Why do zero wasters buy second-hand clothes?

You've probably seen #thrifted or #sustainablefashion floating around. While buying new may only leave you with a tag or plastic attachment of visible waste, there's a more profound impact than those little pieces of trash. Zero waste, and reducing our impact on the earth, is more than just the physical trash we bring into our home. We know second-hand clothing is better for our wallets, but it's important for our planet as well that we change the way we consume clothes.

Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture. Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014. News flash: the world population did not double in this time period. What happened?

The issue of clothing was my introduction to zero waste. Girls, more so than boys, are taught to care about their appearance and express themselves through personal style. In the wise words of Katy Perry, "you change your mind like a girl changes clothes". Of course, not everyone buys into this, but I certainly did. We buy much more than we need and cycle through clothes faster than ever before. Since middle school, shopping with friends became a pastime, and I have likely bought and given away or thrown out thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing since then. Realistically, spending 20 dollars per shopping trip about twice a month, over ten years… $4800. Spending is not that clear cut, of course, and most of us don’t spend the same amount or the same way throughout the year.

If you never wore second-hand clothing growing up, be it hand-me-downs or clothes purchased used, it may not make sense to you to purchase second-hand clothes for yourself or your family, if you have one. Big retailers like Walmart have incredibly low prices, so why would you buy something used when a new option in available? For one thing, your children won't thank you if we keep polluting the environment at the rate we currently do.

Our spending also supports deeply flawed manufacturing systems. Even with the incredibly cheap clothing we have access to (who remembers $1 camisoles from Forever 21?), we’re still wasting our money; purchasing fast-fashion and disposable clothes is a lot like throwing away your money because you get little return from your purchases when you wear them only a few times. One survey found that women wear many clothes only 7 times before throwing them away. These aren’t the tee shirts, leggings or jeans that we live our lives in, of course, they’re the clothes we buy feeling hopeful they’ll be worn, or even intending they only be worn for a single occasion. I know I'm also not the only victim of cheaply made clothes falling apart at the seams or fraying after only one or two wears.

But it was a good deal! It’s not a good deal if you don’t need it. It’s not a good deal when it pollutes the earth. It’s not a good deal for underpaid workers producing the cheap clothes. It’s not a good deal when unpurchased goods are destroyed instead of donated. Old Navy has been known to destroy clothes rather than give them to those in need.

Consumers keep almost every type of apparel only half as long as they did 15 years ago, these inputs go to waste faster than ever before. More than half of the fastest-fashion items made are chucked away within a year of production.
— The Economist, The environmental costs of creating clothes

Do you know who makes your clothes? Have you ever walked inside a factory or passed it on the street? Chances are you haven’t, because in North America most of the clothes we buy and wear are made far, far away by people we never have to look in the eye.

Bangladesh and China are the worlds top two clothing exporters.

The minimum wage in China is between $2.12-$3.12 an hour (2017)

The monthly minimum wage in Bangladesh is about $65 (2014), while it is estimated that workers would need at least $100/month to cover necessities.

The person who sat and made your new Zara dress could not afford to purchase that garment even after an entire month of work. Fast fashion (you guessed it) is awful for the environment. 20% of industrial water pollution is caused by garment production.

{Clothing} dyes are creating a chemical…{disaster} in Indonesia. The Citarum River {in Indonesia} is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world due in great part to the hundreds of textile factories lining its shores. According to Greenpeace, with 68 percent of the industrial facilities on the Upper Citarum producing textiles, the adverse health effects to the 5 million people living in the river basin and wildlife are alarming.
— Ecowatch, Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil

Not only does the manufacturing of clothing pollute, it is a huge strain on resources. By 2050, we’ll need 3x as many resources as in 2000 if we want to continue consuming the way we do.

It takes about 713 gallons of water to make a cotton tee-shirt, or enough drinking water for one person over 2.5 years. If the average washing machine uses about 30 gallons of water per cycle, then a pre-existing  tee-shirt would need to be run through about 28 separate full loads of laundry to use the same amount water (are you starting to see why second hand is lighter on resources?). Buying a second hand cotton shirt means that the 713 gallons of water needed to make it can be used for something else. Buying new is supporting the creation of new resources and use of more resources, rather than profiting from the abundant, pre-existing resources we have.

Most of our clothes aren’t even made of natural materials like cotton; polyester and other plastics require less water to produce but have double the carbon footprint of comparable cotton products. When washed, our plastic-laden clothes continue their negative impact on our environment. You may or may not have heard of microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are shed from our polyester and synthetic clothing every time we wash them. They are also found in 90% of bottled water (as if there wasn’t already enough reason to give up bottled water).

That water, with microplastics from our cheaply produced clothes, ends up in the oceans, and then later in our stomachs from the fish we eat. Yum.

So, why should you buy second hand clothes?

Clearly, this is barely a drop in the ocean of the deeply problematic manufacturing practices used to make cheaply made fast fashion. You could write a book about it (and they have). Complete boycott of irresponsibly produced clothing is not the only way to address this problem, but it is the most accessible. In summary:

  • It’s lighter on resources-both for the planet, and your own financial resources. Second-hand clothes are hugely affordable-I’ve built a collection of cashmere sweaters all from thrift stores.

  • It supports the use of the resources that we already have rather than the creation of new materials. The most sustainable option is what you already have or what already exists.

  • It does not contribute to use of polluting dyes.

  • It does not support manufacturing that may require workers to work unreasonable hours and denies them a living wage.

  • Markets are pushed by supply and demand-create a demand for second-hand clothes!