Why we should normalise second hand clothes

Sustainability with a story.

The sweater on the cover photo has a story – my friend Eva, who is helping me with my podcast, got it from a friend while she was on her Erasmus study exchange in Stockholm, Sweden. She gave it to me during one of my visits there, just as she was finishing up her exchange, and I wore it for the next half a year while I lived in Luleå, also Sweden. I have many memories in it, like learning how to fish in Luleå, falling asleep while watching a movie with my Swedish friend, wearing it on many forest walks both in Sweden and in Slovenia, and I’m even wearing it right now as I type this at home in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

When I was growing up, my cousins and I had a circular economy for clothes, now my boyfriend has 4 sisters and we have a circular economy. Same goes for my other friends, their mothers, friends and so on, the clothes and accessories are perpetually circling to reach the person who needs them at the right moment.

I also have lots of stuff from my mother and both grandmothers – half my kitchen was inherited from my grandmother and it always feels like she’s still there while I’m cooking. It’s like every previously owned item is actually pre-loved, they all have a soul, a special vibe like that favourite burnt pan that will never again seem new, but everything you cook in it has just the right flavour. So why is it that things we inherit have a special, sentimental value, but we’re still prejudiced against second hand items from strangers?

Second hand shopping

Back when I was younger, second hand shops for clothes practically didn’t exists in Slovenia. Buying used clothes was something only poor people did and wearing new clothes was a status symbol, because for a lot of people hand-me-downs still carried a bitter aftertaste of not having a choice in what you wear. People would only buy second hand furniture, cars and electronics, and only because the prices were too high. That has changed a lot with the rise of environmental awareness, but it’s still not the norm, although younger generations are much more inclined to visit a second hand shop first.

We all have so much stuff we buy, are gifted or inherit it’s crazy. Every time I move, I toss out and pass on bags and bags of stuff and yet I still have to do a purge every time, even though I consider myself a responsible consumer who hates shopping. I seem to accumulate things like a hedgehog rolling around in autumn leaves, so when I do need to buy something, I try to choose quality items within my budget and when it comes to clothes I always check out second hand shops first. Unfortunately there are never any pants in my size and you obviously want your underwear new, but half my closet is second hand at this point.

One of my favourite activities abroad is to go thrift shopping, because the clothes in chain stores are always the same, but second hand shops have a way of showing you the unique fashion flavours of local people. The clothes I buy there are also great souvenirs. I love that I can look into my closet in the morning and choose a shirt I bought in Australia and shoes I bought on a sunny afternoon with a friend. Even if your wardrobe isn’t exactly international, it’s fun to imagine who might have worn the clothes before you and the stories they could tell.

Pros and cons of second hand clothes

One of the most common arguments against buying second hand items is that they might be dirty, outdated or damaged in some way. But then again, that argument normally only comes up with clothes – if you’re buying a second hand radio and the radio doesn’t work, you obviously won’t buy it, but won’t hold it against buying second hand, and if the car you’re buying is a bit scratched, you’ll use that to drive the price down and get it repaired later, but no one is particularly worried about buying a used car or a table. It’s normal to expect some signs of use and wear and we’re alright with that, except when it comes to clothes.

People are often extra sensitive about second hand clothes, even though clothes are the one item you can expect to find in prime condition. Humanitarian organisations have been saying it for years: if you wouldn’t wear it yourself, don’t donate it – no one needs socks that are more hole than socks, so why wouldn’t second hand shops adhere to the same or even higher standards? I’ve rarely seen clothes in bad condition on offer, unless they were extremely discounted, but I have seen high quality clothes, even fancy brands in better condition than new clothes in a fast fashion chain store. There’s also a lot more choice than you would expect, because there are clothes from different decades and brands, which means you won’t be one of the 50 people on the street wearing the same jacket from this year’s collection.

As for wearing outdated clothes, well, the hipsters are successfully challenging the norm there and unless you’re very into spending money, you’re probably already buying timeless, versatile pieces instead of edgy fashion trends anyway. There’s a whole new breed of sustainable fashionistas out there, so if you’re into looking stylish and fashionable, trust them, it’s possible. We just need to let go of the prejudice against second hand clothes as something that would immediately mark us as poor or unsuccessful, but rather something that shows we are acting responsibly towards the environment and reflects our personal style.

A huge point in favour of second hand clothes from the user’s perspective is that you can usually find great bargains and that clothes used to be made to last. Fast fashion industry and cheap chain stores have made clothing more diverse and accessible, but they’re only successful if they come out with new fashion every few months and entice you to buy a whole new wardrobe. Consequently, the quality of the clothes has greatly declined and you can tell.

Clothes and sustainability

Obviously the fast fashion modus operandi is only possible at a great environmental cost and is absolutely unsustainable. It takes roughly 2500 litres of water to produce a simple cotton T-shirt and about 20.000 litres for jeans, while up to 75% of clothes and material in the whole supply chain ends up in landfills and only about 1% is actually recycled. The fashion industry not only uses an absurd amount of water and energy, it’s also among the world’s biggest water polluters. Some of the newer synthetic materials shed microplastics and directly pollute the environment even beyond the cost of producing and disposing of such vast amounts of clothing. If that isn’t enough to stop you from following the trends, consider the fact that most fast fashion is made in third world countries by underpaid or bonded workers, which are often women and children. Somewhere out there is a child stitching together your next summer top instead of playing with LEGOs and the thought is enough to turn my stomach. These people most often have no social security, are paid a pittance to work in bad conditions and are essentially modern slaves.

Here’s a breakdown of the true cost of a pair of jeans and how much clothes should actually cost if we’d want to account for everything that goes into making them, including fair wages and working conditions. The systemic answer to the current clothes manufacturing problem is the so called slow fashion movement, where clothes would be made slowly by dedicated, fairly paid artisans, in small thoughtfully designed batches using quality sustainable materials to last for years. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever looked into buying a piece of sustainable clothing, you probably noticed that the prices are shockingly high. Since we’re all so disconnected from the true cost of our clothing, even appropriately priced items without high profit margins can seem very expensive and are unattainable for a lot of people. Until slow fashion becomes the norm, sustainable clothing will continue to be a privilege and if an offer seems cheap or too good to be true, it’s probably greenwashing.

Normalise second hand clothes

In my opinion, that’s exactly why normalising second hand clothes is the answer for right now. Once an item of clothing has been produced, it’s there. The resources and labour have been spent and it doesn’t particularly matter how it was produced if it ends up in the trash before it’s time. Coupled with responsible consumerism and proper care for your clothes, buying second hand clothing could help us bridge the gap between the current situation and the future rise of slow fashion, because there are already tons of clothes out there and we should use them as much as possible until they are no longer usable. I know that it’s not always possible to find everything you need and like in your size in a second hand shop and that we all have different budgets, but even if you just buy some second hand items and focus on buying only what you actually need from fast fashion stores on the cheap, you’re still ultimately buying less and not enabling the fast fashion cycle.

If we all start liking what we wear and stop caring about the fashion rules, but rather start treating our clothes like those treasured inheritance pieces that we will enjoy, reuse and repair for years, we will be well on the way towards better, sustainable behavioural patterns. In the words of the closet organising guru Marie Kondo ” “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” So, let’s dispose of fast fashion and take it slow and second hand.

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13 thoughts on “Why we should normalise second hand clothes

  1. What a great subject for a post. I agree with you 100%. In my pre-travel life I was a big consignment and thrift store shopper. I loved finding good quality clothes at a fraction of what they would cost brand new. Many of the things I bought I would never have paid full price for. Among my finds was a full length burgundy suede coat for US$ 30.00. Many of these items are still waiting for me back in the U.S. I am also a big donator. If I am through with something, I hope someone else can use it and enjoy it. P.S. Love Marie Kondo’s mantra.

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