9 ways the vintage clothing industry helps to save the planet

Women browsing and taking pictures of vintage clothing on rack

Fast fashion is a dirty word these days. The term refers to the fashion labels, online retailers and high street stores that constantly produce new ranges, every few weeks. This fast turnaround of styles and garments in stores and online encourages us all to shop more and more. Fast fashion suggests that garments aren’t worth wearing again and again and that fashions pass so quickly, that anyone who wants to keep up will need to be replacing their clothes at least every season.

There’s no doubt that online clothing retail has added to the fast fashion problem. Research by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation found that between 2000 and 2015, clothes production doubled, from 100 billion to 200 billion units per year. Over the same period, the number of wears for each item of clothing fell by 36%.

Most of us will agree that these are alarming statistics and that we could all be doing a little more to reject fast fashion. Here, we take a look at nine ways that the vintage clothing industry can help the environment, but also at how buying vintage can help us all save money and reduce poverty all over the world.

1. Buying vintage means fewer garments going to landfill

According to Unenvironment.org, £12bn worth of clothing goes to landfill in the UK each year. That’s an enormous quantity of clothing just being thrown out. And we’re buying more and more garments at the same time - more items of clothing per person than any other country in Europe and £30bn worth of clothing is hanging in our wardrobes having never been worn.

If you buy vintage, you may be able to afford better-quality items. Prices tend to be cheaper than new clothes, which means many of us can afford to buy vintage clothes that are made from better quality fabrics, or are higher quality and built to last.

It may be time that we all stop thinking about clothing as disposable and instead always consider how to recycle, reuse, or repair clothing that we no longer need.

2. Vintage fashion may help cure your fast fashion addiction

Changing the way we think about clothes is the key to stopping fast fashion in its tracks. Vintage clothes were often made ten, twenty, thirty or even fifty years ago. In those days, clothes were made to last. Higher quality fabrics were used, the production process was slower and more considered and people were willing to pay more for their clothes as a result. If you buy clothes from the era BEFORE fast fashion, they will often be made to last a lifetime.

Of course, caring for your clothes is important, so wash them gently, hang them up and follow any care instructions to get the very most from your vintage finds. Just think - you could buy a vintage designer jacket crafted in high-quality fabrics by skilled tailors for the same price as a brand new coat from a high street store, made with thin synthetic material and haphazardly sewn together by underpaid machinists. The former will look great for at least another 20 years, while the latter is likely to be past its best after one season.

Measures are being taken at the highest level to try to combat the rise of fast fashion, which could make a real difference to how we all think about our clothes. The Europan Commission released a report in March 2022 outlining how Europe can introduce measures that make sure fabrics are more durable and repairable.

Rejecting fast fashion is about buying fewer, better quality items - and if you’re on a budget the best way to do this is to buy vintage.

3. Buying vintage means saying no to cheap labour

Although not directly associated with the environment, this one is an important factor to consider when you’re tempted buy yet another cheap dress, or ‘perfect’ pair of bargain jeans. Although none of us likes to think that our clothes are made in sweatshops, we often still expect our clothes to be very cheap.

Cheap clothes are made by cutting corners and cutting standards. Sometimes this means cheap production, translating to poor conditions and rates of pay for those actually making your cheap dresses and jeans.

4. On a budget? Buying vintage and sell vintage!

If you’ve ever tried to sell your old high street store-bought clothes on eBay, you’ll know that they don't exactly retain their value. As soon as high street clothes are worn, they become close to worthless. However, if you buy decent quality vintage clothes, you’ll be able to wear them for years, then sell them for the same price you bought them for. What’s not to love about that!?

5. Buying vintage helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions across the globe, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme. This is double the amount of carbon emissions produced by shipping and international flights combined.

Consumers don’t often think about this, but oil is a primary raw material needed for the production of clothes made of synthetic materials, like polyester. We are all too aware of the problems associated with the oil industry, from carbon dioxide emissions to oil spills that pollute the world’s oceans and seas.

Then there’s the pollution produced when the garments are incinerated, often after just a few wears.

6. Recycling clothes can help developing nations

Although 90% of clothes are either incinerated or added to landfill sites, those garments that are recycled are put to extremely good use. It can be easy to assume that well-worn clothing will be rejected or thrown out after they are put into recycling bins. However, this simply isn’t the case.

More than 90% of families in Kenya, for example, buy second-hand clothing so the clothes that do have wear left in them are likely to be used and appreciated by families living in developing nations. Clothing that isn’t quite up to scratch will still find a purpose, with fabric harvested for other purposes and traded within developing nations, contributing to local economies and providing opportunities.

7. Vintage allows you to buy better and buy less!

Buying vintage clothes doesn’t have to mean trawling through specialist vintage stores and sifting through jumble sales and charity shops. Although this can be fun, (if you have endless time and patience) you can buy good quality second-hand clothes from eBay, Vinted, Thrifted, asos Marketplace and countless other online retailers. But remember to look for quality labels, natural materials and classic designs to ensure that your money goes a long way.

The best thing about buying quality used clothes is that they are made to last and you can stop buying items so often. The idea is to buy less frequently and wear each item of clothing you buy more times. Then, when you’re done with a garment, you can sell it again and, providing you've looked after it, and make your money back!

8. Fabric production can be a dirty business

There’s a shocking list of ways in which fabric production ruins the environment. Here are just a few to get started: Washing and finishing fabrics during the production process is responsible for around 20% of the clean water pollution that takes place around the globe.

While synthetic fabric production is problematic because of its reliance on oil, the cotton industry is just as damaging. Much of the cotton that’s grown and turned into fabric is ruining the environment through over-use of harmful pesticides and huge quantities of water.

9. Turning to vintage means reducing microplastics

Microplastics are horrible little fragments of plastic that our synthetic clothing sheds every single time we wash them. Fabrics like nylon, polyester and acrylic all produce harmful microfibres when they are produced, washed, tumble dried and worn. These plastic microfibres then find their way into our waterways, into our food and into our bodies. Not nice.

Most of us are trying to cut spending at the moment and many of us also want to do our bit for the environment. The trouble is, these two things are usually difficult to achieve together. Buying vintage instead of new clothing is one easy (and cheap!) way to reduce your impact on the environment. It’s about learning to love your clothes a little more and expecting more from every garment you buy. So next time you have a few notes to spend on something new, why not make it something old instead?

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