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Falling into the Cracks: The Second-Hand Struggle

Second-hand clothes are wardrobe treasures passed on from one person to the next and each unique item tells a story – yet they seem to get a mixed review among shoppers.

Does using the term ‘vintage’ free you from the stigma or does buying second-hand clothes make you feel like a second-class citizen?

Let’s get it out of the way.

A bulk of the stigma around second-hand clothes exists along class lines. For many people who are living from pay cheque to pay cheque, second-hand clothes are the only viable option to dress themselves and their families. Declaring that they shop vintage doesn’t change their everyday reality nor does it suddenly remove the obstacles they face as they endeavour to climb the social ladder.

For those of us who can afford to and choose to dabble in vintage, pre-loved, pre-owned or second-hand clothes (whatever you want to call it), being able to choose the labels under which we shop is a huge privilege and we should never forget that. As fashion-lovers who seek the thrill of pulling out a mint condition leather jacket from racks upon racks of colourful garments, we are engaging in an enjoyable activity that sometimes produces immensely gratifying results. We aren’t always motivated by our slim bank accounts but are instead, propelled by our personal tastes, looking to enrich our wardrobes with unique, special pieces.

The Trendless Pursuit Of Clothing

Our charity shop (Harrods, anyone?) and thrift shop adventures stand in contrast to the individuals and families who are simply looking for a means to clothe themselves, enabling them to function routinely in their everyday lives and of course, to protect themselves against the elements. There is very little concern for the latest styles or trends.

Here, allow me to share a personal story. Every winter, along with a group of friends, I distribute clothes to the homeless. While the children sometimes ask if we have a bonnet in pink or gloves in black, the question of provenance or style is wholly ignored. Their objective is crystal clear – intact winter coats that will stave off the icy fingers of the chilly winds, thick socks to keep their feet dry or a bonnet that protects them against catching a bad flu.

So while the more privileged among us may feel like ‘second-class citizens’ when we shop second-hand, let’s not forget our fellow men and women who are on the verge of falling into the cracks. For them, clothes are not always pursuit of confidence or vanity. It’s simply survival.

Shopping at the Biryogo market, Kigali, Rwanda

Let’s begin by working to de-stigmatise second-hand clothes. Let’s remove the association of second-hand with poverty, which is painfully prevalent in both the developed and developing word, where pre-used garments bring their own set of problems.

Across Africa, 60-80% of clothing that are bought are second-hand. The United States and Britain are the biggest exporters of their sartorial rejects, with the latter alone sending 351,000 tonnes of used garments yearly. As a result, the homegrown garment and textiles industry has suffered greatly, having collapsed entirely in the 80’s and only recently trying to make a slow recovery. Make no mistake. Whether in the Biryogo Market in Rwanda or the Takoradi Market in Ghana, there is no debate about vintage or pre-loved clothes. This is simply a case of the developing world once again bearing the brunt of our excess in the developed world.

Untangling The (Second-Hand) Threads

Buying second-hand is an important, environmentally conscious way to use up clothes that are currently in circulation but it is clear that upon deeper examination, there are inherent problems with this strategy. In order to make this second-hand clothes revolution successful in the future, it is imperative that we start trouble-shooting the potential problems right now.

Here are some things we need to be thinking about: 1. The gentrification of thrift shops 2. The fracture of second-hand shopping along class lines 3. The disposal of second-hand clothes once they’ve reached the end of their life cycle 4. The way developing countries are used as a dumping ground for excess in the developed world.

We’re not here to discourage you from thrifting or vintage-hunting or second-hand shopping. But we urge you to think about the larger social, economic and cultural implications so that we can create a truly sustainable future for us, our fellow men and women, and our planet.


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