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  • Writer's pictureJoy SpearChief-Morris

What the Rise of Second-Hand Fashion Has Reminded Me About Privilege

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

Consciously living a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle was not something I honestly thought much about until last year.

Now, I am happy to talk about sustainability and things we can all do to minimize our ecological footprints. In particular, I love talking about sustainable and ethical fashion. I could talk about the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry. I could talk about racism in fashion, and not only in the form of representation in brands and companies, but also how the majority of the people who experience labor abuse in manufacturing are people of colour. I could talk about how we have diminished the life of our own clothes at the cost of our environment by throwing them out after only about three wears - all for the sake of being trendy. I remember all those Forever 21 crop tops my friends and I used to buy to wear to the bar in our undergrad. I could talk about greenwashing and how some conscious clothing lines from common brands (looking at you H&M and Zara) aren't truly that sustainable in the end. I could talk about the chemicals in your cotton t-shirt or the amount of oil that was used to produce your vegan backpack. Again, I could go on and on.

Flash back to the height of the pandemic and lockdowns last year, to me going down the rabbit hole of one Netflix documentary featuring Zac Efron to the next, from one blog to another. Suddenly I realized that not only should I be making more sustainable and eco-conscious decisions in every aspect of my life, but making these decisions could be much easier than I originally thought.

I dove head first into making my life more sustainable and reducing my ecological footprint in every way I could. Saying no to plastics and making zero waste decisions by buying reusable and earth friendly products instead of single use ones. Last July, I decided to participate in a plastic free challenge. It was fun but also very eye opening to see how much plastic I was using in my everyday life and how unavoidable it is to be 100% plastic free, given our current economy, no matter how hard I tried.

I have continued to drastically reduce the amount of plastic I use over the last year. However, I am not 100% plastic free, and may not be able to be, at least as things stand now. I learned my lessons of giving into eco-friendly "trends" such as buying a reusable lunch container in the "work from home" era we now live. But parting with plastics, reusing glass jars, and shopping at package free stores when I can are not the only ways I have chosen to make my life more sustainable. Giving up fast fashion and buying more sustainably, whether that be from ethical and sustainable brands or buying vintage or second hand, has been a big, and the most fun step of my sustainable lifestyle journey.

I have always loved clothes. Whether it was dressing up in old costumes with my friends, or trying on my favourite clothes and putting on makeup to wear around the house, clothes and fashion have always brought me a sense of joy. Turning my love of fashion towards something that also supported my growing values of helping support the environment was an easy choice, gather still one that came with questions of “how to” and “how much?”

Sustainable fashion involves looking at the entire fashion industry and questioning how it can be changed to be more ethical and ecological. Vintage, thrift, and second hand shopping, along with newer ethical and sustainable brands are part of the rise of "circular fashion" or circular economies. This simply means that the clothing we buy and wear has been consciously considered in all aspects of its life; from who makes them and what materials they are made from, to how long we wear them, to what happens when it is no longer worn by us. Apart from buying from ethical and sustainable brands, second hand and vintage shopping are another way to be a part of the circular fashion industry. You can donate or sell your gently used clothes or buy second hand from your local vintage shops, Value Village, or online consignment apps like Posh Mark.

Funny enough, looking back, I’ve been participating in circular economies since I was a little girl. We would always donate clothes and toys we had outgrown or didn’t use anymore every year to Salvation Army, or “Sally Anne” as it was called in our house. To this day I still donate probably 10-20 items a season, however, but this number is decreasing since I being able to invest in more sustainable fashion choices. Instead of buying 10-20 new items from fast fashion or cheaper brands each season, my number is closer to 5 more ethical or high quality pieces each season. I have more fun with fashion now, and enjoy the hunt of finding more ethical and sustainable pieces.

What I learned from diving into sustainable fashion is that there are many inadequacies in wealth and privilege in the industry that are not discussed, or at least spotlighted nearly enough. While this past summer opened the conversation about privilege in all industries, how privilege impacts where and how we shop for clothes on a more personal and functional level has not received as much attention. While shopping vintage has become quite trendy for some, particularly today’s younger generations who can be found searching for ironic fashion finds at your local Value Village, what really is vintage fashion? Vintage itself has a particular meaning in fashion referring to designer brands and archival fashion pieces, recognized for their high quality, status, and the period in which the clothes were made. These vintage pieces, are not always what everyone could afford at a local thrift shop. However, vintage has seemed to become interchangeable in how we and our local thrift shops have come to use it, becoming synonymous with more affordable second hand shopping of popular brands and classic styles.

When I was growing up, second hand meant used clothes that were old, ugly, smelled funny, and sometimes even a sense of depravity. I didn’t like second hand shopping, I wanted the new trendy clothes from the mall. I have been lucky in my life to not have to depend on second hand shops to clothe me. While might go second hand shopping at Value Village or “Sally Anne,” on the occasion, the majority of the time we bought new clothes from department stores or the mall, just like everyone else I knew.

It wasn’t until very recently that shopping secondhand became something that was fun for me. The popularity of vintage fashion, finding my own style and wanting to have items that are more unique to me, and of course, the environmental advantages of shopping secondhand, definitely have influenced that shift. And while I may have embraced second hand shopping, I have also become more aware of the privilege that surrounds those who choose to secondhand shop for ecological or fashionable reasons. But what about those who can’t afford these new sustainable brands? Or those who buy from second hand stores because of necessity?

I am not limited to shopping from fast fashion or second hand stores due to my economic situation: I am a single woman in my upper 20s making my own money without a lot of debt. Now that I have begun making my own income, I have the ability to buy clothes from where I choose. That doesn't mean I can afford designer or high priced brands by any means, but I can invest in sustainable, ethical, and more high quality brands on the occasion. I have also tried to support Indigenous brands and brands owned by people of colour where I can. It should also be acknowledged that many Indigenous brands have ethical and sustainable practices built into their companies, many of these before sustainable fashion became trendy.

Granted, my ability to buy sustainable and ethical companies is still few and farther between and many of my most expensive pieces have been gifts. That being said, I still have the privilege to shop from these brands when I can, and enjoy the fun of hunting for pieces in vintage shops, on Posh Mark, or at thrift stores. I understand that the choice and ability to participate in circular economies is a privilege, one not everyone has the freedom to enjoy. And what a shame that choosing to live and shop more ethically and sustainably should be. Caring for and about the earth should not be a concern that only the privileged or wealthy can afford to care about.

While the rise of second hand and thrift shopping is both ecologically friendly and saving us all a bit of money, we need to acknowledge that for some people, second hand shopping has never been part of the freedom of choice. Having respect for where our clothes come from or even who wore them before us and who will wear them after us, is part of living sustainable; having respect for everyone on this earth. There are also many ways to participate in circular economies that don’t require large amounts of wealth or status, yet this is not what these economies market to. Sustainable fashion needs to look at how to make ethical and sustainable shopping more inclusive; this means including more brands by people of colour, and by making ethical and sustainable clothes more affordable.


Needing some ideas where to sustainably shop?

Frank and Oak - my current favourite sustainable fashion brand. Not crazily priced and Canadian owned in Montreal. They also offer a 20% off discount to students! Also recently invested in some Kotn basics. When your old H&M t-shirts have taken their last breath and you're willing to invest a touch (actually not that much) more in some better quality, check this amazing ethical and sustainable brand! If you're from Toronto, they're local! TenTree is another affordable option, and I am wearing their festival hat in this photo above!

Shop Local! Filthy Rebena Vintage is an awesome vintage shop in London, Ont. Shopping local is a great way to support local economies, reducing your overall ecological footprint, and with vintage finds here you've got a sustainable fashion trio! Also, don't shy away from Value Village and local thrift stores. Etsy is another alternative to finding both vintage and local (or localish) artisans selling awesome items at more affordable prices as well

Poshmark - not wanting to part with your favourite fast fashion brands like Zara or Top Shop. Poshmark is a great way to find gently used items from your favourite brands at affordable prices. It's also a great place to try selling some of your own past favourites.

Take to Social Media! I was so unaware of the community of people interested in participating in circular fashion and sustainable fashion on Instagram. It's amazing what you can find when you embrace being a bit more creative!

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