A clear conscience doesn’t come cheap

The vintage dilemma

Child labour. CO2 exhaust. Plastic soup. These days, buying clothes is an ethical mine field. To avoid this, many students have turned to buying vintage clothing, but that comes with its own pitfalls. ‘If a second-hand piece is more expensive than something new, I might not buy it.’
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Door Sisi van Halsema

6 January om 16:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:14 uur.
Avatar photo

By Sisi van Halsema

January 6 at 16:55 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:14 PM.

Vintage Island, a second-hand clothing store in the Oosterstraat, is filled with colourful and interesting stuff; a unique eighties skirt, a cool leather coat, a jumper with a previous life: if you like fashion, you’ll be like a kid in a candy store. The fare is a little more expensive than candy, though: the skirt will set you back forty euros. 

Nevertheless, many students are opting to buy second-hand clothes, since the clothing industry is bad for the planet. The production of clothes releases greenhouse gases, requires enormous amounts of water, and because synthetic fabrics are made from petroleum, they also contribute to the plastic soup. Another, not insignificant detail: a lot of clothing is made under terrible circumstances by people who don’t get paid much. 

‘Forty euros for a vintage skirt might feel like a lot, but the twenty bucks you pay for an H&M skirt isn’t a fair price at all’, explains Alexandra van der Zee. She recently graduated in European languages and cultures and runs My Slow World. ‘The fashion industry is so fast that we keep buying new things that are so low quality that they start looking shabby in a few days. We throw them away and buy something new. In the end, you’re just spending more money.’  

Slow fashion

A few years ago, Alexandra loved shopping at all the large chain stores. Until her boyfriend told her to stop buying so many clothes and informed her of the environmental impact of the industry. ‘I figured it couldn’t be all that bad. But he did trigger something, I guess. I watched the Netflix documentary The True Cost, and that convinced me.’ 

Alexandra’s mother grew up in former Yugoslavia, where second-hand clothing was a sign of poverty. This idea was imprinted on Alexandra when she was little. But now she understands that the concept of slow fashion is in keeping with a more conscientious and more easy-going lifestyle. It’s about more than just fashion, which is also the message she’s trying to spread with her blog. ‘The speed with which we change our wardrobe can only be matched by people on the other side of the world working eighteen hours a day to make our clothes.’ 

It is a bit strange that everything’s so expensive in the Netherlands

Vintage store Recessie attracts many students who feel the same way. The store dates back to the time when second-hand clothes weren’t hip at all: in 2019 it celebrated its 25th anniversary. International communication student Tammo Schmieta is rummaging through a rack of button-down shirts. ‘There are so many clothes in the world. They’re being over-produced. It’s better to buy things that already exist. Especially for the environment.’ 

Plus, he says: ‘Vintage is cool. I wear it a lot.’ He sticks out a leg. ‘These trousers are from a vintage store. And this -’ pointing at his jacket, ‘is also second-hand. It is a bit strange that everything’s so expensive in the Netherlands. I feel like people are using the trend to make a profit. Things are much cheaper in Berlin. But I don’t mind spending a little more. A proper second-hand coat here is better than a new H&M coat.’

Margriet Visser, international relations student, exits a changing room. She, too, loves vintage. Not just because of the style, but also because it’s more sustainable. She does admit that ‘if a piece here is more expensive than a new piece, I might not buy it.’

Wrong size

Recessie never has a sale. ‘We can’t afford it, but it’s also not really our style’, says owner Wolter Schoorl. In spite of this, the store is fairly busy. His shop has always attracted young people, says Schoorl, but lately he’s seen a lot of different types.  

‘I try to keep telling myself that buying new clothes is a bad thing’, says Juliane Glahn, a journalism master student. ‘And because of the recent climate debates I decided to look into buying second-hand items.’ But the price of vintage clothing tends to be an obstacle for her, and she has trouble finding good stuff at the cheaper thrift stores. ‘It’s usually the wrong colour, the wrong size, or the wrong style. I occasionally find something nice, but not enough to make up a whole wardrobe.’

I occasionally find something nice, but not enough to make up a whole wardrobe

She also wonders how much difference individuals can really make. ‘The large corporations have the biggest impact. And as long as there’s a demand, they’ll keep producing stuff. If we consumers show them we’re interested in something else, the corporations might follow.’ 

It’s a complicated dilemma for Juliane. ‘It sounds great, the idea that everyone will suddenly just stop shopping at the bigger chain stores, but it’s not going to happen. And if vintage isn’t an option because of the prices and second-hand fails because it takes too much time and effort, where am I going to get my clothes?’ 

Every little thing helps

You need a positive attitude, says Merel Lobo, who studies philosophy and European languages and cultures. Obviously, you don’t have to furnish your entire wardrobe with second-hand clothes. ‘Every day I bring my own lunch box is a day that I don’t use a plastic throwaway bag. The same goes for clothes.’ 

She buys a lot of second-hand clothing, but also buys new things sometimes, like workout clothes. ‘Second-hand stores barely have them, just like shoes or underwear. Just because you give in to temptation every once in a while doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause. Just think about all the times you didn’t buy a new piece of clothing. It’s too difficult to keep it up all the time.’

Buying less doesn’t mean only visiting the hippest vintage stores. ‘Stores like Vintage Island and Recessie are pretty expensive’, says Merel. ‘I buy a lot through Facebook, or I go to clothing swaps.’ 

Retail therapy

Because of the price, she initially focused on second-hand clothing. Later, however, she calculated her ecological footprint and realised the impact of all her shopping habits. ‘I also saw on the news that we buy way too many clothes. So while before my choices were due to money, now I’m doing it for the environment.’

If you recently bought something at Primark and you’re feeling guilty about, don’t, says Merel. It’s counterproductive. ‘It’s about being more mindful about your consumer behaviour. To stop collecting all this stuff, and quit retail therapy.’

Translation by Sarah van Steenderen




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