When asked which clothes are the most sustainable, my answer is without doubt, the ones that already exist! Before you panic, I’m not suggesting we should never buy anything brand new again. I’m a realist and a pragmatist and I love buying new things, but I want to share with you the reason why we should embrace the new to you culture and why I love preloved so much.  

Let’s face it, preloved is just a trendy way of saying second hand and encompasses a spectrum of options, from clothes swapping parties to boutique style designer sales. This is a growing sector which shouldn’t be ignored in an era of economic stagnation. In the U.K. alone there are over 3,800 stores that specialise in selling second hand goods and according to Statista, it saw a 27.2% growth in 2021 and charity shop sales make up a huge chunk of this market. Their revenue has been growing steadily year on year since 2016, only falling slightly in 2020, no doubt due to Covid lock down closures. So, why is this and why am I one of their biggest cheerleaders? 

Before I explain why it makes so much sense to shop preloved, it’s only fair I admit my bias, they genuinely are one of my favourite places to shop and the hours I volunteer in my local store are some of my most enjoyable each week.  

My love affair with charity shops started from a young age when my Nana and I would regularly pop into our local ones, I rarely left empty handed – not much has changed over the last thirty plus years! I love the thrill of curating an outfit for less or finding something unique to wear.  

Honestly speaking, the first and perhaps most important reason I love preloved is that it enables me to purchase brands and designers, whose clothes I would seldom be able to afford if I purchased them new and at full price. In short, I can afford to buy better clothes!  

Secondly, it allows me an opportunity to experiment with styles and colours without breaking the bank or feeling guilty that I might not love that particular look in the long term. If it doesn’t work, I can re donate – circular fashion!  

Lastly, I love that I breathe new life into unwanted or unworn clothes. Someone somewhere bought an item and then, for whatever reason, decided that it was no longer for them. Instead of it hanging unworn and unloved in their wardrobe (or worse, sent to landfill) it is now loved and worn by me!  

What is causing the growth? 

There are a number of factors, but back in 2009, British Author, TV personality and retail guru, Mary Portas, hosted hit BBC TV series ‘Mary Queen of Charity Shops’, which shone a light on the plight of UK charity shops, dispelling the old stereotype that they were full of Granny’s old musty clothes. As someone is who is passionate about keeping them relevant and prosperous, I was inspired by her overhaul of a local ‘Save The Children’ store. The show pioneered a new type of charity shopping and launched her premium charity retail proposition, Mary’s Living & Giving. More than ten years later there are now 25 shops across the UK which have raised over £30million for Save the Children. You can see this replicated in charity shops up and down the country, the colleagues I volunteer alongside are all committed to making the stores the best they can be and raising much needed funds and it is incredibly heart-warming to see such quality donations – without which the stores would flounder.  

Over the last few decades there has been a continued industry rhetoric of “buy new, buy often”, driven by the need for brands to sell volume to be profitable. This has contributed to a view that clothes are disposable. Too many people buy and then discard clothes all too quickly and it is estimated that, in the UK, the average lifetime for an item of clothing  is only 2.2 years and so many of these end up at the door of a charity shop. On the plus side, great quality and relevant donations are increasing stock and driving sales. Sadly, it’s not all good news, over the same period the quality of what is mass produced has been nosediving and those unwanted items are often of such poor quality that they can’t be passed on and enjoyed by others and ragging and landfill are often their final destination.   

The worsening economic climate cannot be ignored, as more people are forced to make their disposable income go further, they are choosing charity shops to ensure better value.  

Lastly – the younger generation are more aware of the negative impact that the fashion industry has ethically and environmentally and are embracing preloved in all its forms. The statistic by the ethical business community #Ethical Hour, that “If one million women bought their next item of clothing second hand instead of new, we would save 6 million kgs of carbon pollution from entering the atmosphere” has resonated. In 2020 Mintel published a study which revealed a changing opinion towards preloved in the UK, with more than half of the consumers in the key 25-34 age group buying second-hand fashion, this will only continue to rise as the sector grows and the stigma continues to lessen.  

In a time where the impact of climate change is real, buying some of our clothes second hand is an easy change that we can all make to reduce our impact and in doing so we can save ourselves money too!  

Charity shops are in no means a complete substitute for buying new, I’m not trying to persuade you to never buy anything new again, far from it. I love buying brand new clothes and I have no intention of stopping. It’s just that I buy less brand new, and when I do, I ensure it is something that I really want and will wear for years to come.   

Well-made and cared for clothes will last a lifetime, sometimes two, so let’s enable that. I hope that next time you fancy a new addition you’ll take a look in your local charity shop and bag a bargain.  

A headshot of SherylThis blog post has been an edited version from Sheryl’s debut book, Sustainably Stylish, A guide to a guilt-free wardrobe, for more details go to www.makemywardrobework.com and for all things #sustainablystylish you can follow Sheryl on instagram here

For more than twenty years, responsible sourcing advocate Sheryl Bolden has held Buying, Sourcing and Product Development roles in the UK and Asia for some of the world’s leading retailers and small independent brands, she understands first-hand what goes into making the clothes we wear.  

 Becoming a parent changed her perspective on the industry, she became increasing concerned about the negative impact of fashion and her focus shifted towards working with those who want to create solutions. In 2013, frustrated by overconsumption and a disposable attitude towards fashion Sheryl founded a Hong Kong based wardrobe editing service, and has worked with many women, some of whom were frustrated and disillusioned by clothes shopping and the fashion industry in general, to bring responsible, practical, and sustainable solutions to their sartorial problems.

In 2020, Sheryl graduated from Hong Kong University with an Executive Certificate in Corporate Social Responsibility and for the last decade she has advocated for and worked with NGOs and charities that work to reduce fashions’ negative impact. She has written for various online publications and her own website www.makemywardrobework.com as well as being a regular contributor to podcasts and radio shows on the topics of sustainable consumption and wardrobe editing. Her debut book, Sustainably Stylish – A guide to a guilt-free wardrobe was published earlier this year.