Great Britain

Why recycling your clothes is 2020’s biggest new fashion trend

Walking past a shop window, Lauren Bravo stared longingly at a mannequin dressed in a pink ruffled dress.

“It would have been perfect for my friend’s wedding,” says Lauren, a 31-year-old writer from east London. “But having given up buying new clothes for a year, I forced myself to walk past. I already had a charity shop number I’d worn two weeks before, and I knew I’d feel better for doing my bit for the environment.”

Lauren’s year-long shopping ban might be extreme, but she’s far from alone in thinking about the fashion industry’s toll on the environment. Right now, the high street is in the middle of a revolution as it moves from a fast fashion model to a more eco-conscious, sustainable alternative.

“Just like the rise in veganism, people are becoming more educated about environmental issues surrounding fashion and are actively seeking out more eco-friendly ways to shop,” says Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution.

“The majority of fashion brands are realising that this isn’t some passing trend and they’re responding to that demand. More and more brands are providing their customers with information on their supply chain, as well as creating sustainable lines.”

In the past 15 years, global clothing production has doubled to meet demand,* and now each person in the UK purchases an estimated 26.7kg of clothing every year.** This spending spree is mainly due to the rise in fast fashion – affordable clothes that are produced quickly and en masse, often made from cheap synthetics that aren’t made to last.

Essentially, it sees us buying and binning more clothes, more regularly. Last year, for example, Missguided saw its website crash after the launch of a £1 bikini. Its rival Boohoo followed suit by releasing a £5 dress in June. Some fashion companies work to the premise that consumers discard such items after an average of just five weeks.

But when it takes 10,000 litres of water to grow enough cotton to make one pair of jeans in the UK alone, and recent figures show an estimated 235 million items of clothing – worth £140million – are dumped in landfills or incinerated every year,*** it’s not hard to see why fast fashion is slowly suffocating the planet, and why brands and shoppers alike are determined to change.

According to research, nearly half of consumers say they prefer to buy clothing from companies trying to reduce their impact on the environment, and that figure is even higher among under-24s.†

Like many of us, Lauren got caught in the grip of fast fashion. “In my 20s I succumbed to the lure of the high street and the convenience of online shopping,” she admits. “I’d spend hours scrolling through all the websites and subscribe to all the mailing lists, ordering reams of clothes every week.

I was always thinking of my next outfit. My bedroom was overflowing with crumpled-up balls of polyester clothes that I’d quickly got bored of, and I was spending more money than I could afford. But every time a new collection dropped, I was too tempted to resist. Most of the time I’d only wear the items once or twice, before I’d get bored or they’d rip.”

However, in summer 2018 after watching documentary The True Cost on Netflix, Lauren started investigating the sustainability of the fashion industry. “I was taken back by how quickly fast fashion has accelerated,” she says.

“The average person buys 60% more items of clothing than they did just 15 years ago and keeps them for half as long. Once I learnt those facts, it took the shine off those cheap party dresses.

Speaking to my mum Jane, 61, only hammered home the point. She told me how she used to save up nearly a month’s wages to buy a new dress, and once she’d bought it she’d wear it to death. If it got a rip, she’d repair it, or if the fashion changed she’d add a funky badge or take the hem up, then when she eventually grew bored she’d take it to a charity shop or give it to a friend.”

Inspired by what she’d discovered, in January 2019 Lauren set herself a challenge that would make any shopaholic’s blood run cold: to go a whole year without buying new clothes. “It was very daunting,” says Lauren.

“I let myself buy from second-hand charity shops and reselling apps, but it was still incredibly hard, especially when the seasons changed. Dresses were my kryptonite. When I saw people wearing the new summer ‘It’ dress, I was desperate to buy one. Eventually, I got a cheaper version in a charity shop and felt such a sense of achievement.

“Friends’ weddings and parties were really difficult. Normally, I’d have rushed out and bought a new outfit, but I had to suck up the urge to shop and make do with what I already had. My friends were really supportive and let me borrow pieces from them. They were always flattered when I asked and we started swapping clothes more often – even those who hadn’t given up shopping like me.

I also grew to love exploring charity shops, not knowing what I was going to come out with. By the end of the year I’d saved around £2,500 and realised that I didn’t have to buy loads of new clothes to be fashionable.”

This year, Lauren is allowing herself to buy new pieces again, but only from sustainable brands. Thankfully, these are becoming more and more common. Last August, Primark announced plans to improve its sustainability credentials by training 160,000 cotton farmers in India, Pakistan and China in environmentally friendly farming methods by 2022.

Tesco is also working to meet its goal of using only sustainably sourced cotton in its F&F clothing by 2025. At least half the cotton used in its clothing is already sustainable, and the company uses Jeanologia for its denim collection – a firm producing materials that use less water, energy and chemicals in their dyes.

A Tesco spokesperson told Fabulous: “We are aware that the textile industry can have a negative impact on the local and social environments where they are made. That is why it is our aim to ensure the fabrics we choose to make our products with are sourced sustainably.”

Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has announced it will be investing £1billion to help meet a number of new sustainability targets. A spokesperson told Fabulous: “Sainsbury’s is investing towards becoming a net zero business by 2040, with a focus on reducing carbon emissions, food waste, plastic packaging and water usage and increasing recycling, biodiversity and healthy and sustainable eating.

"Tu initiatives for 2020 include the introduction of low water garment production and the use of recycled polyester yarns in children’s schoolwear.”

“Things are definitely changing for the better,” Orsola says. “We live in a throwaway society, but people are coming round to the idea of buying things they really love and looking after them more, instead of wearing a dress on one night then throwing it out. Anyone can make a pledge to buy less fast fashion, and it can be fun to experiment with renting, swapping or buying second-hand or vintage clothes.”

Even the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, has been championing sustainability after attending the BAFTAs this month wearing an Alexander McQueen dress she has already been seen wearing before, something she now regularly does.

Many brands have had swapping initiatives in place for years – such as Marks & Spencer’s Oxfam Shwopping scheme, where you can donate unwanted items and get money off in store – but the recent boom in demand for pre-loved clothing has seen a surge in the number of clothes-swapping apps.

The most popular, Depop, launched in 2011 and now has 15 millions users, including celeb fans FKA Twigs and Maisie Williams.

There’s also My Wardrobe HQ, thredUP and SwapStyle, all of which help consumers buy second-hand clothes. Renting clothes is also making its way into the mainstream, with By Rotation, Hirestreet and My Wardrobe HQ allowing users to hire designer pieces for as little as £10 for three days.

Vintage shop owner Michelle Wright, 32, from Milton Keynes, began hosting her own dress swaps last year in a bid to show people that not all second-hand clothes are frumpy.

“When I was brought up in the ’90s, the kid wearing second-hand uniform with holes in his joggers was always bullied,” says Michelle. “So it’s no wonder our society views second-hand clothes as dirty or cheap. But after reading about the damage our shopping habits are doing to the environment, I knew I had to do something.

I had so many lovely dresses I never wore, and my friends did, too. So I thought, why not arrange a swap to freshen up our wardrobes without buying new clothes and wasting old ones?”

The clothes swaps proved such a hit that Michelle now hosts two dress swap events a month. “It’s great to see people wearing my clothes around town,” says Michelle. “I love knowing that they are having a second life with a new owner. I’m on a mission to show people that clothes swaps aren’t piles of rubbish. Many of the dresses on my rails have never been worn. And the ones that have been I like to call ‘pre-loved’, rather than ‘second-hand.’”

Michelle has been busy asking councils to sponsor her dress swaps and is in early talks with a number of clothes swap apps, including Swapsy, about “buddying up” to host bigger events across the country. “They’re a bit like Tinder,” she explains. “If you and I upload dresses in the same size and ‘like’ each other’s, we match. Everybody that pops up on your feed is local to you, so it’s easy to meet up and swap.”

Lauren agrees that the tides are turning on fast fashion. “It’s the younger generation who used to want the hottest fashion trends on their doorstep within hours, but they’re the ones now pushing for huge change as they’ve become aware of the damage it’s doing,” she says.

“Greta Thunberg is at the helm, but there are tonnes of activists who are right beside her. I love Aja Barber (@Ajabarber), who posts thought-provoking facts about the fashion industry, inclusivity and sustainability, as well as Jade Doherty (@Notbuyingnew) who is all about owning less and re-wearing more.

“Even Vivienne Westwood advised us all to: ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last.’ People are waking up to the fact that we were never supposed to shop like this, and it’s about time.”

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