Fashion consumers are choosing vintage as low-impact clothing – but we don't know much about where these garments are from. How green is it to dress vintage?
Nowadays it's not uncommon to find clothing under five years old labelled as "vintage". Unfortunately it's become a catchall term for pre-worn threads. This messes with the ethical credentials of vintage.
If we think of a hierarchy of ethical ways of dressing, vintage should be near the top. It is the antithesis of throwaway fashion, being rare, covetable and tradable. Rewearing old clothes also displaces the need to make new virgin fibres – manufactured with oil-based petroleum or using cotton – both with hulking environmental impacts (also add in dyeing, finishing and the use of factories with dubious ethics).
Buying pre-worn saves clothes from landfill and gives us an ethical way of satisfying a lust for new clothes without embracing fast-fashion culture. It's a relatively easy sell for the consumer, too. The theory is you just pay the shopkeeper without having to worry about provenance and skip off in a 50s cocktail dress.
Unfortunately we now need to ask a few more questions of vintage sellers. Top-flight vintage merchants – for example William Vintage, which tracks seminal pieces from private collections – are becoming increasingly rare as older pieces are archived in museums. There are far more now who don't give a fig for crystal beading and built-in corsetry. They just buy and sell clothing by the kilo, rebranding them as vintage or retro.
Here the business model begins to resemble fast fashion. It's a global market (as is the second-hand trade in textiles), and we now see outsourcing of collection and supply. There have also been unofficial reports of exploitation in sorting factories. International traders deal in huge quantities – the biggest in the US sorts 35 tonnes every day of printed T-shirts and nearly 8 million kg of "vintage" every year for export. Buyers often buy bales "blind". Vintage becomes about trucks and containers and trading "rag" by the kilo.
The second-hand textile market is, frankly, in a jumble. Charities have lost £50 to £100 a tonne from prices in recent weeks, and this is partly due to a drop in quality of donated clothes. The German organisation FairWertung has monitored the industry extensively and found illegal imports and scams to avoid duty. It says we need greater transparency in what is a rather secretive industry. Vintage needs to be cleaned up.