Who doesn’t love the look and feel of a new outfit? To swish about in front of the mirror, do that sticky-out leg pose, then inevitably wear it every day for about a week because the novelty is just so irresistible. I know that’s not just me. And in this trend-driven market – where every new season brings a dazzling array of new garments on store mannequins; the season’s ‘must-haves’ in the latest trendy colours, most of it cheap as chips – our hunger for fast fashion is sated. Temporarily.
Yet, while we’re thrilled with our bargain buy, someone is usually paying somewhere – often a young woman working long hours in appalling conditions in a country south of the equator. When do we ever get to hear their stories? Sadly, one story that grabbed the world’s attention in April 2013 was the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, in which 1,138 garment makers were killed when the building they were working in collapsed. Factory owners had ignored warnings about the building’s safety, choosing to prioritise impending deadlines for big global brands over the lives of their workers. 1,138 voices, most of them of young women, silenced by crushing rubble and dust. And all for the sake of that £5 top we just ‘had to have’.
In the wake of the disaster, Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro founded Fashion Revolution, an international campaign to empower consumers to confront these big brands, demand greater transparency in their manufacturing process and encourage them to make positive changes, whether it be to improve pay and working conditions for their employees, or to lessen their environmental impact. After all, the fashion industry is the fourth highest industrial polluter in the world, causing 8 percent of global carbon emissions, and depleting rivers of their fish stocks with microfibres, toxic waste and chemicals from their factories.
It was while scrolling through my Instagram feed during Fashion Revolution Week that I saw an eye-catching image of one of their followers with their top inside out and the brand label showing, using the hashtag #whomademyclothes. I clicked through to the website and found a fantastic resource with lots of advice on how to encourage big brands to make changes, the stories of companies and makers that are already making a difference, and how to shop for fashion ethically and sustainably.
After browsing their website and looking around on Instagram I realised I’d let my own standards slip in recent years. I used to love spending hours browsing charity shops and vintage markets for affordable clothes, but since having children and finding that my free time and pennies were scarce, I’d started relishing the world of sales and discounts offered by big brands simply because it was easy and cheap.
It was time for a change – and a fun challenge. In April 2019, I made a pledge that any clothes I bought over the course of the following year would either be second hand or from brands that are rated ‘Good’ or above by an app called Good On You, which profiles and rates fashion companies based on their environmental impact, animal welfare and working conditions. I was alarmed to find that this narrowed the choice in my home city to just one shop. So, in order to widen this selection, I’d have to start looking online.
However, as we all know about many of the more ethical and sustainable brands, they tend to be on the pricey side. My disposable income isn’t huge, so I turned to the pre-loved world with open arms. And my oh my, what a big world it is! Of course, there are charity shops, and of course there’s good old eBay, but when you start to do a little digging, you realise there’s a variety of ways to find pre-loved clothes, much of it on your own doorstep.
On Facebook I found my city’s ‘Online Carboot’ page, on which members of the local community post their unwanted bits and bobs. It was on this page I found a pair of red leather boots for winter – a quality brand, still in great condition and a snip at £10 – and a clutch bag to match a dress I’d borrowed for a wedding, something I’d be loathed to buy brand new for the sake of using only a handful of times. According to Nicole Robertson, founder of Swap Society – the ‘ultimate online clothes swap’ – buying or swapping pre-loved garments isn’t just good for your purse, it’s good for the environment, too: “When you buy second hand, you’re buying something that already exists. Your purchase isn’t causing more resources to be utilised.”
So it felt good to be making use of things that have been loved by someone else and still have plenty of life left in them, while saving money at the same time. And the best part? It can be great fun.
For the past year or so, friends and I have been hosting regular clothes swaps (or ‘swishing’, as I’ve heard it called), where we meet up at each other’s houses, dump our unwanted clothes in the middle of the floor, crack open a bottle of wine and let the trying-on frenzy begin. There’s usually a lot of laughter and a lot of “this would suit you” and “you look amazing in that”, and by the end of the last one I had an entire outfit sorted for an upcoming Christmas party, from sequin miniskirt to funky little blazer. It’s such a sociable way of sharing clothes that even extends beyond the clothes swapping evening, when we text each other on our WhatsApp group chat in need of a specific colour dress or accessory, and nine times out of 10, one of us has it to lend. No need to splurge.
It’s been almost a year since I began this challenge, and over that year I’ve bought two things brand new. One was from a shop rated ‘Great’ on the Good On You app, and the other, I’m afraid to say, I bought during a moment of weakness and retrospectively looked up the brand’s eco credentials. ‘Not Good Enough’ was its rating. Oops. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen. So, apart from that slip, I’m proud that most of the clothes I’ve acquired this year are pre-loved or ethically and sustainably sourced, and I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way, including the myriad online alternatives to eBay and Gumtree, and the sociable benefits of ‘swishing’ locally.
But the most valuable lesson? To love the clothes I already have. To get them out once in a while, mentally plan outfits, refold them and put them back. It’s made me realise that I have a lot of clothes and I can safely say – and my partner tells me frequently – I definitely don’t need any more.
8 ways to join the fashion revolution
Simple changes can have a huge impact
Revive your sewing skills! Get nifty with a needle and creative with your mending. Look out for Mending Life – A handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro, an inspiring new book out now.
When you buy second hand, you’re buying something that already exists and doesn’t contribute to more resources being taken out of the environment. As well as charity shops and vintage markets, make the most of eBay and Gumtree, and seek out local online alternatives, such as ‘Online Carboot’ pages on Facebook.
Host or attend a clothes swap
Host a regular clothes swap with friends or seek out swishing events in your area. You might even be lucky enough to have a ‘swap shop’ in your town or city. It’s a great way of meeting people, and who knows what lovely items you’ll come away with. Take a look at swishing.com and please follow your local Covid restrictions.
Shop at ethical retailers
From trainers made out of ocean waste to organic hemp undies, there’s an incredible array of ethical and sustainable clothing retailers out there. Download the Good On You app to help you find brands that source materials responsibly and pay their workers a decent wage. Also, seek out local artisan makers – particularly if you’re after something special and don’t mind the extra splurge.
Ask a friend
Got a wedding this weekend and ‘nothing to wear’? Chances are, one of your friends has something you can borrow – all you have to do is reach out and ask. Actually WEAR your clothes How many clothes lie folded at the back of our wardrobes, unworn for months? Every so often, get them all out and assess what you’ve got. Anything you’ve not worn for years, and you’re not likely to, donate, swish or down-cycle into pyjamas or cleaning rags. You could challenge yourself further and scale right down to a ‘capsule wardrobe’. Brave enough to try it?
Read the label
Many clothes end up being thrown away because they’ve been ruined in the washing machine. Make sure you read the label and follow the care instructions. Also, if you’re washing anything made from manmade fibres (polyester, acrylic, nylon), pop it in a Guppyfriend Washing Bag first – this will reduce the amount of microfibres and micoplastic particles entering the water system.
Make do and mend
Just because it has a hole or is torn shouldn’t mean it’s destined for landfill. Brush up on your sewing skills and get into the 1940s mindset. You can even get a bit creative by embellishing holes with funky neon thread. Also, find out if your area has a Repair Café – it’s a great way of meeting people and picking up new fix-it skills. Cut through the ‘green wash’ That clothing brand may tell you their ‘eco’ jeans are made from organic cotton, but what percentage of the cotton? And what about the other materials? And who made them? Do your research and find out which brands are genuinely making positive changes across the board, and those that are hiding behind a gimmick.
Looking for more ways to live sustainably? Check out Christine Liu’s tips and learn how to make your home more sustainable. We waste huge amounts of food each year – take a look at our sustainable food guide to learn how to eat more sustainably.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 37. Featured image by Unsplash/Alexandra Gorn.