By Emily Wong
From a recent clothing swap run by UNITY Charity Fashion Show to Alpha Phi sorority’s annual Alpha Phlea Market, students looking to thrift-shop a new summer wardrobe had lots of options at Northwestern University. Several student organizations hosted an ongoing stream of pop-up used clothing sales throughout spring quarter.
Both UNITY and Alpha Phi collected donations around campus from students, including members of their own organizations. UNITY co-president and Northwestern junior Lilli Boice was impressed by some of the trendy pieces they received for the swap, with clothes from high-end brands such as Lululemon or Free People, as well as some pieces with tags still attached. The clothing swap also allowed shoppers to receive one free article of clothing in exchange for donating.
Aside from offering a fun activity and affordable alternative to buying brand-new, shopping resale also can significantly reduce the environmental cost of fashion. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, making a kilogram of fabric (2.2 pounds) generates an average of 23 kilograms (nearly 57 pounds) of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming by trapping heat inside the atmosphere. Additionally, the report found that almost three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made, adding to the global problem of pollution. These statistics are especially troubling considering that the last two decades have seen a significant uptick in the sheer volume of clothing produced. The same McKinsey & Company report found that clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of articles purchased each year by the average customer increased by 60%.
Consumers adopted the term “fast fashion” to describe the mass production clothing trend. Good On You, a website that specializes in rating clothing brands by ethical value, described fast fashion as “cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed.”
The rate at which brands are able to replicate current and ever-changing styles can be a major contributor to the problem. The McKinsey & Company report stated that the average customer kept articles half as long in 2014 as in 2000 across all categories of clothing. This can be largely due to the pace of trends in the industry, as the same report found that European clothing brands moved from releasing two collections per year on average in 2000 to five per year on average in 2011.
Luckily, sustainable consumer practices such as buying used clothing can help in curbing production at least slightly by reducing the demand for new fashions. The convenience of pop-up events on campus, as well as shopping at the nearby downtown Evanston resale store Crossroads Trading, encourages students to adopt this habit. Northwestern sophomore Emma Healy attended Alpha Phlea Market the past two years, but she admitted that she hadn’t seen thrift shopping as a realistic option until coming to college.
“Back home where I’m from, there aren’t so many thrift stores that are actually close to me and that have things that I would be interested in,” said Healy. “But here, being so close to Chicago and even in Evanston, there’s a lot more options for thrifting.”
Other students have also had luck finding thrifting options close to campus. Northwestern sophomore Emma Belanger decided on her birthday this past March that she would challenge herself by abstaining from purchasing any new pieces of clothing for a year. “The amount of toxic waste that’s created by textile production and the different manufacturing processes that are involved in clothing are so harmful,” she said.
In her efforts to avoid traditional clothing stores, Belanger has tried to expand her range of used clothing retailers beyond the downtown Evanston area. “There’s (a Goodwill) that’s kind of close to campus. Me and my friends just took a bus,” she said. “I’m trying to branch out into the Chicagoland thrift stores.”
University of Kansas sophomore Adam Alani is also a strong advocate for buying resale clothing, finding the current practice of mass clothing production to be unsustainable. “We’re just consuming, consuming, consuming, and things can only go downhill from there,” he said.
Alani managed to persuade his sister, as well as some of his college friends, to take up thrift shopping as a habit. “In order to convince somebody of that, I would bring up the monetary aspect of it first, because that’s usually what grabs people’s attention,” he said.
Another strategy Alani has found is using his style to defy the assumptions many shoppers may make about buying used clothing. “What I’m wearing is, like, cool,” he said. “It’s not raggedy, as some people would think.”
Unfortunately, despite Alani’s success in combating one stigma about recycled fashion, many consumers are still wary of buying resale items. Boice experienced this through interactions with some of her friends from home. “Whenever I say I bought something second-hand, (they’re) just like, ‘Oh, ew,’” she said. “I do think it’s a good solution, but I think it’ll be a better one when more people are open to the idea of having second-hand clothes.”
This hesitation, combined with limited budgets, can make fast fashion a major temptation for college students. Although Healy often aims to shop sustainably, she confessed that it can be difficult at times, especially when shopping for a specific article or style. “It’s hard to resist prices that are so low like that, especially with trendy items that you don’t really need to last,” she said.
She found that the likelihood of a piece going out of fashion often contributed to her decision. “You don’t need it to last six years if it’s just a throw-away top that you’re just going to wear for one season,” she said. “It’s sometimes hard to justify paying $50-60 for it.”
Healy’s reluctance to spend more on clothing is reinforced by the fact that she usually won’t have to. Fast fashion retailers such as H&M often sell full-priced jeans and dresses at a bargain rate of $9.99.
Leonela Leon, an environmental studies major at the University of California, Berkeley, found this price structure problematic. Although she acknowledged that the high prices of sustainable clothing brands could at first be unpalatable to the average consumer, she said that the solution lies in adjusting our view of fashion and how we value the clothes we buy.
“Yes, a $75-$100 pair of leggings or jeans or a T-shirt is expensive to us now, but that’s just because we’re conditioned to the fast-fashion design, so we’re used to buying $10 T-shirts,” she said. “We need to shift back to how we used to think about clothing, and we used to spend a lot more of our income on clothing. Now we spend a lot less than that, so we buy so much more.”
Leon’s claim is consistent with a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that the portion of consumer income spent on apparel dropped from 12% in 1950 to 4% in 2003, a 66.7% decrease.
As Leon mentioned, the steep decline in apparel spending isn’t due to a decrease in clothing purchases. Rather, the price of clothing has risen so little in previous years in comparison with other consumer goods that it has essentially decreased over time. Or, in the case of the United States, the price has actually decreased, according to McKinsey & Company, finding a 3% decrease in the price of clothing from 1995 to 2014 and an average price increase of 55% for all other goods.
Although Leon expressed a concern for these decreasing prices, she did understand why they could appeal to many consumers. “We do need to shift our way of thinking,” she said. “But also I know there’s a lot of privilege in that, and a lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck, and they can’t make those investments.”
Still, Leon said that low price tags are often the result of a hidden cost that most consumers don’t realize is being paid. “Get used to the fact that clothing should not be that cheap and factor in the different costs that we’re paying in social and environmental ways,” she said.
Brian Leber, owner of the eco-conscious jewelry store Leber Jeweler Inc., also stands by the idea of considering non-monetary costs of production. “Fundamentally, if a company is sourcing through means that do not address social concerns, all they’re doing is passing the cost onto those that are being exploited,” he said.