundated with exhortions to save the planet and buy what already exists, don’t buy new. Vinted has recently released an advert which on the surface would have us believe that they alone are going to save the planet through selling us second hand clothes.
According to the British Fashion Council (I’ve yet to find the exact report – do let me know if you the exact attribution) there are already enough clothes on the planet to last us for the next six generations. In the last few weeks I have seen this splashed all over social media (including by me). Much shaking of heads and wagging of fingers and much leaping on the [band] wagon by a huge range of retailers (not me).
It is quite a claim and technically is probably quite true. But in much the same way many of us were told that there were children starving in Africa who would love the food on our plates that we didn’t want to eat, the existence of too much clothing doesn’t solve a clothing crisis. Most of the clothing that is referred to in this claim is probably cheap fast fashion. Man made fibres and not designed to last, unlikely to be repaired and quite probably ending up either in landfill, being incinerated or sent to Eastern Europe or West Africa for resale. Do you know what happens to your unwanted clothing? Death plans for clothes really should be a thing.
So let’s look at each of these in a little more detail. Landfill, I think we can all agree this is not a good option and one that cannot be used ad infinitum. Little that goes into landfill will degrade. Most of it will go into landfill and remain there for decades if not hundreds of years. Man made fibres are almost universally made of plastic. Plastic will not degrade. So option one – nul points.
Option two, Incineration. Yes, the heat generated may well be used as an energy source, but energy produced is, at the very most, only 60% of that used to create the textile in the first place. It also does not take into account the carbon emissions produced in the burning of what is, essentially, plastic.
Option three, Resale. I remember the first time I went to Romania and discovering British brands (cheap ones) on sale in second hand shops. I was rather perplexed, and then I remembered the huge container loads of unwanted British clothes that land in West African ports for resale in vast clothing markets and realised that we were widening our export of our unwanted cheap clothing. When I have been looking for sources of second hand silks and cashmeres I inevitably come across websites where companies advertise sale and delivery of entire container loads of cheap clothing. Said clothing is rarely appropriate for the country in which it arrives. Believe me I have lived in Sub-Saharan Africa. You don’t want to be wearing an acrylic shirt in the heart or an acrylic jumper in the cold nights in the mountains. The former will melt you the latter will not keep you warm in sub zero temperatures. Local textile industries developed over hundreds of years knew and understood what was needed and created accordingly. Those industries have been destroyed by our rubbish. Uganda has banned the import of Western textiles, but without support to recreate the original industries there is now just a void. A whole second hand clothing industry has disappeared but there is nothing to fill the gap and hundreds of people are now unemployed because of our cheap unwanted second hand clothes.
So we don’t want them, and it doesn’t look as if anybody else really does either so whilst six generations worth of clothing exists it’s not proving to be very useful.
What we do with this textile mountain is a big question I am not able to answer, certainly not here. But that wasn’t the question. The question was should we be buying second hand?
Again, the question is not a simple one.
What about handmade items? You make a dress, you buy the fabric and sew it together. Is it new? Well the fabric is probably new, the thread almost certainly will be as will the zips if not the buttons. The only difference is that you sewed it not somebody in a sweatshop in Bangladesh. So ethically it is certainly better, and because you made it you will probably value it more and look after it better. But it is still new.
What about hand made items made by other people? “Shop Independent” is a huge rallying cry. But if you stop buying new, all those spinners, weavers, leatherworkers, shoemakers, dress designers and makers will all go out of business. Was that your intent? I doubt it.
The irony is that the power to change things is in your hands. As a certain well-known electronic company said in a recent advert, “The next big thing is you”. You are the buyer. If you don’t buy it there is no point for any company to make it. It’s not a case of only buy second-hand it is a case of only buy thoughtfully.
- What is it made of?
- How was it made?
- Who made it?
- Under what conditions?
- How will I look after it/wash it/repair it?
- What will happen to it when I no longer want it?
- What will happen to it when nobody wants it/it can no longer be used?
If we asked all these questions before we hit buy or handed over our credit card then that nasty acrylic shirt would not be made and there would not be six generations worth of clothing on the planet. If you go into your local charity shop and buy that funky acrylic jumper there continues to be a market for acrylic jumpers, funky or otherwise and so they will continue to be churned out. Stop buying them completely and the market dries up. Yes we still have to find a use for all the ones that currently exist but at least the stopcock has been turned off and we can turn our attention fully to the pile of waste it has already churned out.
Only you can really make a difference and only you can chose how you spend your money. Just remember there are consequence to every action and one polyester shirt will one day be the hair that breaks the planet’s back.
P.S. That jumper. Did he need it – no (that caused the angst!) Was it better than buying new? In this case I would say yes. It is pure wool, excellent quality and has a long life ahead of it.