Vintage Sustainable Fashion? Why Retro Isn’t Always Ethical

Giada Nizzoli

Vintage Sustainable Fashion? Why Retro Isn’t Always Ethical

From charity shops to thrifting and even celebrities showcasing more and more second-hand outfits, you’ve probably noticed that retro clothes have been growing in popularity. Surely, vintage sustainable fashion is always a thing, right?

Unfortunately, not exactly.

Second-hand & vintage fashion in a sustainable context

While the definition isn’t set in stone, the industry-standard tends to label as ‘vintage’ only clothes made between twenty and a hundred years ago, as long as they reflect their decade’s style.

(Does anyone else find it slightly unsettling that ‘twenty years ago’ now means the start of the 2000s and not the 80s?!).

Model wearing vintage sustainable fashion
There actually used to be a stigma around wearing second-hand clothing instead of purchasing new ones.

However, it has now become a status symbol as well as a more ethical alternative (in some cases) to fast fashion.

So let’s start by acknowledging the benefits of vintage sustainable fashion.

The pros of vintage sustainable fashion from an environmental & ethical point of view

A market with vintage sustainable fashion

  • Because vintage fashion mainly consists of second-hand garments, it doesn’t involve the production of new ones. This actually tends to be the most polluting stage of the entire supply chain, so bypassing it all together is great news for the planet
  • Choosing to wear vintage sustainable fashion helps consumers break the vicious cycle of fast fashion trends: when followed, they lead to buying items that are currently considered trendy only to discard them the next season when they’re ‘out’
  • Unlike fast fashion clothes designed to fall apart after a few wearings, most retro garments were actually made to last, much like sustainable fashion. So, choosing vintage clothes will usually allow you to reduce waste

The cons of vintage fashion: when second-hand retro clothes aren’t that sustainable

Model buying too many vintage clothes

  • An alarming trend that we’ve noticed in a few so-called vintage shops is that they include new garments designed to look retro (clue: this is easier to spot if there are multiple sizes for each item). Because they’re manufactured from scratch, this defeats the whole purpose of what should have been a second-hand purchase
  • There’s a worrying lack of transparency in most thrift stores. This means that you won’t be able to tell if the workers involved within their supply chain have actually been paid fair wages
  • Due to the previous problem and missing labels, you also can't usually find out if toxic chemicals or dyes have been used nor what materials those garments consist of
  • Most major retailers actually source their vintage clothes from Pakistan, adding many miles and carbon emissions to their garments
  • If synthetic materials like polyester are involved, vintage clothes still present problems like the shedding of microplastics whenever washed
  • Since vintage sustainable fashion tends to be cheaper, it can actually fuel a cycle of purchasing new clothes and discarding them regularly, much like… yep, you’ve guessed it: fast fashion

So, is vintage fashion sustainable?

Customer buying vintage clothes

Overall, we’d say that vintage fashion is definitely more sustainable than its ‘fast’ counterpart. However, it’s important to note that retro isn’t automatically eco-friendly or ethical.

Much like any kind of fashion, vintage clothes should also only be purchased when needed, and we believe that the industry would definitely benefit from more transparency.

Even though vintage sustainable fashion isn’t always a given, how we consume it can make the difference.

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