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Why I believe the future of fashion lies in secondhand clothing

If you had told 21-year-old me that I would start working in the fashion industry at some point in my life, I would have laughed at you. My journey to fashion has been a long and convoluted one.

I started out life as an occupational therapist and after 13 years, made a career change to the sustainability sector. My three young children were part of the driving force to shape a better world. The ethics and sustainability of business captured my attention immediately and the challenge to drive conscious consumerism was real.

I’m not much of a shopper myself, but when my two beautiful daughters entered their teenage years, shopping became an essential part of their life. Regular trips to “the Fashion Capital” that is Chadstone also meant that the question of ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry was forced upon me.

A period of research and learning followed, and this revealed the massive environmental issues which lie behind fast fashion, the growing trend to consume more than we ever need and how the globalisation of fashion production has resulted in significant social issues and inequities in some of the world’s poorest communities.

From 2000-2015, global clothing production doubled from 50 billion items to 100 billion items. During the same period, clothing utilisation decreased 36 per cent, so we produced twice as many items but used these items less.

Fast forward three years, and in 2018 approximately 150 billion items of clothing were manufactured for the 7.8 billion people on earth. The linear fashion production process also results in less than 1 per cent of the material used to produce these clothes being recycled into new clothing items at end of life.

But what also really grabbed my attention was the issue of garment workers – the appalling conditions they work in and the meagre wages they are paid to produce “disposable” clothing for the western world.

Minimum wage in Bangladesh is approximately $120 per month for a 10+ hour day, six (sometimes even seven) days per week. These women leave their villages to find work in the cities. They leave behind families, even their own children, in search of finances to support their extended family. Their garment worker job is usually their first experience of the formal economy. They are frequently exposed to physical and sexual harassment on the factory floor, and, without bank accounts, they are typically paid in cash, so muggings are not unusual on payday.

The fashion supply chain is multifaceted and trying to ensure cotton pickers, textile mill and garment workers earn living wages is fraught with issues. I started thinking that if every consumer made a small donation when they purchased one of the 1.6 billion items of clothing sold in Australia each year, we could directly support these garment workers through established (and thoroughly vetted) programs in their countries that improve their health, wellbeing, welfare and self-sufficiency.

So, following a trip to Bangladesh where I got to meet with a number of NGOs and explore the programs they run, as well as meet with garment workers who wanted to tell their story to the world, the idea for Fabric of our Society was born.

Attempting to get buy-in for this concept was challenging, and while I saw it as an opportunity for fashion retailers to bring ethics and purpose to their business, in retrospect this concept was flawed.

What it did was bring customers’ attention to the faults in the fashion industry, and for those businesses doing nothing to address sustainability in their supply chain, it was potentially greenwashing.

But as they say, if Plan A fails, there are 25 other letters of the alphabet.

In 2019, Forbes Magazine reported that in 2018 the secondhand market was $28 billion versus $35 billion for fast fashion. However, the most interesting thing is that in 10 years the secondhand market is expected to outstrip the fast fashion market as it triples to $64 billion and the fast fashion market grows to $44 billion.

The rise and rise of sustainable and ethical fashion businesses in Australia has been marked. Companies like Outland Denim, Bodypeace Bamboo, Elk The Label and The Social Outfit are leading the way towards a new fashion future.

So I took a sideways shift into starting Reluv, an online business selling pre-loved fashion with the intention of keeping clothes in circulation longer, keeping clothes out of landfill, driving a change in consumer choices and a business which has sustainability and social impact baked into the entire supply chain.

A soft launch to local community Facebook pages in August 2019 drew lots of interest and I started to gather stock while concurrently developing the website. Reluv launched in late December and I have been extremely privileged to have a co-pilot in Mark Freidin, who brings a wealth of experience in e-commerce to help bring the idea to life.

To date we have rescued thousands of items from landfill, and whilst not all items make it onto the site (due to our strict quality standards), we have a well stocked store with hundreds of items for sale. Items we are unable to sell are either sent to an organisation which supports women experiencing domestic violence, or, if they have marks, stains or other imperfections, they are sent to textile recycling.

It all comes together in the end. Every time a customer purchases an item, they have the option to make a small donation that Reluv will match. And I will finally be able to raise funds for some incredible programs that improve the lives and empower the women who make our clothes.

Karen Freidin is a sustainability consultant and founder of Reluv Clothing Online.


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