Is vintage clothing sustainable?


Is vintage clothing sustainable?

Have you been starting to question the sustainable benefits of shopping vintage? Perhaps you were lured into the world of shopping vintage by the headlines and influencers stating this or something similar- Buy vintage! It’s style and substance without the stress of wondering how to be sustainable. Then you were hooked, frequently purchasing bygone treasures for your home, wearing antique jewellery, and weaving vintage clothing into your wardrobe as well.

But other than looking good and feeling like you’re helping the environment, the economy, and being trendy, how is vintage clothing sustainable? Read on to learn all about the sustainability of vintage clothing and put your mind at rest.

Not only is shopping vintage the new black, but it’s also most definitely a FUN way to know that you’re adding some social goodness to your wardrobe by withdrawing support and purchasing power behind mainstream, mass-produced clothing - which carbon footprint is increasingly enlarging every year.

We all love a dose of vintage. It’s timeless, unique, and as rewarding as if digging for gold. Honestly, it’s hard not to be enchanted by a piece of clothing with such a huge sense of history attached to it.

But how exactly does the life-cycle of vintage differ from clothing mass-produced within the fast fashion industry?

vintage clothes at landfill

As you may already be aware, high street retailers and even the ever-popular online eCommerce clothing stores dominate the fast fashion industry that holds so much influence on the way we dress today. The fast-turnover system that they operate generates 100 billion garments per year and they are one of the most polluting industries in the world, after oil. This is because retailers restock collections every 4-6 weeks, pressuring us to buy more and think less, leaving a huge amount of unwanted clothing to be discarded at landfills. Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste is created each year and the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second. By 2030, we are expected as a whole to be discarding more than 134 million tonnes of textiles a year. Pretty crazy.

Those stats don’t end there “The current fashion system uses high volumes of non-renewable resources, including petroleum, extracted to produce clothes that are often used only for a short period of time, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration,” says Chetna Prajapati, who studies ways of making sustainable textiles at Loughborough University.

“This system puts pressure on valuable resources such as water, pollutes the environment, and degrades ecosystems in addition to creating societal impacts on a global scale.”

At the same time, we are buying more clothes than ever – the average consumer now buys 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago. More than two tonnes of clothing are bought each minute in the UK, more than in any other country in Europe. Even if we as the technological, instant gratification society that we are, have to switch up our style and wardrobes frequently, seeking out alternatives to chucking clothes in the bin would be a very good idea.

Would recycling our clothes help to reduce the toll our fashion addiction has on the environment? Is it even an economical or ethical option?

vintage clothes being recycled

Globally just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled and by the way, most of the recycled polyester being used now by leading fashion brands in fact comes from bottles rather than old clothing. Much of the problem comes down to what our clothes are made from. Mainly complex combinations of fibres like natural yarns, man-made filaments, plastics, and metals.

For example, typically a pair of jeans are made from cotton yarn which is generally blended with elastane, and other components such as zips and buttons and polyester sewing thread and dyed using a range of dyes. This makes them hard to separate so they can be effectively recycled. Sorting textiles into different fibres and material types by hand is labour intensive, slow, and requires a skilled workforce.

Currently, however, very few of the clothes that are sent to be recycled are actually turned into new clothing – a process known as “material to material” recycling. Old wool jumpers, for example, can be turned into carpets, cashmere can be recycled into suits. But as of 2015, less than 1% of used clothing was recycled in this way.

While of course there is a healthy market in second-hand clothes being sold online where the more environmentally aware shopper may prefer to donate clothing to a charity shop or clothing bank. Increasingly, however, clothes donations are being used as a way of simply passing on the textile waste problem to others.

Did you know that your unwanted pair of jeans have just a 1 in 3 chance of finding a lucky new owner in-store and a 2 in 3 chance of being sold to textile merchants who either ship them across the world or chop them up to recycle the fibres? Oxfam even has their own “Wastesaver” recycling scheme dedicated to this final process.

At Oxfam’s Wastesaver clothes sorting and recycling plant in Batley, Yorkshire, 80 tonnes of old clothes pass through the factory every week. Lorraine Needham Reid, Oxfam’s Wastesaver manager, stated that over the 10 years that she has worked there, she has seen a real decline in the quality of clothes that are reaching them, particularly when it comes to the materials used to make the clothes. About six tonnes of the garments are of such poor quality they are simply torn up so they can be used as industrial cleaning clothes and stuffing for mattresses or car seats.

So what makes vintage clothing different from second hand? And is shopping vintage really the most sustainable option of them all?

vintage clothing store

In order to be classed as vintage clothing, items are considered to have been around for a number of years and at times over twenty years old or more. This then gives clothing its sought-after retro title and sustainable label. Vintage clothing differs from fast fashion in the fact that it withstands the test of time by both remaining fashionable and not deteriorating after a short while or a small amount of use.

Vintage clothing has the potential to be reused and loved once again, by being passed through multiple owners it can still look just as good as it did (if not better) than when it was first produced.

The life cycle of a vintage garment will often begin at a recycling clothing bank alongside modern items. Once sorted apart, it is packaged into bales. These bales are then sold to companies who either sort and sell in-house or act as suppliers to smaller companies who may buy by the kilo or come to “hand-pick” items for their customers.

It’s true - The vintage clothing option does resemble the world of fast fashion in some ways. Yes, there will still be textile wastage. Some items won’t make it off the rails but unlike on the high street, these garments will be re-entered into the recycling process and sold off in bulk again.

The vintage clothing industry will therefore inevitably leave some carbon footprint of its own: transportation being the main resource here. Choosing to ship large pallets of items to and from warehouses by sea freight, as opposed to air, is one way to manage emissions. However, it’s worth remembering that the initial resale of vintage clothing doesn’t usually require any additional materials, other than the odd button or stitch, plus laundering. So in that respect, the resource use is still pretty minimal.

Another consideration when buying vintage is the environment and conditions of the sorting factories where the workforce operates and how much they are paid for their labour, as well as the conditions under which the clothes were made in the first place (as difficult as this can be to trace).

Look out for labels indicating vintage clothing was made in countries that have tough laws protecting workers’ rights. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to locate and challenge your clothing manufacturer in the modern world of fast fashion where garments were produced in the last few years, but you can still have a go at conducting some background research of your own.

Vintage clothing is not only a more environmentally friendly method of shopping, it is also a more sustainable and smart way to spend money. Naturally, vintage clothing comes with a price tag much lower than that of a similar item that is brand new, particularly when it comes to branded items. Purchasing items of clothing through vintage clothing retailers is likely to save you money, meaning more clothes can be bought or additional cash in your bank account.

Furthermore, vintage clothing tends to hold its value, presenting an opportunity to sell it on again and continue the vintage clothing cycle once you’re ready to move on. Retro items can be seen to be increasing in popularity and the challenge to own original and classic clothing that no one else is wearing is in high demand. In addition to this, as consumers become progressively more aware of the impacts that fast fashion is having on the environment, more and more people will be looking towards shopping vintage - the more sustainable method to shop.


  • Posted on by Peter
    This helps me a lot, thank you.
  • Posted on by Jennifer
    So grateful for this content, very helpful.
  • Posted on by Elizabeth
    Looks great! Such a helpful one.
  • Posted on by Lindsey
    So grateful for this content, very helpful.
  • Posted on by Candice
    such a great content.

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