From fast fashion to second-hand style
I love fashion. Clothes are so much more than functional for me - they're a form of self-expression; an outlet for my creativity that I wear on my body every day. I'm not a high-end shopper - I've never been into designer labels. I have an H&M budget, maybe Boden for a special occasion. But for many years now I've been aware that our fashion choices have huge ethical implications.
'Fast fashion' refers to a shift in clothes production over the past 60 years or so. Years ago, a new outfit was a rare treat that cost a lot of money. Now you can buy a new dress for a Friday night online for less than the cost of a cocktail. Fast fashion brands produce clothes at a phenomenal rate, piling them high and selling them cheap. This means that we buy more, but see our clothes as much more disposable. Why pay good money for someone to repair a ripped hem or let out a waistband when we could buy something new for less? Why keep wearing the same old outfits when we could buy new ones and throw the old ones out?
But while we may enjoy cheap, disposable clothing, the price is being paid elsewhere. Fast fashion hurts the environment and it hurts the people who make it. In No Logo (1999), Naomi Klein exposed in horrifying detail the outsourcing of manufacturing, including clothing production, to countries in the majority world where wages are low and labour laws much more permissive. People work long hours in unsafe conditions for very little money, sometimes doing forced unpaid overtime. Companies such as Primark, Zara and Nike (and there are so many others) are then able to sell the products cheaply because the cost of producing the clothes has been slashed to the bare minimum. Fast fashion companies do not directly mistreat anyone, but they outsource the production of their clothes to other companies that may do. The supply chain can be opaque: factories that deal with the big brands may subcontract out manufacture to other factories, making it difficult - difficult, but absolutely necessary - for the big brands to ensure they aren't profiting from cruel business practices.
But even when supply chains are transparent and clothes are manufactured to good ethical standards, there is still far too much clothing being produced. As Lauren Bravo explains: 'Textile production produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2e per year, which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.' (Lauren Bravo, How To Break Up With Fast Fashion: A guilt-free guide to changing the way you shop – for good p. 44, Kindle Edition). We need to produce less, buy less, and keep the garments we have in circulation for longer.
In response, some people commit to buy fewer garments and buy well, choosing sustainable clothing companies with transparent supply chains. People Tree and Lucy and Yak are two great examples. But the clothes aren't cheap. I heard Safia Minney, founder of People Tree, speak at the Greenbelt Festival in 2019 and she confessed that she buys People Tree clothes second hand on eBay. This made me love her even more.
For a fashion junkie on a budget like me, the solution has been to buy almost exclusively second-hand clothing. I buy pyjamas and underwear new (obvs), along with basics like plain leggings, but pretty much everything else comes from eBay and, recently, Vinted. This started in 2016 when I was advised to lose weight for medical reasons, dropped a couple of dress sizes and had to replace my whole wardrobe. I started out buying a few things on eBay in my new size, and discovered a passion. I have sunk hours and hours into tracking desirable items on eBay, setting up email alerts and looking for the best price. I adore Zara dresses, but Zara is one of the worst fast fashion offenders. So I buy second hand items, saving money and keeping them in circulation for longer. I'm also a big fan of a charity shop. My best ever charity shop buy was a Superdry coat for £20 and my best eBay purchase was a leather Kate Spade handbag for £60. Both items looked like new.
As a Christian, I understand issues like fast fashion in the context of sin. Sin is the word the Bible uses to talk about the things we do and the attitudes we have that separate us from God and that prevent our world being the way God created it to be. Fast fashion is structural sin: it's not the result of one person's actions, but the result of thousands upon thousands of daily decisions that harm people and the environment. Decisions by thousands of diverse individuals, from CEOs to supervisors on factory floors to shoppers in Zara. But the good news is that God is re-creating the world, and asks human beings like you and me to join in with this work. Just as Jesus took five loaves and two fish, breaking them and handing them out to feed five thousand people, so God can take our small acts, multiply them, and use them to change the world.
I saw a meme on Instagram recently that said "How can I make a difference, I'm just one person?" - said 8 billion people. We can't solve these huge problems alone, but we can each do small things daily to turn the tide in the right direction.