Last Updated on March 31, 2022
Editors note: I am beyond excited to start a new chapter here on My Green Closet. This platform is expanding to now include writers from around the world and I can’t wait to bring you more content, stories, perspectives, reviews, deep dives, and guides!
This piece is by Jazzmine Raine, someone I love following and learning from, and am thrilled to have as a contributor here. Over the next 2 weeks (this is only part 1 of 2!) Jazz is digging into what effect the growing interest in secondhand fashion is having on people and the environment, what actually happens to our old clothes, and how we can each help create a more sustainable clothing cycle! 🔄
Accessing clothing, let alone ethical and sustainable clothing, in the midst of the pandemic last year was kind of a headache.
My hours at work were reduced. My anxieties had increased. My family just had gone through two months of a severe lockdown in Chandigarh, India where we couldn’t even access basic food, let alone leave the house.
You can imagine how uncomfortable and weird it was to think about “needing” clothing (I’m sure this resonates with most of you). But, when you’re sweating through your two pairs of pajamas in the heat of an Indian summer, irritation only fuels your need to buy.
This led me to exploring the trend of Instagram thrift shops popping up across India, and becoming quite obsessed with the experience.
Like the thrill of accessible fast fashion for mainstream consumers, I was constantly reminding myself to check Instagram whenever a thrift account I follow was releasing a new drop.
I turned notification alerts on so I wouldn’t miss out on killer finds. I found myself browsing items that were so unrealistic for the climate I live in.
And then…BOOM, it hit me.
I had fallen into the loop.
The consumer cycle of wants turning into needs turning into overconsumption.
Consumption comes in many forms, both tangible and intangible.
Think fashion vs. media. Shopping vs. browsing.
Living in a digital revolution where marketing and ads are constantly being thrown at us on every platform, the impact and influence it has on our lives, even if we think we are “woke”, will loop us in at some point no matter what. The loop is there to make us feel worthy only if we consume, and it takes deep consciousness to escape the cycle.
In the midst of a lockdown when you are lacking connection, community, and freedom, retail therapy quickly becomes an excuse to buy happiness and ignore our most natural needs for cultivating joy.
As a self-aware individual on a continuous conscious living journey, I was able to snap out of it. I identified I was now looking for secondhand items that I did not need, which led me to dive deeper into understanding and studying the actual cycle of the secondhand market (and how sustainable it really is).
And once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Why? Because this hazardous and addictive consumer cycle is actually what is damaging the secondhand industry.
To give you a summary, here are the two major issues I’m seeing:
1. The demand for secondhand goods from affluent markets (aka millennials on nostalgic treasure hunts) is causing a rise in price for secondhand goods making them inaccessible for people who need them most: lower income and marginalized communities.
That’s right—we’re addicted to the past, to 90s style, to oversized sweaters and flood pants. And because it’s more sustainable (and also just way cooler) to find these items secondhand, middle to upper class consumers have inflated the price of secondhand items and are swapping these quality pieces with their cheap, fast fashion finds. These cheap finds now flood the market because they aren’t selling.
You see, since the Industrial Revolution, our “stuff” has become easier and cheaper to make. Following World War 2, citizens had very limited money to spend, but the economy needed a boost. In order to get cash flowing through the system, the economy needed us to buy (and fast!).
Now, decades later, we’re making more money than ever before, but still want more stuff made as fast and cheap as possible.
Constantly making new “stuff” fast, cheap, and in large quantities, is a HUGE threat to the secondhand market, and amplifies the environmental impacts of “fast fashion” and concepts like IKEA.
You see, as the middle class continues to increase in size, and wants shiny and new, the secondhand market has to keep up by decreasing the price of trendy pieces and increasing the price of quality pieces (which compete within luxury markets). That means we are actually sending a lot more fast fashion items to the landfill than ever before because they can’t hold up in the secondhand cycle.
Why? Well, think about it: why take the time to mend a torn, secondhand, Forever-21 t-shirt if you can buy a new, similar one for $2 more?
This leads the secondhand market to becoming more choose-y about what items get a second life, which die on the first round, and which get funneled toward upscale, luxury second hand platforms. As a result, we are seeing a decline in sustainability across the industry, while adding to the economic barriers between middle and lower income communities.
2. Although the secondhand market is huge (it made up 4% of Japan’s overall retail market in 2016!), and seen as environmentally-friendly, the environmental impacts over the last 10 years have been immense.
Why? Because the more we buy, the more we throw away.
You see, once you’ve had your choice of what secondhand items you want in countries like Canada and America, the items that you don’t want get shipped out to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and India. On the positive side, this does present an economic opportunity to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Locals can make a great living by buying and selling in the salvage market (which I’ll cover in my next piece), and secondhand items that can be recovered, can be recycled into yarn in countries like India.
However, because the secondhand market is now flooded with fast fashion and cheap finds, torn and unsellable items (with terrible thread count) are not worth the mending investment and are sent immediately to landfills (and landfills that they don’t belong to).
So, how do we overcome these problems with realistic solutions?
We have to break our Western consumption habits. We need to stop the loop.
The Industrial Revolution helped fuel the economy and allowed families to get their hands on the “stuff” they needed, but now it’s gotten out of control with the increase in urbanization and globalization. It’s also affected urban planning as families need bigger and bigger homes to accommodate their increasing amount of “stuff”!
There is already so much stuff on this planet just hanging out in basements, garages, storage units, and landfills—we really don’t need “new”. What we need is to make a habit of reusing items NOW, reducing the quantity, upping the quality, and sourcing secondhand locally.
This brings me back to the concept of a “need”.
What is a need and what is a want?
Understanding your “needs” vs. your “wants” is a huge step in leading a conscious lifestyle.
It’s also important that I note a “want” doesn’t need to be demonized. Often, needs and wants overlap.
You need and want connection. You need and want love. You need and want food.
But, the want is where you can actually check myself.
“Do I need this sweater because winter is coming, or do I want this sweater because I saw an influencer wearing it on Instagram?”
“Do I need this bag of chips because I’m hungry, or do I want this bag of chips because it’s more convenient than cooking?”
No one can make the decision of your personal needs vs. wants but you—this is your conscious journey you are leading.
I, even as a mixed raced woman, always check and acknowledge my privilege when consuming. I know I don’t actually need anything. I have a roof over your head. I have food on my plate. I have a warm bed at night. But yet, there is always the thrill of buying something “new” or buying “more”, nurturing a moment of immediate satisfaction through consumption.
The point here is: we have to start making conscious choices at the beginning of the consumer cycle, not at the end when we’re left with trash and don’t know where to put it.
We have slowly turned the secondhand industry into our personal dumps as all the cheaply made “stuff” we’ve been buying over the last 20 years has entered the market. With no value to the tag, and evident wear and tear after just a few months, items as big as couches and as tiny as baby shoes are quickly tossed into landfills.
The good news is: your personal consumption habits (yes, just YOU as an individual!) play a vital role in the sustainability of our world.
In 2015, Americans tossed out 24.1 billion pounds of furniture, and 32 billion pounds of textiles according to the most recent data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That means there is a very unnecessary 56.1 billion pounds of stuff just hanging around on our planet from five years ago that could have been repaired, reused, or upcycled.
How did this happen?
Convenience. Accessibility. We got lazy. We got greedy. We have all been part of this looping cycle. which makes us all equally responsible for solutions.
Luckily, the solutions are realistic and accessible.
We need to build a truly circular system. We need to create a sustainable cycle where everyone understands their role and how it works.
In my next piece, I’m going to walk you through the cycle of secondhand fashion once it reaches its destination country in the global south so we can understand where more opportunity lies in creating a sustainable fashion industry. [Read Part 2]
Until next time,
Stay out of the loop!