Like many people, my eco-anxiety went through the roof when I learned the extent of the fashion industry's impact on the environment. I was shocked to find that an estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothing go to landfill each year – and that the value of unused clothing in UK wardrobes is thought to add up to around £30 billion. Another shocker: the mystery microplastics that are released into our waterways each time we wash a synthetic item of clothing. What upset me the most, though, was recognising how I was contributing to these statistics.
I love clothes but for years I had not been treating my wardrobe, which I take such pleasure in filling, with real love. Countless high street sprees would leave me disappointed in the quality and longevity of my haul and inevitably, each season the cycle would start again, with many of my once-worn (or worse, never worn) pieces cast into the charity bin. I was on a fast fashion merry-go-round and struggling to get off.
So at the beginning of 2019, I vowed to buy only secondhand clothes, in a bid to reduce my contribution to fashion waste. It was time to stop impulse-buying and start re-wearing, and break off my long-term relationship with ASOS. Having worked in charity shops as a teen and always loved a mooch around a vintage store, I figured it would be an easy switch – but my new fashion pledge hasn't been all retro treasures and one-off bargains.
I might have changed my methods but my shopaholic habits have proved harder to kick. I've replaced my fast fashion scrolling with trawls of eBay and Vestiaire Collective, often buying something I don't necessarily need. On a number of occasions, I've bought a secondhand fast fashion item that either doesn't fit me, suit me or survive its first wash – and this time around, there's no next-day returns label.
I've too often spent more on one-off pieces than wearable basics, or on vintage dresses that I think will look amazing on me but don't. Essentially, I've found myself in a bit of a style rut – and many of my clothes still end up in the charity bin, triggering my eco-anxiety all over again.
Shopping well isn't just about what we buy, it's about how we buy it. Lauren Bravo, author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion, puts it to me like this: "If you're buying secondhand, any secondhand, then you're still keeping clothes out of landfill, avoiding a new purchase and fuelling an alternative market for preloved clothes, all of which has to be good news. But I do agree that buying armfuls of fast fashion off eBay feels at odds with a 'slow fashion' mentality."
She adds: "It's as much about changing our consumer mindset as changing the places we shop, and part of that is definitely about learning to be happy with less, and love what you own a bit more." In other words, it's time for an attitude overhaul.
This isn't to say I regret my secondhand style choices. I genuinely don't miss the fast fashion retailers I used to shop at, and have found just as much joy in hunting out pieces at charity shops and vintage fairs. But I could use a little help in streamlining my thrifty new lifestyle. I'm yet to buy a secondhand pair of jeans that actually fit, and what about underwear? I'm unsure of the rules. Happily, my favourite sustainable style advocates have stepped in to answer some of my biggest dilemmas…
On over-shopping and impulse-buying
I tell Lauren about my newfound eBay addiction. Her advice? Change up my priorities. "The real goal is turning off that innate urge to buy stuff, even 'guilt-free' preloved clothes. I'm getting there, but I definitely still succumb to the odd 'well it's here, it's cheap, it'd be rude not to!' moment. Ask any secondhand shopper – we all have The One That Got Away, some heavenly find that you didn't buy and still dream about – but on balance it is so much better to regret the odd thing you didn't buy than 20 things you did."
Fashion stylist and sustainability campaigner Aja Barber tells me straight. "Always ask yourself, 'Would I have bought this item if I had seen it in a store, full price and could afford it?' Often that helps me walk away from making a purchase I need not make."
On fabric and fit
Is it wrong to buy a polyester item secondhand? "I look for natural materials like cotton and silks," says Laura Von Behr, who sources gorgeous dresses for her cult namesake vintage business. "Having said that, some of the '70s disco polyesters are great as they hang really well and don’t crease." I consider this and, like many, think it's better to keep polyester out of landfill – though I'll be snapping up a Guppyfriend Washing Bag to ease my microplastics anxiety a little.
Clare Lewis, who runs online store Retold Vintage, advises on fit. "Invest in a tape measure and know your body measurements," she says. "Most traders will describe the garment in inches or centimetres rather than standard sizes."
On occasion dressing
Having kicked my habit of ordering a £30 dress for any given wedding or christening, I'm keen for vintage inspiration. "I love '70s cotton prairie dresses for English summer weddings. Eighties velvet works for winter black tie," says Laura. "Personally I like to wear a statement dress and pare back everything else for a more modern look. Find something that you are really comfortable in. If you don’t feel great when you first try it on, you won’t feel great at an event."
On buying the basics
Lauren is with me on my jeans dilemma. "I'm afraid I've generally found secondhand jeans shopping just as miserable as high street jeans shopping," she admits. "But I do have a great pair of sustainable jeans that I found brand new in a charity shop. Otherwise I'd recommend people hit up big vintage warehouses like Beyond Retro to maximise their options, and just try on as many pairs as you can bear. At least someone else has broken the denim in first."
And my underwear debate? "I think it's understandable that people don't want to be buying pants secondhand – although even bras you do sometimes come across in charity shops, with the tags still on," she says. "There are some great small underwear labels working to make things more ethical – like Lara Intimates, which makes gorgeous, inclusive underwear out of reclaimed dead stock fabric and offcuts, or Organic Basics, who make comfy pants and bralettes out of eco-friendly fabrics like Tencel."
On getting stuck in a style rut
"Definitely don’t think you need to stop indulging in trends if that’s your thing," says Clare. "Fashion is cyclical so you can pretty much guarantee the original version is out there in vintage form and most curated traders these days will also be offering up a nod to this season’s trends just as much as Zara."
To build a wardrobe that really lasts, Aja offers a final piece of advice. "I think we all need to get in the habit of paying more for our clothes," she says. "Especially if we find a gem. The things which I truly love in my wardrobe and have worn endlessly, I rarely think about the price tag because the item has brought me joy."