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Using secondhand shopping to justify excessive consumption is not sustainable

PHOTOGRAPHY BY NIKOLA DUKIC

WORDS BY GEORGIE KIBEL

The uphill battle we face when attempting to shop mindfully. 

If COVID has revealed anything about my personality, it’s that I am materialistic. Not a day has gone by in lockdown when I haven’t scrolled online, searching for a bargain, searching for something new to overcome the monotony. 

But knowing this is a habit that’s bad for both the environment and my wallet, I began researching my options. I landed on two: go cold turkey and cut up my bank card, or buy secondhand. 

Buying pre-loved clothes means that my carbon footprint is significantly minimised as I avoid oiling the wheels that keep one of the world’s most polluting industries rolling. I’ll generally also save a few dollars. 

When I receive an email stating that I’m the highest bidder on an Acne Studios T-shirt or see a pair of exercise leggings that are BNWT and half price on Facebook Marketplace, I can feel the serotonin coursing through my veins (not literally, but you get the point). 

However, this mindset has meant that I’ve become very comfortable shopping excessively under the guise that I am not playing much of a role in the unethical side of the fashion industry. As most of us know, the negative impact that fashion has upon the environment is one of the many criticisms levelled at it.

Fashion is responsible for 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions (more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined) and uses 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.

Shopping secondhand has made me feel as though I’ve found a loophole that means I can still consume without feeling guilty. What makes this process even better is that even if I receive something that doesn’t suit me or isn’t the perfect fit, I can give it to Vinnies or even try and make my money back by once again placing these items for sale online. 

My conscience has remained untroubled knowing these clothes are saved from landfill, and that I didn’t give my money directly to a company that has engaged in questionable activities or unethical conduct. 

That was, until a fly in the ointment appeared in the form of a post on one of the largest Australian Facebook groups for on-selling and renting clothes, Girls Trade Official. 

I was scrolling through my socials when I received a notification that a fellow Girls Trade member had posted a beautiful, current season Dion Lee top. Unworn. “Here we go,” I said to myself, typing out my conventional opener (“Hey girl!”) intending to ask her if it was still available. 

Before hitting send, I quickly re-read her post to see if there was anything wrong with the top, as why on earth would she be selling it brand new? She explained in the post that she had bought two of the same top to try out the size and that this was the one that did not fit her. 

She had intended to return the one that didn’t suit her to the store, but she ran out of time. I, who have done the same thing in the past, have previously thought it lucky that there exists the opportunity for on-selling. However, I’m now starting to question the ethics of it all. 

If I had purchased this brand new top (which had merely skimmed the hands of the owner), am I really any more of a sustainable shopper than the person who bought it directly from the store?

I would have given this person the perfect justification to shop for not one but two tops, with the knowledge they could easily on-sell to someone like me. I have pacified my guilt in the past by arguing that if I did not buy an item, it would most likely end up in the garbage. Unworn and unloved. But is that always the truth?

This person presumably knew when they bought the tops that they could make their money back. I doubt that a current season Dion Lee top was ever going to be carelessly thrown away. 

I backspaced my message and thought about how my shopping habits differ, and are much less stringent, when I shop second hand. When I shop directly from a store, I engage in extensive research to ensure that the clothes are manufactured ethically and that the company tries its best to be sustainable. So why am I so flippant when I buy something pre-worn, or merely pre-owned in some cases? 

Scrolling through Depop, I can see plenty of similar activities occurring. In one instance, an individual explained how they purchased massive amounts from AliExpress for a haul, knowing they could eventually on-sell the exorbitant amount of clothes received to someone else. This was how they justified purchasing from a dubious online store. 

But it’s not just Depop where people happily buy items from sellers who excessively purchase clothes from highly unethical stores. “I bought it secondhand. The tag says Shein,” an Instagram influencer announces on a story going through their outfit of the day. 

“I always have new clothes, but I buy them from Ebay,” a sustainability advocate replies to a comment questioning her shopping activities. “Urban Outfitters are the worst, but I found this brand new top with tags on at a Vintage store,” I listen to a YouTuber remark. 

Do my secondhand shopping habits mean that I am encouraging a market for people who buy carelessly to on-sell? It appears this is the case. I now realise shopping secondhand means that myself, alongside others, have constructed the perfect narrative to allow us to continue to excessively consume, guilt-free. 

While I love to buy pre-loved clothing, if an item is on its last legs and is disintegrating before my eyes, I obviously won’t purchase it. Some clothes are made to last, and buying them secondhand is a viable option. But clothes bearing tags or that are captioned “unworn” make me think that in many cases, buying the item secondhand does nothing for the environment.

Passing through one more set of hands before reaching my own, when the buyer has used my assumed interest to justify their own excessive consumption, means I am essentially contributing to the needless manufacturing of items.

Unfortunately, it appears the best way to shop sustainably is to do it less. When the postman knocks on the door bearing gifts I’ve bought myself I feel immense pleasure, but it’s an activity that I must work to bring to an end.

Investing in quality pieces that will last is the best way to lessen my impact on the environment. Engaging in excessive, wasteful consumption is not a criticism that we can level exclusively at people who shop directly from stores, but one we must all consider when shopping secondhand too. 

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