The fashion industry is a perfect illustration of how embedding principles of social value across the entire supply chain and whole lifecycle of a product can expose both the positive and negative outcomes resulting from their manufacture, from cradle to grave.

Last week saw Oxfam’s drive to create a movement of secondhand shoppers come to a close. The Secondhand September campaign asked shoppers to pledge to only buy secondhand clothing for 30 days or more. Last year’s campaign saw 62,000 people pledge to take part, many of whom have continued their thrifty habit. And, 2020 is set to be a record-breaking year. 

Since 2018, there has been a 404% year-on-year increase in the sale of secondhand clothing in the UK. Over two-thirds of shoppers are now choosing to shop at charity shops or secondhand clothes apps. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have accelerated this shift in consumer behaviour with eBay UK reporting that there has been a 30% increase in secondhand clothing sales in June 2020 compared to March, and 1,211 % more sales at the same time in 2018. 

But why is this important? 

The social and environmental impact of the fashion industry is eye watering. It’s one of the most polluting industries in the world, producing 92 million tonnes of waste, using 79 billion cubic metres of water and 15,000 different types of often toxic chemicals, releasing 190,000 tonnes of ocean microplastic and emitting 4-5 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. Inefficient trade patterns mean that a cotton t-shirt may have travelled around the globe several times before it reaches the barcode reader at the check-out of your local Primark. And, the drive for cheaper clothing and the need to maintain margins has led to poorly paid, insecure, unsafe and exploitative labour across long, and often opaque supply chains.

Fast-fashion – low-priced, trend-led clothing that relies on impulse buying has led to a 2% growth in global clothing consumption annually. On average a citizen in the US buys 1 item of clothing every 5.5 days. The UK has the highest per capita consumption of clothing and textiles than any other country in Europe. Of the 26.7 kg of clothing bought each year by the average Brit, just 11kg is recycled. In Europe, around 1/3 of clothing stock is sold at full price, 1/3 discounted and 1/3, yes one third is scrapped before its even worn –so-called deadstock. Of all garments manufactured, less than 1% is reused or recycled.

If it wasn’t clear before, it should be screamingly obvious now, why the secondhand clothing market is important. The enormous social value of reuse and recycling of clothing is undeniable, based on the environmental impact alone. 

The true cost of water use ranges from 7p to £11.5 per cubic metre depending on the levels of water scarcity, whilst the social cost of carbon is £14/tCO2e (£69/ tCO2e) for emissions covered (not covered) by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. A simple, back-of-receipt calculation shows us that water use and carbon emissions within the clothing industry destroys £61.5 -£75billion of social value alone.  Here, we’ve used the lowest valuations, only included a fragment of the environmental damage and haven’t even begun to explore the societal impact of supply chains.

The avoided cost of resource use through recycling is clear. But the societal cost of the garment industry has been exposed by the sudden drops in demand over the past 6 months. Whole economies in the global south propped up by the global north’s insatiable appetite for fast fashion were thrown into disarray when much of the global North plunged into a COVID-induced lock-down. The lack of resilience of these economies, communities and workers to changes in demand has been devastating. As one Bangladeshi clothing social entrepreneur stated at the start of the global pandemic, ‘“Poverty is a killer too, and many more people die from poverty than from COVID-19”.

In March this year, Bloomberg reported that about 1,089 garment factories in Bangladesh had orders cancelled worth roughly $1.5 billion due to the coronavirus outbreak. According to Fashion Revolution, in the global fashion industry, brands typically pay their suppliers weeks or even months after delivery, rather than upon order. This means suppliers usually pay upfront for the materials to make the products retailers buy from them. Given that the readymade clothing factories employ more than 4 million people and the industry accounts for 13% of the South Asian nation’s GDP, the societal impact of the sudden fall in demand and cancellation of orders has been staggering. The AWAJ Foundation, a grassroots labour rights NGO, reported that many factories in Bangladesh have been shut down indefinitely. Some workers were given less than a month’s salary as severance and many others have received nothing at all. 

Secondhand September seeks to highlight just how destructive our addiction to fast fashion really is, whilst drawing attention to the urgent need to move towards slow-fashion – where we buy less and reuse more. And, when we do buy clothes, we should expect to pay more. A £1 bikini for sale on a fast-fashion website will not capture the enormous environmental and social externalities associated with its production: the poorly paid, exploitative and unsafe working conditions of a garment worker in South Asia; the material waste, water use, water pollution and carbon emissions associated with its production; the precarious zero-hours contracts of a warehouse employee; and the disposal of the garment at the end of its life. 

Whilst Secondhand September, like most consumer campaigns, places the onus on the consumer to change patterns of consumption, real change will only come about from multiple actors enacting change:  governments, businesses and consumers.

The fashion industry is a perfect illustration of how embedding principles of social value across the entire supply chain and whole life cycle of a product can expose both the positive and negative outcomes resulting from their manufacture, from cradle to grave. The understanding and monetisation of impact using tools such as Social Profit Calculator’s Social Value Calculator software enables the appraisal of social and financial impacts simultaneously, and ultimately support the development of practices and policies that create value for people and planet.