'We're drowning in textiles': Shoppers turn to vintage fashion as ethical choice

As Nicola Tabb puts it, the world is "drowning in textiles."

"The world is fairly out of balance in terms of everybody believing that it's OK to spend $4 on a brand new T-shirt that came from China," said the owner of the Better Off Duds vintage store in Saskatoon.

"That is just not feasible in any in any way at all."

As mountains of used synthetic clothing are added to landfills around the world, shoppers are being urged to think more about how their buying decisions affect the planet.

In Saskatchewan, vintage store owners say shoppers are becoming increasingly aware of their buying choices.

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"I saw something on Facebook the other day — when you throw something away, remember there is no 'away,'" Tabb said.

"We've got to start taking care of our planet better and I think that this is a really important part of that."

A responsible alternative to 'fast fashion'

According to Fashion Revolution, an advocacy group working to reduce the environmental and human impact of the fashion industry, Americans throw away about 14 million tonnes of garments every year.

A parliamentary committee has been set up in the U.K. to investigate the impact of what's called "fast fashion" — cheaply produced and largely disposable clothing — on the environment. No such committee has been announced in Canada and data on the amount of textiles entering landfills here is limited. 

Water pollution, exploitation and poor working conditions are some of the issues associated with the fashion industry globally.

Choosing second-hand over fast fashion is one way consumers are being encouraged to shop more responsibly.

Many vintage-lovers originally chose to buy used clothing because they enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, or wanted to wear something unique that stands out in a crowd.

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"I grew up in a small place — not a lot of shopping options there — and I was always very different and kind of wanted something to stand out," said Sarah Gaudry, who owns The Knick vintage store in Saskatoon.

"So I would make my own clothes and go to Salvation Army or Value Village and buy stuff, and take it apart and put those things back together, and that's kind of where it all really started for me."

Over time, Gaudry has become more aware of the role of second-hand clothing in sustainability.

She said her customers have become more interested in making ethical purchases since she opened her shop three years ago.

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"I see a lot of people, especially in my industry, that want to know where their clothing comes from, or anything that they're buying," she said.

'We really need to open our eyes'

Promoting sustainability has become a passion for Saskatoon fashion blogger Tiara Jackle, who has a degree in renewable resource management from the University of Saskatchewan.

Jackle has been working to transition her wardrobe to one made up entirely of vintage and natural fabrics. She writes about ways to make better purchasing choices on the Raw Fashion blog.

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She said she is seeing readers who are more aware of their buying choices, but her efforts to offer sustainability advice are not always well-received.

"I am seeing a slow movement in people who are open-minded to the research. I am also seeing a lot of resistance," said Jackle.

"I think it's past the time of being able to be attracted to this whole fast fashion movement and this whole Instagram influencers movement, and I think we really need to open our eyes to how incredibly important it is that we start changing our decisions."

Amy Thorp Photography

Jackle said buyers who want to make more ethical purchases should be aware of "greenwashing" — businesses that offer false claims of sustainability.

She became an advocate for sustainability after learning about the impact of synthetic microfibres that pollute the ocean.

Washing textiles in a washing machine releases tiny strands which can make their way into the sea to be swallowed by aquatic life.

"If it's from a natural clothing fibre, such as linen and cotton, hemp, then those microfibres are not going to have any negative impact on the environment," she said.

"However, if synthetic or plastic microfibres are released from a synthetic garment then they have devastating impacts on the environment."

'There is a treasure hunting aspect'

Jackle said she knows there are shoppers who don't like the idea of sifting through racks to find used clothing that is stylish, fits and is made of natural fabrics.

For those who are not enamoured by the thrill of the hunt, she suggests making a list of items that are missing from their wardrobe so they can go directly to the right part of the store for what they need.

Curated vintage stores do some of the work by choosing the best items of the bunch, although the cost may be higher than buying from a charity in some cases.

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Amy Weisgarber of T&A Vinyl and Fashion in Regina said price is part of the appeal for her customers.

"I actually think one huge part of vintage shopping is usually it is cheaper," said Weisgarber.

"You're competing at the same price point as those fast fashion brands. So you could buy something that's second-hand and original and better made at the same price or cheaper."

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She believes shoppers are also choosing vintage because it lasts longer than fast fashion.

For all the ethical reasons to buy vintage clothing, shoppers also do it for fun, and because it suits their personal style, Weisgarber said.

She and T&A co-owner Tim Weisgarber said they focus a lot on the experience of their store.

"There is a treasure hunting aspect to what we're doing. The pieces are one of a kind. You're not walking up to a rack of, like, 10 of the same. So it's just more interesting."

Vintage shop owners in Saskatoon and Regina say there is still room for more vintage stores in their respective cities.

"Most of us know each other and really enjoy chatting, and [we] help foster each other's businesses and the scene overall," Tim said.

"There's a lot of vintage out there and a lot of people like showing off their vintage finds — not just necessarily retailers."