The fashion industry has accelerated in recent years. There was a time when clothing brands had seasonal ranges, and launched new products three or four times a year. Some high street brands now bring out new items every fortnight, a constant cycle of novelty that’s supposed to keep people coming in to see what’s new.
The result is over-consumption of clothing: the average British household has £4,000 worth of clothes in their wardrobe, 30% of which has not been worn in the last 12 months. When we run out of space, clothes are often thrown away, because it’s easier to bin them than find them a new home.
When clothes are designed as ‘fast fashion’, they are cheap and poor quality anyway. The brands only intend them to be worn a few times, so there is little concern for durability and thus few opportunities for re-use. That’s a shame, because two thirds of people in Britain buy or receive secondhand clothes, according to WRAP. The secondhand markets are a good way to provide novelty for those who want it, without piles of waste or exploiting workers in overseas garment factories.
What can companies do to play a more positive role in secondhand markets? We had one interesting example last week from John Lewis. They recognised that children’s clothing is thrown away more often than adult’s, as children grow out of things faster and also wear through more clothes than adults do. They also noticed that coats were the item of clothing that parents spent the most money on, and were therefore the most important item to keep in circulation if possible.
So they have added a white cotton label inside their children’s coats so that parents can write the child’s name in it, with room to cross that one out and add another. And all new childrenswear now comes with a label that says ‘Wear it, Love it, Hand it down’.
It’s a small thing – a label on an item of clothing. But it sends a message that clothing has a value, that it’s worth passing down. It also signals that hand-me-downs are normal and expected, and not something to be embarassed about. It breaks the association of secondhand clothing with second best, or something you do if you can’t afford new clothes. Quality clothing lasts, and it is normal for it to have more than one owner, especially if those little owners are growing fast.
Other things companies can do include long term warranties, such as Tom Cridland’s 30 year range. Some take clothing back for resale, like Patagonia do. Customers can trade in their old gear by posting it back or dropping it off at a store, and are rewarded with store credit in return. The company then refurbishes the clothing and sells it on as part of their Worn Wear range. Other firms encourage swaps or ‘swishing’ to keep their clothing in circulation.
A more unusual approach has been taken by Mud Jeans, which makes its jeans available for both sale and lease. Customers can lease a pair, wear them and return them for another at any time.
These sorts of practices might be more difficult for fast fashion firms to adopt, because their whole business model is geared towards high turnover of our wardrobes, and keeping customers dis-satisfied with what they have. But we all have a choice about where we shop, and we can choose companies that understand the need for quality clothes, and that support secondhand programmes for their clothing.