For decades, it was an established routine: Fashion designers dreamed up their creations, models walked them down the runway and about six months later, a version showed up at your local mall.
That’s not good enough anymore.
Fast-fashion outlets like Zara and Forever 21 have sped up that schedule. Now, consumers get runway-inspired looks within weeks, creating a cycle in which customers eagerly shop new styles while ruthlessly discarding the old.
That pattern of buying something cheap, then throwing it away in a few months isn’t unique to fashion. Customers upgrade last year’s smartphones and replace non-HD TVs at a similarly breakneck speed. This cycle is a natural byproduct of our impatient, on-demand economy: we want the things we want now, and when we’re done with them, we want them out of our closets immediately.
Unfortunately, that cycle is starting to hurt the planet. According to the U.N., the amount of global e-waste — electronic products at the end of their useful life — reached a staggering 41.8 million tons in 2014. In her book “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy,” Georgetown professor Pietra Rivoli wrote that we discard so many consumer items each day that “there are nowhere near enough people in America to absorb the mountains of cast-offs, even if they were given away.”
But there’s a way to combat the rising amounts of waste clogging our landfills — and it’s not by buying an expensive, “all natural” version of what we already have. It’s by taking a little extra time to buy and sell items secondhand.
What’s at Stake
There’s a certain thrill that comes with a new purchase. After all, there’s a reason why the phrase “retail therapy” exists. But what happens to last year’s iPad or last season’s bandage dress once you no longer want it? More often than not, it ends up in the trash. In 2014, more than half of all municipal solid waste produced in the U.S. was sent to the landfill rather than being recycled.
The proportion of e-waste shipped to landfills is even higher, around 75 percent, according to the EPA — and much of it ends up being shipped to developing countries where environmental and labor protections are weaker. Workers who process e-waste are exposed to harmful contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all of which can cause serious health problems. These materials can also leach into soil and groundwater, affecting areas far from the actual dump site.
The same thing happens with clothing. Americans only donate 15 percent of their used clothing, and between 1999 and 2009, the amount of textile waste increased by 40 percent. Because of the demand for cheap, quickly made clothing, production of manmade fibers — which require huge amounts of energy and fossil fuels — has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. According to the World Wildlife Federation, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make a single cotton T-shirt. It’s easy to see how buying and selling pre-loved clothes closet-to-closet could make a significant environmental impact.
How Did It Get So Bad?
Why do we waste so much? There’s a simple answer: the companies that make our clothing and electronics like it that way. Our ancestors used to have clothing that lasted, clothing they could painstakingly mend and wear for decades. That changed with the advent of industrialization and the increase in household incomes. Manufacturers started developing cheaper clothes, made from less durable materials. For consumers, the choice was simple: why spend all that time caring for your blouses when you could just buy a cheap new one? Consumers have developed a bias against pre-loved clothes.
A researcher from the University of Kansas surveyed 35 university students and found that only nine regularly bought secondhand clothing, while the others declared it “unpleasant and unhygienic” and “weird” as well as “creepy.”
Similarly, electronics companies are often accused of “planned obsolescence,” where manufacturers intentionally design products to have short lifespans. Apple, with its endless march of new and improved gadgets, recently faced a Brazilian class action lawsuit about just this issue.
Consumers have started to catch on, demanding more environmentally friendly and ethical products. A 2014 Nielsen study showed that 55 percent of online consumers across 60 countries were willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products. In response, clothing brands have started debuting products claiming to be “natural” or “eco-friendly” — but a few sustainable items can’t outweigh companies’ overall deleterious environmental impact. It’s impossible for sustainability and fast fashion to coexist.
The Way Out
So what’s a conscientious consumer to do? The answer is simple: reduce the demand for new stuff. That means buying less in general, and buying secondhand; it also means donating or reselling your own pre-loved items so that others can enjoy them.
Luckily, modern technology has made decluttering your closet a lot easier than in the old days of driving carloads of clothes over to Goodwill. With the rise of online marketplaces and mobile classifieds apps, putting an item on sale is as easy as snapping a photo with your phone’s camera. User-friendly mobile interfaces let shoppers browse and buy pre-loved goods with no friction from the comfort of their own homes. Thanks to in-app messaging functions, buyers and sellers can communicate without giving away personal details. Buying and selling secondhand might never be as fast as fast fashion, but in recent years, technology has brought it close.
Whether because of increased convenience, lower prices, or environmental concerns, people are already changing their attitudes toward thrift shopping: a 2013 study showed that 35 percent of women and 25 percent of men surveyed said they were buying more used products than new, compared to their habits a year ago.
Helping the environment can seem like an insurmountable challenge. It’s easy to get pessimistic, to worry about the best way to help and end up doing nothing. But by simply switching to the pre-loved marketplace, consumers can immediately reduce their impact on the earth — without buying expensive green-washed items. Your wallet — and the environment — will thank you.
Marcus Tan is a cofounder of Carousell and oversees design, operations and talent. Since the launch of Carousell in May 2012 together with Quek Siu Rui and Lucas Ngoo, Marcus has been deeply involved in the product design and community building.
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