Is Vintage Fashion Sustainable?

Our idea started with that gut feeling that second-hand and vintage fashion are more sustainable than new fashion and specifically fast fashion. It seemed kind of common sense that if you don't have to produce more materials and more designs, you save a big amount of resources. However, we still wanted to research the industry of second-hand clothes to have a better understanding of how things work, and to which degree it is more sustainable.
First of all, there is a differentiation between vintage and second-hand. Strictly speaking, you call an item vintage if it is over 20 years old, and younger items would be considered second-hand.
Following this principle, it is easy to see that if a dress has a lifespan of over 20 years, compared to a fast-fashion's dress lifespan of a few weeks - vintage scores its first point.
But even if a garment is only 5 to 10 years old, when you recycle and reuse it, it saves a big amount of resources versus garments that are made from scratch. A new item’s journey usually goes like this:
Developing of raw materials, their extraction, followed by spinning, dyeing, knitting, weaving - and yay we finally have fabric. Next, the fabric needs to be cut and sewn together in another factory.
So by saving all these steps - second-hand also scores a point!
Since sustainability not only has an environmental aspect but also a social one, we have to look at the impact fast fashion has on the country, the society, and the individuals involved in fashion production. Garment workers which are mostly women of colour are underpaid, their wages commonly under the minimum wage of the country. Not only are they underpaid, but overworked under terrible working conditions. Living in fear of losing their only source of income and/or of being assaulted if they dare to complain.
It is hard to think of these women when you are thousands of kilometres away looking at a pretty top for 24,99 Euro in a nice, beautiful and clean space. Vintage might not always be sold in a pretty stylish studio, but by buying vintage you refuse to support the exploitation of the garment workers.
However, vintage and second-hand fashion are not completely innocent when it comes to leaving their carbon footprint. Most of it comes from transportation. Clothes are donated in one place, then taken to be sorted to a different place, and then to many other places, often also across the globe, to be resold. This is another point where we need to be careful with vintage becoming more and more popular. As the economists say, high demand pushes prices up and can contribute to a negative shift for the people who rely on second-hand shopping. Vintage is therefore not the answer without compromise. But, as long as we are buying things, shopping for vintage is a more sustainable solution.
To support the slow fashion movement you can contribute by using your clothes for a longer period. The first key to that is buying higher quality garments, which per se will last longer. Learning how to care for your loved items will also prolong their lives. In our “care and re-nou” guide you find lots of great tips and manuals for how to look after your clothes.
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