Mon, Feb 25, 2019 - Page 8 News List

‘Don’t feed the monster!’: The people who have stopped buying new clothes

A growing movement eschews fast fashion in favor of secondhand clothing. Is this the biggest personal change that can be made for the environment?

By Paula Cocozza  /  The Guardian

A participant at a “Fashion Clinic” workshop last September mends his old jeans. A nascent movement against fast fashion is taking root in Hong Kong, with clothes-mending workshops and pop-up swaps growing in popularity, and designers parading recycled fabrics on the catwalk.

Photo: AFP

Lauren Cowdery is flicking through the rails of the Cancer Research charity shop in Goole, east Yorkshire. “Too bobbly!” she tuts at a ribbed top. “This skirt is big but it would be easy to take in...” Cowdery appears to be shopping, but she is merely browsing. She is on a mission not to buy any new clothes, even ones that have recently belonged to someone else. “I think you have to pull back and ask: ‘Do I need this?’” she says.

Cowdery is one of a growing number of people who love clothes but try their hardest to resist buying them for reasons of sustainability. According to the charity Wrap, which promotes sustainable waste management, the average lifetime for a garment in the UK is just 2.2 years. An estimated US$39.1 billion of unused clothing hangs in UK wardrobes, and yet still we shop for more.

“Each week we buy 38 million items and 11 million items go to landfill,” says Maria Chenoweth, chief executive of Traid, a charity working to stop clothes being thrown away. “We don’t have enough resources to keep feeding this monster.”


Chenoweth believes that consumers are switching to secondhand shopping, or adding a pre-owned element into their purchasing habits. She points to a 30 percent rise in turnover at Traid shops last year compared with 2017.

When she was a teenager in the 1980s, her father banned her from jumble sales in case people thought the family was poor. She disobeyed him, and dragged her sacks of clothes through her bedroom window. Now, Chenoweth considers it “a huge gesture of activism to buy secondhand,” a necessary choice for those who “do not believe in damaging the environment and perpetuating this consumption and waste.”

So how hard is it to make the transition to a more sustainable way of shopping? In the UK, clothing has the fourth largest environmental impact after housing, transport and food. More than half of fast-fashion items are thrown away in less than a year, according to McKinsey’s State of Fashion report last year. But is buying secondhand really an antidote to fast fashion?

In Goole, where Cowdery works as a marketing officer for the Junction Theater, there are ample local distractions for a lunch break: Dorothy Perkins, New Look, Peacocks. Cowdery used to buy things “because they were there.” In the evenings, she went on Asos.

“I’d think: ‘Oh brilliant, a discount code! Free shipping! I’ll order stuff! Hmm... It doesn’t fit very well, but I can’t be bothered to send it back... I’ll keep it.’”

Each month, Cowdery bought two or three things. “At £20 a time, that starts to build up. There’s a wardrobe of stuff. Things with the tags still on... I took a look at myself and thought: ‘What are you doing?’”

Curious about a post she saw on Facebook, one weekend Cowdery dropped into the Leeds Community Clothes Exchange, a local swap shop. Four years on, she is one of its three directors, helping to oversee the 2,000 items — “designer stuff, vintage stuff, handmade things, wedding dresses” — that pass through the doors of the Woodhouse community center each month.

Cowdery and I meet in one of those lunch hours that used to be spent shopping. Her skirt, top and cardigan are all from the Clothes Exchange; her boots are from the Autism Plus shop in Goole.

“At the exchange, it’s one for one on everything,” she explains. There are no value judgments. A garment is saleable if all its buttons are present and there are no stains. Some prom dresses return again and again.

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