What’s Better: Buying Ethical Labels Or Thrifting? 

It’s a question conscious fashionistas often ask. But which is better: buying ethical labels or thrifting?

By Emma Hakansson

Now that stores are opening up again, conscious consumers have some important issues to consider.

For example, many of us have lost our jobs, or are about to. So – will we value price point above sustainability?

I’m assuming Eluxe readers will choose the latter. But in that case, what’s the most sustainable way to make a purchase? Buying ethical labels or thrifting?

It’s not an easy decision. There are so many things to consider when buying clothing, shoes, accessories and jewellery. Who made these products? What were their working conditions like? How were they paid? Is the material biodegradable? Is it recyclable? Will it shed microfibres? Is it cruelty-free? If not, do I understand how that animal lived before arriving to the slaughterhouse? Is this product durable and well constructed? If it breaks, what will happen to it? Will it go to landfill?

Frankly, it can all be a bit overwhelming. 

What’s better: buying new ethical labels or thrifting? This is a question many people – myself included – often ponder. There are great arguments for both sides, but is one ‘better’ than the other? 

What's Better: Buying Ethical Labels Or Thrifting? 

Examining Vintage

Here’s a shocking fact for you: over the last 20 years, clothing production has doubled. And no wonder. Some brands offer five or more, rather than two collections a year – and fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M offer up to a whopping sixteen. The result? The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in landfill every second

This is a seriously worrying amount of wasted textiles, but even more so, a seriously worrying waste of resources to get us there. For example, consider this: all the land cleared for growing crops or grazing animals; animal lives; the petroleum used to produce synthetics; the energy used in clothing production, and the physical labour put in by workers who aren’t fairly paid or treated.

Many of these garments will be out of style or falling apart within months, as brands push to make increasingly cheap clothing with decreasing quality. 

The Circular Fashion Economy

If we can opt out of this dangerous and maddening linear cycle of exponential production leading to this inevitably exponential amount of waste, that would be a wonderful thing. A circular fashion economy – one that doesn’t involve burning clothing or burying it in landfill – is better for so many reasons.

Specifically, there’s no ethical conundrum as to who made the product. You’re not paying the corporation that produced a garment, but rather the owner of the vintage store, or the person renting the garment, or the recycling facility or charity shop instead. There’s no need to question the sustainability of a fabric, because it already exists and will either continue to be used or get recycled. 

As Simran Virk, Sustainability Coordinator at the vintage luxury shop Designer Exchange told me: “I truly believe in the circular economy: expanding the life line of a product. This is why I believe that buying second hand is far better than buying ethical new clothing, as we are not adding extra waste into the environment.”

She continues: “Sustainability is creating a mindful approach to consumerism for our current climate. It refers to a number of different matters, but most importantly, it helps to promote the importance of reusing, recycling, and regenerating fashion.”

For all these reasons, supporting second hand boutiques, online stores, vintage shops, recycling and swapping initiatives – in short, the circular economy – is a great option.

Supporting Ethical Labels

If everyone who wanted to shop consciously stopped buying new clothes though, this would have a negative impact on small sustainable fashion brands and garment workers around the world.

As strict global lockdowns have battered global economies, numerous Western retailers have cancelled orders or demanded discounts from suppliers in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Thailand. The result? Many workers are now going without pay or worse, have lost their jobs.

The situation is even more dire for small brands. Many of these, such as MATTER prints, had to close their doors altogether. Three months of lockdown means that demand for clothing has fallen. Still, many small brands have had to legally pay at least a percentage of their workers’ wages, even if factories and shops couldn’t open.

These brands – which passionately focus on transparency, ethics and sustainability – need our help now more than ever to survive. Larger brands, on the other hand, often get government bailouts, or could even legally stay open during the lockdown (yep, I’m talking about ASDA, Walmart, etc).

But there are other reasons for supporting new, ethically and sustainably made fashion, too.

designer exchange vintage clothing

Vote With Your Wallet

Money talks. When we buy an item, we are letting brands and companies know we support them and their supply chain.

For example, say a brand normally sells leather bags, but they come out with a limited-edition collection of eco-friendly vegan bags. Frankly, if this collection doesn’t sell well, it won’t be repeated, and the brand will return to making regular leather bags.

Contrastingly, if the collection is a hit, it might become permanent, and they’ll probably extend their range of vegan products. Maybe they’ll even reduce or stop their use of animal skins.

The fashion industry isn’t going anywhere, so don’t we have a responsibility to shape it into one which is as ethical and sustainable as possible? And shouldn’t we support independent designers, artists and makers? 

If we aren’t buying new products, it’s also difficult for fashion to continue to innovate and become more sustainable. There are amazing new technologies developing and coming out of the industry all the time. To illustrate: recycled and repurposed ocean waste can be turned into Lycra, there are lab grown ‘leathers’ made from wine production waste, and viscose is made from coconut waste. Those are but a few examples.

As these materials increasingly come to market, the only way they can grow is if they garner consumer support. In short, if they make money, they’ll be used more often.

What's Better: Buying Ethical Labels Or Thrifting? 

The Future Is Green

Material and production innovation could mean that we might soon live in a world where you can support ethical brands, get new products, and still buy into a circular economy. More brands are working with recycled materials, and post and pre-consumer ‘waste’ (it’s not waste until you waste it). They also put deadstock fabrics, zippers, and buttons to use when making ‘new’ garments.

Additionally, conscious labels are reworking old styles to make them new. They’re creating businesses and beautiful designs out of mending damaged garments through colourful stitching, patching, and reworking. As our economic system realises circularity is the key to future sustainability, some fashion businesses are even setting up their own recycling systems with their customers. This ensures their old garments are never wasted, but are instead recycled and reworked so they can be worn again.

Finally, department stores, both on the high street and online, are now offering second hand clothing alongside their new collections. In short, they’re helping to make shopping second hand ‘cool’.

designer exchange vintage clothing

What You Can Do

Ultimately, though, the future of fashion is up to us, as consumers. We just need to buy better, but buy less. By paying more for clothing that is meant to last, this protects both garment workers and the planet. 

Again, the reason there is so much fashion waste in the first place today is because the current fashion system prioritises quantity over quality. It brainwashes consumers into believing we need more and newer, all the time. 

Before you buy something, ask yourself these questions.

  • What will happen when one day when this may not look as trendy or fit as well?
  • Can I pass this on if I no longer wear it?
  • Can it be mended?
  • Is it biodegradable, feeding, not poisoning the earth?
  • Could I upcycle this into something new?
  • Does it have resale value?
  • Could I rent this on a clothing rental site?

Ultimately, there is no easy answer to the question: which is better, buying ethical labels or thrifting? But so long as we are asking those questions, and critically examining the ethics and impacts of our choices, we’re going in the right direction.

What do you think is better? Buying ethical labels or thrifting? We’d love to hear from you in the comments! All images courtesy Designer Exchange.

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