What are the ethical questions around second hand clothes? When recently I culled my wardrobe of unnatural textiles, shedding everything not 100% cotton, pure wool, linen or silk, some said I was being wasteful and challenged my ‘dumping’ unwanted things.
Those comments made me ask was it acceptable for me to pass on my unwanted items of clothing to others? Was I merely indulging a personal whim? ‘First–world’ whirled in my head. As I grew up surrounded by values reflecting frugality, this caused me to stop and think. Am I wasteful?
Having made my decision to go the natural fibre route, these clothes would just have been clogging up my cupboard, surely far better for them to be donated, then sold to benefit a charity. Could they become new treasures for someone else, my decision actually creating an opportunity for someone to get themselves a bargain pair of hardly worn Cue work pants, or a fabulous vintage Betty Barclay jacket, a favourite of mine for over 20 years?
If someone upgrades their motor-car, selling the old one to a dealer, should they be sanctioned for not hanging on to it until it falls apart in their yard?
I discovered that there are vintage purists who think it is a crime to alter or cut into vintage clothes to produce a better fit for a new wearer. ‘Molestation!’ they cry.
More fundamental questions arise when considering the trade in used clothing between the ‘first’ and the ‘third’ world (let’s bypass the acres of debate about the validity of those labels). Some accuse charities of double standards because they profit through this trade and the donated goods are not sold in the donor country.
Having worked most of my life in the not-for-profit sector, I know no charity works effectively without generating cash income. Anthropologist Karen Tranberg Hansen’s (2000) study of the clothing trade in Zambia (Salaula: The World of Second Hand Clothing and Zambia, University of Chicago Press) proposes this clothing trade be seen as Zambians using their ‘clothing competence’ to ‘rearticulate’ the excesses of their wealthy European and North American neighbours, rather than casting them as rag-pickers of the world’s rubbish.
Hansen suggests that the value-enhancing work of mending, retailoring and reselling this clothing imported by the tonne, contributes significantly to the local economy and enhances Zambian livelihoods. Not dissimilar, I’d suggest, to the way those with a good eye and skills with scissors and thread scout the op-shop outlets across our suburbs and regional towns for items they can upcycle, re-fashion and re-sell.
You may be interested to complete the survey being conducted (until Feb 15 2016) by Nancy L Fisher, a sociologist from Augburg College Minneapolis, about why people wear second hand clothes.
You are also invited to read Michelle Parrinello-Cason’s reasons why she refused to purchase a second hand American Apparel dress even though it was the only item she found that fitted her, looked good and was suitable for the professional wardrobe she was trying to expand. Her rejection, ‘hatred’ is the word she used, of this particular brand was based on the sexually explicit, exploitative and disturbing advertising images of women used to promote the brand.