Ahead of Op Shop Week beginning on 30 September, we examine the impact of fashion on the environment – and how you can opt out by op shopping.
By Joana Partyka
Ponder this: how many new clothes have you bought so far this year?
If you’re anything like most people, the answer is a lot – 27 kilograms’ worth is the amount of textiles the average Australian buys annually, according to Textile World.
Meanwhile, data analytics company YouGov reports that the number of garments bought by each Australian shopper grew by 60 percent between 2000 and 2014 alone.
That’s because fast fashion has completely revolutionised the way we shop. Cheaper and more accessible than ever before, new garments arrive in store faster than consumers can keep up. And because the quality of the clothing is often poorer, the result is not just that we’re buying more – we’re throwing away more, too.
YouGov reports that almost a quarter of Australians admitted to throwing away items of clothing after wearing them just once, while 75 percent of Australians have thrown away clothes at some point in the past year.
And that number seems to grow in inverse proportion to age, with one in six millenials saying they hang onto their wardrobe for two years before binning it – that’s versus just nine percent of baby boomers.
Boom to bust
It doesn’t take a genius to realise this throwaway culture is unsustainable and a disaster for the environment.
In fact, the ABC’s War on Waste program reported last year that a whopping 6,000kg – six tonnes! – of fashion waste is generated every 10 minutes in Australia. That's thanks in part to people choosing to throw away their unwanted clothes over donating them to charity.
And that waste will remain in landfill indefinitely, taking hundreds of years to break down – if ever. That’s not even taking into consideration the huge environmental cost of producing the garments in the first instance.
A recent report says the apparel and footwear industries account for eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is comparable to the entire European Union.
Textile production also uses vast amounts of water, with the Textile Exchange reporting that it takes more than 2,100 litres of water to yield just one kilogram of non-organic cotton.
On top of that, garments are often made in unethical, exploitative working conditions that endanger the health and lives of workers – the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh is just one example of this.
Enter op shopping
As a consumer, one of the most effective actions you can take against the fashion industry is to embrace the humble op shop.
That’s because op shopping breaks the cycle of fast fashion – it diverts garments destined for the trash from landfill and takes money out of the pockets of multinational fashion corporations.
Salvos eco stylist and Fashion Hound blogger Faye De Lanty agrees. She says op shopping is the way of the future because people are finally embracing the eco fashion message, thanks in part to programs like the War on Waste and documentary film 'The True Cost'.
“Society is waking up to the importance of sustainable style,” De Lanty says.
“I also believe that Salvos Stores and I have worked really hard on changing people’s perception of the image of op shop fashion.
“We’ve managed to take it to mainstream media and really drive home the visuals and the notion that secondhand never has to mean sacrificing style.”
The vital role of op shops
The role of op shops in the waste crisis can’t be understated. According to population and data experts .id, op shops diverted more than 530,000 tonnes of clothing and other donated items from landfill in Australia in 2015-16.
And De Lanty says the Salvation Army is one of the biggest urban recyclers in the country.
“The Salvos divert around 300 tonnes of waste from landfill in Australia every year,” she says.
“The more we keep out of landfill, the fewer harmful emissions we release into the environment – and lord knows we need all the help possible in that area.”
Benefits to the consumer
While the benefits of op shopping on the environment are undeniable, what’s really in it for the consumer?
Plenty, according to De Lanty – everything from saving money to empowering your local community and supporting the mission of a charity.
“It just makes so much sense,” she says.
“Your purchase and shift in mindset will have a ripple effect within your sphere – the more we do, the more momentum we create.”
On top of that, op shops often sell garments of higher quality that are more durable and more unique than you might find in a fast fashion outlet. That means you’ll look great – and probably feel better, too.
“I think people are also now really resonating with the feel-good factor of shopping at an op shop,” De Lanty says.
“The fashion dollar can really do something positive for the planet and people in your community.
“Remember: individual impact is powerful!”
De Lanty’s top tips for op shopping like a pro:
1. Educate yourself
“Read fashion magazines, look at style websites, research brands, and understand cut, colour, fabric and form,” De Lanty says. “The more you know the better you can op shop.”
2. Be prepared
Op shops can be overwhelming if you don’t have a game plan, so De Lanty advocates doing your research and having an idea of what you want to buy before you go.
3. Follow the fashion fundamentals
It can be easy to get sidetracked by the swathes of weird and wonderful items on sale in op shops, so stick to the classics to avoid regret.
“Seek out timeless pieces like a great pair of jeans or white shirt,” De Lanty says.
“Op shops are filled with great versions of these, and once you have them you can build and play with the trends from there.”
4. DIY and customise
De Lanty advises searching the internet for ideas on how to customise pieces.
“You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for ripped jeans when you can make them yourself,” she says.
5. Dress for it
Op shopping can require a lot of visits to the fitting room – so go prepared.
“Wear something that’s really easy to change in and out of, or wear fitted clothing that you can try things on top of,” De Lanty says.
6. Shop the store
De Lanty suggests browsing sections you may not immediately think to check out, and throwing caution to the wind when deciding what you try on.
So if you see something you like, De Lanty says, “just try it on – you never know.”
“Half of my wardrobe is from the mens’ section.”
7. Know your body and your style
De Lanty advocates getting to know what works for you and sticking to it.
“Don’t be a slave to the trends,” she says. “Do it your way.”
8. Become familiar with your local
Find out when the op shops in your area receive new donations or shipments – De Lanty says that’s when the best finds can be unearthed.
9. Find a good tailor – or learn how to sew yourself
Odds are you’ll find an item you love that’s too big, too small or just not quite the right fit – and being able to alter it means you don’t have to begrudgingly return an amazing find to the rack.
“If you have it altered it will still be so much cheaper than the original price tag,” De Lanty says.
10. Take a tool kit
Op shopping can be more time-intensive than shopping at new retail outlets, so De Lanty suggests coming armed with snacks, water, a tape measure and a wish list.
“It will make things more enjoyable and efficient,” she says.
Joana Partyka is the Australian Greens’ National Communications Officer.