I love fashion and I always have. When I was younger, long before the internet, I tried to save up what I could (from my school allowances and such) and with my savings, I collected as many old GQ magazines as possible. I’d pore over the pages most nights, and wonder at the talent of creative designers working behind the scene of each glamorous shoot.
As I got older, I discovered that the stages of producing those glamorous wears I saw in GQ were in fact environmentally unfriendly. With this finding came corresponding joy at the discovery of various sustainable and ethical fashion alternatives to remedy the situation. And even though some of these alternatives were ideals I practiced already – such as rewearing and upscaling – the ethical principle that resonated most with me was that of pre-loved fashion.
Now we know that the concept of pre-loved clothing simply refers to the purchase of garments and other fashion accessories that have already been lovingly used, owned or bought by someone else but have been put up for a resale. I am a fan of pre-loved clothes not just because they are often of great quality, but also because they are resold for much lower prices, seeing as they aren’t exactly brand new and purchased directly off the shelf.
In addition, the pre-loved clothing industry is known in Nigeria as the Okirika fashion industry and it has been a huge part of our lives in this part of the world. In fact, on assignment, I visited one of the biggest outdoor markets for pre-loved clothes in my homeland, the Ahia Ohuru market in Aba and gained even more insights.
Pre-loved fashion is widely regarded as one of the fastest growing sustainable fashion trends. It encourages and develops a ‘fashion recycling’ community, maximizes garment usage, keeps clothing out of landfills, connects people to unique fashion that isn’t easily found in generic retail stores (such is the case for true vintage items) and ensures that people have access to brands that may typically be out of reach due to high retail prices. This sector of the fashion industry is so popular with consumers in fact, that its value is set to skyrocket to about $64 billion by the year 2028 in the United States alone.
While this is great news from an environmental perspective, the bigger the demand for pre-loved clothes; the bigger my worry that perhaps, we are creating an adapted version of the fast fashion industry.
The amazing thing about the pre-loved clothing industry is its sustainability; and it is sustainable because it is the direct opposite of what is found in the fast fashion industry. Since there are already enough clothes produced in the world, the environmentally responsible thing to do is repair, recirculate, or re-wear what’s already out there. Put differently, each existing, second-hand item that is purchased is saved from going to waste and being sent to landfill.
Secondly, buying newly made ‘sustainable’ clothes these days often means paying prices so high you’d rather revert to fast fashion. The higher price isn’t unreasonable since it often factors in more costly organic materials, fair wages, eco-friendly packaging and perhaps the expense of holding ethical certifications such as GOTS and Fairtrade.
Also worthy of mention here is the fact that pre-loved clothes have special attachments to the wearer. During my assignment at Ahia Ohuru, I experienced this in its purest form. Customers had to dig through heaps of clothes to find their fit, literally. Each successful find is a treasure of sorts and I believe this experience more than anything makes each second-hand clothes special. After all that work in finding the perfect well-fitting item, it seems unlikely that they will just dispose of it without having worn it extensively.
All that been said, with big clothing companies and tech startups moving into the pre-loved clothing market, I feel that the industry is about to lose all these above-mentioned attributes. The first sign is the proliferation of online platforms for pre-loved clothes. Platforms like thredUP, touted as the ‘world’s largest online consignment and thrift store’ have been hugely successful, as has other online markets for pre-loved clothes. Pre-loved clothes are no longer just clothes we buy from garage sales or thrift stores in our neighborhood.
They are being structured into multimillion dollar businesses and everywhere you look, some big brand or other offers them up for grabs at the click of a button. Not only does this proliferation take away the special joy of the pre-loved treasure hunt, as innocent as mindlessly scrolling through online pre-loved shops may seem, consumers are unintentionally contributing to an industry that uses more energy than aviation.
As if this isn’t enough, a study commissioned by Patagonia, has shown that older clothes actually shed more microfibers than newly made ones. These can eventually end up in our rivers and seas after just one wash (due to the worn material) thus contributing immensely to microfiber pollution. For you to appreciate the value of this information, let me explain that according to this study, the amount of microfibers released by laundering 100,000 fleece jackets is equivalent to as many as 11,900 plastic grocery bags. Eventually, about 40% of that will end up in our oceans because microfibers make about 85% of human-debris on shorelines around the world. Thus, the more pre-loved we buy, the more pollution we might be creating if we aren’t doing anything to capture those microplastic fibres.
Now we can argue that the pre-loved clothing industry had to come online at some point. Or that it had to overtake fast fashion eventually. Rightly or wrongly, the colossal expansion of this industry has brought about enormous competition. Now, in order to survive, these platforms and startups have already started to offer as many discounts as possible and it seems inevitable that it will lead us back to the mindless clothes buying and the rock bottom prices that make fast fashion clothing so disposable. And let us not forget the plastic waste involved in the packaging of these online purchases and the carbon footprint from shipping. Add these together and you can start to see that any substantial difference from fast fashion is already much reduced.
Since sustainability is currently the biggest growth market in fashion, most clothing brands are making efforts to be ‘eco’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. While some of these efforts are genuine, some are simply greenwashing– and for inexperienced shoppers particularly, learning to differentiate between the two requires time to research and the motivation to do so.
Now in addition to the issues raised above, I’ve begun to wonder just how long until these brands bring the fast fashion model to bear; by this I mean just how long until the ‘conscious’ brands making half-hearted efforts at sustainability start making inferior clothing under the guise of clothing designed to transition to the “pre-loved market” in the shortest time possible?
Fashion brands, as all other businesses, exist for profit so in their pursuit for profit and ruthless efficiency, the sustainability of pre-loved fashion will eventually become an easy sacrifice. For instance, H&M currently has a program where their customers can return clothes for recycling rather than throw them away. This is an amazing innovation, however, I worry that in the face of increasing demand for second-hand clothes what will follow is the creation of a ‘pre-loved culture’ much like the ‘throwaway culture’ of incentivising customers to wear clothes for less and less time so they can be turned into pre-loved and resold. And what we will have then is fast fashion with a veneer of sustainability.
This is a time of transition for the fashion industry and new rules are constantly being created, a lot of it led by socially and environmentally conscious customers. The fashion industry is not evil in itself but to be clear, global retail companies took charge of the fashion industry and built it entirely for their benefit.
As we create a more sustainable fashion industry, it is important that we learn from the lessons of the past; that as we try to solve this fast fashion problem, we don’t inadvertently create a pre-loved one.
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Feature image via Shutterstock.