Fast fashion is a harmful business model for people and the planet. But purging your closet of all your old fast fashion garments or avoiding buying fast fashion garments at your local charity shop is not the solution. The most affordable and sustainable option is keeping fast fashion styles for as long as possible—and buying them second hand, too.
The growing backlash against fast fashion
Across social media, especially on TikTok and Instagram, few brands cause quite the stir that SHEIN does. The ultra fast fashion giant has quickly grown from a virtually unknown brand into one of the most profitable on the planet, surpassing similarly troubling fast fashion brands like Zara and Boohoo in both profits and quantity of clothes produced. SHEIN adds thousands of new styles to its website every day.
While many people eagerly snap up SHEIN garments due to the cheap prices, those garments are often disposed of just as quickly. Where do these polyester garments go? The best garments will end up cramming the racks at your local second hand shop, where they often don’t sell—landing them in landfills in countries like Ghana and Chile. To SHEIN’s credit, it’s the only fast fashion brand that has made a significant contribution to funding solutions to fashion waste, but its multi-million dollar investment is a mere drop in the bucket when you consider the scope of the fast fashion industry’s waste crisis.
In certain social circles, the headlines about these brands’ many ills means buying new fast fashion now has a stigma associated with it. That’s a good thing given their many labour and environmental abuses.
Due to this perceived stigma and lack of quality, many people now avoid buying these brands’ products at second hand shops and prune them out of their closets. That only makes the waste crisis worse.
But there’s a related phenomenon that’s more problematic: due to this perceived stigma and lack of quality, many people now avoid buying these brands’ products at second hand shops and prune them out of their closets. That only makes the waste crisis worse.
If we’re honest, most of us own several pieces of fast fashion. Finding out more about the industry’s environmental impact might make you want to purge every such garment from your wardrobe. But wearing the fast fashion items you already own for as long as possible is far better for the planet than throwing them out.
Equally so, rescuing fast fashion garments from your local thrift store or charity shop is a noble exercise in saving those garments from landfills. And if you know how to responsibly care for these items to make them last longer and avoid microplastic pollution, then buying second hand fast fashion is a low-budget way to make more sustainable choices. And with the cost of living crunch many of us are experiencing, it’s both a noble and practical choice.
Scroll on for more reasons why you should keep second hand fast fashion in your closet—and for easy tips on how to make those garments last longer while lessening the negative impacts from caring for those garments.
Throwing out fast fashion is an environmental catastrophe
Keeping fast fashion garments in your wardrobe and buying them from second hand shops saves them from landfills. Because when people in wealthy countries mindlessly throw away their fast fashion clothes, they’re polluting historically exploited countries.
When fast fashion gets trashed, most clothing goes to the landfill. There, it not only contributes to more emissions (in the US, landfills emitted roughly 109m metric tons of potent greenhouse gas methane in 2020), but it also causes plastic pollution.
Keeping fast fashion garments in your wardrobe and buying them from second hand shops saves them from landfills.
Most fast fashion clothing is made with synthetics, like polyester, which is derived from petroleum-derived plastics. That means that when it breaks down (over the course of decades or even centuries) in landfills, it leaks microplastics into the earth.
According to the United Nations, one third of plastic waste ends up either in freshwater or the soil. From there, it has a harmful impact on ecosystems. One 2020 study found that microplastic soil pollution has resulted in a decline in mites, larvae, and other small creatures that are crucial for land fertility.
But not all trashed clothing goes to landfill. Some of it gets incinerated, and unfortunately, that’s also terrible for the environment. This process emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere too, and perhaps even more alarming: research suggests it could release microplastics into the air.
Why you should keep fast fashion in your wardrobe—and buy it used
Certainly, there comes a time when you need to find a new alternative to a brand you’ve purchased from in the past. Whether it’s sizing needs or some other reason, buying new fashion from more sustainable brands is sometimes the only accessible option.
But that’s not the same thing as trashing a fast fashion polyester jumpsuit and replacing it with a new organic cotton alternative. However sustainably made your new garment is, trashing your old fast fashion or avoiding those brands in charity shops isn’t necessarily the right thing for the planet.
Trashing your old fast fashion or avoiding those brands in charity shops isn’t necessarily the right thing for the planet.
What to do instead? Keep your fast fashion items. Buy fast fashion second hand. Take care of those garments. Wash them responsibly. (Important note: microplastics leak into the water and impact ecosystems through our laundry too. More on that below.) And if or when it gets to the point where you really don’t want them anymore, there are ways you can upcycle or rehome them responsibly.
With the help of a few experts, we’ve got all the tips below.
Tip 1: learn how to launder fast fashion responsibly
Careful laundering is a key part of taking care of polyester or other synthetic clothing and helping to ensure it stays in good condition for longer. The good news: polyester is easy to wash, because of the material’s inherent durability.
That said, fabric care experts The Laundress’ recommended best practice for polyester is washing it by using stain removal first on any marks, before soaking in cool water and vinegar. Next, machine wash, before air drying or popping in the dryer on a medium temperature.
Tip 2: minimise microplastic damage in the wash
Washing responsibly is about more than just taking care of fabric. Clothing doesn’t just contribute to the microplastic problem when it’s thrown away. One single wash of 6 kilograms could release 700,000 fibres into the waterways.
Rachael Miller, co-founder of ocean conservation nonprofit Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, was horrified by this, so she developed the Cora Ball. Inspired by coral, the in-drum device prevents 31% of microplastics from entering the ocean through laundry.
“Once we realised that nature, herself, had the solution, we created the Cora Ball with coral-like stalks,” explained Miller. “The stalks catch and help tangle the fibre.”
One day though, Miller hopes her device won’t be necessary. Right now, a few countries, as well as the US state of California, are working on legislation to regulate microplastic pollution from laundry. For example, the UK’s Microplastic Filters (Washing Machines) Bill would require manufacturers to fit microplastic filters to washing machines if it becomes law.
Consider spot cleaning and only washing clothes when they really need to be washed.Rachael Miller – Co-founder of ocean conservation nonprofit Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean
But we’re still a long way away from tackling the problem globally. Until then, Miller says there are a few other things you can do to reduce microplastic pollution from laundry.
The first is simple: wash less. “Consider spot cleaning and only washing clothes when they really need to be washed,” says Miller.
Next, opt for cold water. “This makes a difference in reducing how much your clothes shed and minimising energy use,” she explains. “Three, make sure all of your loads are a minimum of three-quarters full. This reduces the friction between garments, which reduces shedding.”
Finally, until washing machine manufacturers have a more global solution, you can also pick up products like the Guppyfriend bag to help catch microplastics in the wash.
Tip 3: get creative with styling and upcycling
If you’re bored of an item of clothing, before you get rid of it, ask yourself: could it be customised, amended, or upcycled?
If clothing is the wrong size, you could consider visiting a tailor or a seamstress to have it altered. (Or if you’re brave, invest in a sewing machine yourself and hit up some YouTube tutorials.)
But if an item is really past the point of no return clothing wise, could it have a new life as a cushion cover, a headband, or even a reusable food wrap? The answer is probably yes. Find our tips on creative upcycling here.
Tip 4: avoid overwhelming your local charity shop
If a new chic cushion cover just isn’t in your old garment’s future and you need to get rid of it, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a thrift store or charity shop donation.
But Amanda McCarty, a former fast fashion buyer and merchandiser turned sustainable clothing advocate and host of the Clothes Horse podcast, says this can be problematic. Why? These places are already overwhelmed.
“The sheer volume of donated clothes is a burden for thrift stores, both in terms of actual manpower to sort, price, and process it all, and the physical space to sell it,” she explains. This leads to clothing being sent overseas, where it inevitably ends up going to landfill anyway.
The sheer volume of donated clothes is a burden for thrift stores, both in terms of actual manpower to sort, price, and process it all, and the physical space to sell it.Amanda McCarty – Sustainable clothing advocate and host of the Clothes Horse podcast
Earlier this year, ABC released an investigation called Dead White Man’s Clothes, which revealed that millions of garments are sent to Accra, in Ghana. There, around 40% end up in the landfill. “One needs to only look to the beaches in Accra, Ghana or the Atacama desert in Chile to see how our cycle of buy-donate-buy-donate is not working for the planet and its people,” says McCarty.
Instead of donating, you could utilise your local Buy Nothing group, she suggests, or host a clothing swap with friends, family, or neighbours.
She adds: “Other resources for rehoming locally, and ensuring that garment gets a lot more wears, include Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Freecycle, and clothing closets at schools and shelters.”
Tip 5: reflect on your own consumption impulses
One of the most important tips for keeping clothing out of the landfill for longer is changing our mindsets, so we don’t feel the need to buy new clothing constantly. Yes, even from sustainable brands. Buying new garments all the time paves the way for an overcrowded wardrobe, and increases the urge to purge.
But while “buy less” is simple in words, it’s difficult in practice. After all, we live in a capitalist society that is always preaching at us to buy, buy, buy. But rising above this is crucial. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy new things, but instead, take a minute to really think about what you’re buying and why you’re buying it.
McCarty encourages mindful shopping habits all the time, no matter the brand. “Ask yourself ‘What do I actually need?’”, she advises. “‘What will I wear the most often and longest? How will this fit into my existing wardrobe? Do I love this enough to wash it carefully and mend it when necessary?’”
“I like to imagine the various outfits and occasions for a particular garment,” she added. “If I can only think of one or two very specific examples, then it is a pass!”
When it does come to making new additions to your wardrobe, here’s a curveball: consider actively seeking out fast fashion finds in thrift stores. After all, if they don’t get bought, they're more likely to go to trash and cause more damage.
And when it does come to making new additions to your wardrobe, here’s a curveball: consider actively seeking out fast fashion finds in thrift stores. After all, if they don’t get bought, they’re more likely to go to trash and cause more damage.
“Frankly, these clothes are going to be on this planet a lot longer than they were in someone’s closet, so it is very important that we get a lot of use from them,” says McCarty.
Ultimately, when it comes to clothing already produced and bought, it’s vital that we put aside any negative attitude we have towards fast fashion companies. By actively buying and taking care of synthetic garments, we’re not supporting the Boohoo’s or Missguided’s of the world. Instead, we’re doing the planet a service, and we’re clearing up their mess.