Why are we disgusted by second-hand clothes?

photo fo Daizy in a little red in front of a media wall for Cabaret Shows Australia.

More importantly, why aren’t we disgusted by fast fashion?

In our Indian community, there’s nothing that screams “you’re desperate” louder than buying second-hand clothes. They’re used. They’re unhygienic. They’re dirty. It’s literally someone else’s rubbish. It’s like we never distinguished dumpster diving from thrift shopping or Op Shopping, as it’s called down under. Abundant spending indicates wealth. Success is defined by excess. The more we have, the more “successful” we appear to our friends and family. It gives us the status of being wealthy enough to not care.

I grew up in the early 2000s in a small countryside town in Australia. Back then, second-hand clothes and shame were closely entwined. If you did buy something second hand back then, you certainly didn’t tell anyone because you would probably be made fun of or bullied. I stayed away from second-hand shops because I genuinely believed that they were only for people who couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. I remember when my dad bought a puffer jacket from a thrift store, and I was embarrassed. He said it was “sasta” (cheap) and “good quality.” But all I heard was “poor.”

Over time, I watched as culture evolved, and second-hand clothing rebranded as pre-loved, and “thrift” shopping became “fu*&ing awesome” according to Macklemore. But not much changed in the Indian community; second-hand shopping was and is still largely looked down upon. As the wave of “sustainability” floods the market, new pre-loved South Asian brands are popping up here and there, led by second or third-generation diaspora. But you’d still be silently judged if you went into a thrift store.

The more I learned about the fast fashion industry, the more I realized second-hand shopping is the best possible solution, even more than ethical brands. According to Clean Up Australia, each Australian throws away 23kg of clothing per year, and on a worldwide scale, it’s a gloomy picture – 92 million tons of garments go to landfill each year, with only 20% being recycled (The Roundup Org).

The reality is I would never have someone sit in my lounge room, pay them $2 a day, and ask them to sew trendy clothes for me as I then pose on Instagram with the tag #gifted, of course. But because it happens so far away, out of sight, out of mind, it’s very easy to do this every single day. After all, it’s not our fault, right? It’s the business/industry/government’s responsibility to pay fair wages and ensure industry standards. Sure, but that line of thinking is dangerous because as we delegate responsibility away, it simultaneously diminishes our power as consumers to demand change.

Let’s put affordable brands aside; even “luxury” brands selling scarves for $500 don’t guarantee fair wages to their factory workers. I often ponder what luxury there is in a piece of clothing if the hands that made it couldn’t afford to feed themselves. I can no longer shift the feeling of guilt when I buy new clothing, knowing that the brand isn’t sustainable or ethical. I feel good for a few moments, but that feeling of guilt lingers longer than a few moments.

Buying second-hand clothes is socially acceptable now in the West; it’s even considered “cool” in some cases. But it wasn’t always the case, especially growing up in a small town and from a migrant Punjabi family. I’m not going to lie; it’s hard to stay away from fast fashion completely. The other night, I was invited to a cabaret show with a Gatsby theme. Of course, I didn’t have anything lying around—who does? So I rushed to an op shop nearby in Port Melbourne and finally found a dress for $10. Luckily, it’s one I’d most probably wear again and again. Though I struggled to find the headpiece and gloves, I went to three different stores and was running out of time. So I succumbed to convenience and picked them up from a $2 shop. I felt guilty and a little frustrated with myself. But that’s the thing—it’s about caring and trying, not perfection. Progress is made over time, not overnight. Start with a small challenge; try to go six months without buying anything new. Or if you’re a shopaholic, then maybe it’s two months. Start with where you’re at and go from there. Remember to be kind to yourself and not too harsh—the goal is self-awareness and control, not shame.

Here are some questions I ask myself when I buy something new:

  1. Why am I buying this?
  2. Do I really need this?
  3. Will I wear it again and again?
  4. By buying this, what am I going to forgo in the future? Everything is a trade-off; that 5th $100 pair of jeans would likely be spent on something else.
  5. Is there something else I could spend my money on that aligns with my values and brings me greater fulfillment (books, subscriptions, experiences, traveling, art, creativity courses, brunch with a friend, etc.)?
  6. Is the person who made this treated with dignity and respect? (paid fairly + good conditions), you can always check on GoodOnYou Could I find a second-hand version of this on Facebook Marketplace or in second-hand shops?

Comments 1

  1. So good to read this,Daizy. Buying second hand is good for the pocket , the environment and the soul. I’ve had more op shop thrills “landing” something very special than I ever have shopping at a Westfield Mall.

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