The UK’s per capita consumption of clothing is higher than any other nation in Europe, but this unsustainable appetite for a constantly changing wardrobe has devastating environmental and social impacts.
Fashion companies show no sign of slowing down, so alternative solutions are needed to manage the ever-growing pile of unwanted clothing.
A rise in community clothes swapping is emerging, which should be scaled-up to help solve the fast fashion waste crisis.
Fashion is an unsustainable, resource-intensive business. The industry’s commercial evolution from functional to trend-centric has been facilitated by a structural shift to global offshoring in combination with advancements in mass-manufacturing technologies.
“Fast Fashion” is now the dominant strategy, referring to the endless emergence of trends from high-street and online retailers.
Constant new inventory entices the consumer into excessive consumption of low-priced garments inducing a perpetual cycle of wardrobe renewal.
Outfits are often so cheap that they are treated as disposable. In the UK an estimated 300,000 tonnes of textiles ends up in household waste each year.
Fashion businesses are increasingly in the spotlight for social and environmental issues; earlier this year a UK parliamentary inquiry into fast fashion identified an array of socio-environmental challenges.
These included: issues of illegal and exploitative labour practices, high raw material use, excessive chemical use, pollution and landfilling of unwanted textiles. NGO pressure and consumer activist movements have elevated these issues to mainstream coverage, and the fashion sector has received scrutiny.
Retailers are beginning to react, often through highlighting their greening strategies in marketing. The majority are showcasing their efforts in improving efficiency and recycling capabilities without noticeable change to the volume being produced.
However, a fundamental conflict is that the underlying commercial objective persists: to sell more garments.
In the UK demand for reuse has grown in recent years with online marketplaces, such as Ebay and Depop, connecting buyers and sellers. Despite this growth, current demand for used garments simply does not match the overwhelming supply.
The situation is so out of hand that countries previously relied on to import excess used clothing have taken action.
Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania are amongst the nations which have banned or put heavy restrictions on the import of used garments from the developed world, stating that industrial-scale importing undermines their domestic textile economies.
It is evident that shifting garments to developing countries can no longer be considered a sustainable or socially-just solution.
A promising development is an increase in clothes “swapping”. Informally swapping – between friends, family and neighbours – has been practiced for generations. However, interest in more formal swapping contexts has emerged, often organised at a community level.
Swapping can be considered a product life-extension and reuse strategy, which fits under the broad umbrella of the circular economy.
There is no exact protocol for these swap events. Some swaps may take place at universities, workplaces or at public event spaces. The common characteristic is that there is no exchange of money - although some events are ticketed.
To explore the clothes swapping phenomenon, research was carried out at recent swapping event, organised by a group that run an Instagram page called “Just Sustain It”.
The swap was advertised through social media platforms and through the venue - “Kindred“ - in West London. The event was ticketed with a modest price, which included a refreshment and short panel talk on Sustainability. Therefore, there was an educational aspect which can be an important reflexive feature of grass-roots initiatives.
After costs, any excess funds were donated to an environmental charity and any left-over clothes were donated to Oxfam.
Participants were encouraged to bring at least three items of clothing in good condition to swap; upon entry the organisers collected the clothing in return for swapping vouchers.
Viewing the practice through a social lens, swapping can be considered a socially and financially inclusive practice: as long as attendees bring an item to exchange, they can take part.
Whilst the attendees mingled, enjoyed a drink and listened to a short talk on sustainability, organisers displayed the clothing on racks in colour and size order, making it easy to browse. The venue was transformed into a bustling temporary market.
If swapping is a sustainable way of consuming fashion, it is important to understand consumer motivations and experiences to provide recommendations for scaling up and expanding the practice. So why did people attend the event?
A post-event survey highlighted the fun, experiential element of a clothes swap provided a space to socialise with friends and meet new people. It emerged that this was the most popular reason for attending, as one attendee put it: “to have a night out with friends doing something different”.
Other participants specifically wanted to empty or refresh their wardrobes, for instance this attendee highlighted their motivation for attending: “to ensure that my clothes that I didn't want any more went to a good home and to get clothes in return without the guilt of buying them and contributing to over-consumption”.
Others simply highlighted that they were curious or wanted to learn about sustainable fashion.
Approximately 85 percent of survey participants stated that it was the first time they had attended a fashion swap, but over 95 percent said they would attend another one in the future.
Not everybody who parted with clothes found something new, which highlights that issues with sizing, style and taste may hinder the success of clothes swapping. Noticeably, the overwhelming majority of attendees were women, meaning that the few men who brought clothes to swap did not return with anything.
However, the survey highlighted that several attendees were not disappointed if they did not find many items to take home as they used the event to socialise or get rid of unwanted clothes. This attendee summarised her motivations: “I brought 6 items I was willing to part with. I planned to walk away with nothing as I have too much stuff but managed to find a nice jacket”.
Sustainable consumption research highlights community events can encourage socialising, relationship-building and knowledge transfer. These features were apparent in the clothes swap. Swapping provides a bottom-up solution to encourage reuse of the overwhelming amount of barely worn clothes which are devastating the environment.
Despite these positive impacts, it must be acknowledged that it remains a niche activity, and still competes with low-cost retailers, often just a convenient click away for the consumer. On top of this, swapping cannot alone solve the fast fashion dilemma, there is need to lobby retailers into reducing the output of clothing produced.
Without regulatory intervention, it is highly doubtful that retailers will voluntarily slow fashion with any remarkable impact.
From a grass-roots perspective, fostering these alternatives is paramount if the ever-mounting pile of unwanted clothing is to be managed.
To expand the practice, clothes swaps should emphasise the features of swapping which fast fashion cannot compete with. This includes the experiential aspect, the fun, and the opportunity to find the perfect outfit without parting with hard-earned cash.
Rebecca Clube is a Doctoral Researcher at Imperial College’s Centre for Environmental Policy. She holds an MSc in Environmental Technology from Imperial College and a BSc Business Administration from Bath University. Her PhD research explores the maximising societal impact in the Circular Economy with a focus on the textiles industry. She tweets @rebeccak.