I talk with people who both buy and sell used clothes a lot and often discuss the role of preloved clothing in conscious and ethical consumerism. Quite often people tell me that they feel used clothes are ethical & sustainable by their nature. Here is why I think this is both true and false.
First, let’s deal with ethics and sustainability issues separately because there are a couple of differing factors at play.
Buying Used Clothing is on Balance more Sustainable than New Clothing
Buying preloved clothing absolutely improves the sustainability of a garment. Research by WRAP in the UK shows extending the average life of clothes (2.2 years) by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints). While extended use does not make the garment a totally sustainable one (the definition of sustainable is somewhat vague to say the least), it certainly helps reduce the impact the garment has on the environment. This is because the impact of a garment on the environment continues throughout its entire life cycle. As well as having the environmental impact during its creation, i.e. the water to grow the cotton, waste created during fabric creation and dying processes, fabric waste during construction, post creation a garment continues to have an impact through transport, water use and how it is eventually discarded.
So yes the choice to buy a preloved garment over a new garment means you are making that garment more sustainable. Just like selling a garment instead of tossing it out makes it more sustainable (each family throws away about 70kg of clothes a year and they go straight to land fill to release methane).
Of course depending on the garment, some new clothes will be more sustainable than preloved ones. For example a preloved polyester garment shipped across the world may on balance be less sustainable than a new garment grown and constructed locally with waste minimising processes employed. So there are no hard and fast calculations, but on balance given that most of our clothing is mass-produced in low income countries preloved clothing is probably more sustainable than most new clothing, but not more ethical.
Buying Used Clothing can be an Ethical Choice but that Does Not Make Preloved Clothes Ethical
Things get a bit trickier when it comes to preloved clothing and the ethics of a garment. When I say ethics I am meaning the conditions under which your clothing was produced. So the employment and labour conditions of those who grow and sell the raw textile products (cotton, wool etc.), those who process it into fabric, those who dye it and print it, sew it, and those who are paid to sell it (that t-shirt involves at least 25 production steps). While buying a preloved garment can be an ethical choice for a consumer – they are choosing not to give money directly to those companies who profit from exploitative labour practices, – it does not make the garment ethical (note I am not talking here of reconstructed, upcycled, recreated garments, just good old simple second hand clothes).
Consumer Choice is Not the Only Things that Matters in Terms of Ethics
I am not in any way having a go at those that buy and sell used clothing here, because buying and selling preloved is a really important part of conscious consumerism and changing the fashion industry. Slower more thoughtful consumption on a mass scale will we hope eventually lead to a slower more thoughtful fashion industry, which may lead to better labour conditions. BUT when people believe preloved clothing is automatically rendered ethical by its preloved status they are seeing this consumer-purchasing behaviour as the ONLY thing that matters in the ethical fashion equation.
What they miss (and no one can blame them for this because the textile industry is a vastly huge and confusing one) is that an ethical garment is actually one that is created by a business that is transparent, operates under fair labour conditions, scrupulously works to avoids indentured (slave) labour, is safe for its employees, and has a central mission of industry improvement and accountability to its workers as well as its owners and shareholders. A garment produced under such conditions is an ethically produced product. Whereas buying preloved clothing is a choice that may lead to a change in production practices. It is different.
For a consumer choosing between new and preloved clothing, the preloved choice may be the more ethical one but it does not neutralize the conditions under which those clothes were made in the first place – this requires a lot more effort and at multiple levels throughout the system. If you are interested in how this might happen in fashion, have a look at this model of how to fix fashion. It describes many of the necessary activities ranging from the individual to political level.
So keep buying used clothes and selling used clothes because it matters in a lot of ways and is an important part of changing the industry. However, if you want an item of clothing in which no person has been exploited to create, then buying ethically produced clothing is the only way to achieve that, while buying preloved ethically produced clothing clearly hits the jackpot!
Jess Berentson-Shaw founded the social enterprise Muka kids’ to connect consumers, designers and garment workers across the world, and empower them to make the clothing industry a sustainable one. Muka kids has a marketplace to trade preloved organic, ethical & sustainable clothing. Through its partnerships with accredited brands it also helps make new sustainable clothing more affordable. Sales on the marketplace fund a micro finance scheme for women cotton farmers in India trying to pull themselves out of poverty.