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Affordable sustainable clothing in the UK: How to be trendy while caring for the planet

We have all heard about the dreadful impact of the fashion industry on the environment. In fact, fashion is only second to the oil and fossil fuel industry. It is sometimes difficult to imagine that something so basic and essential as the clothes we wear every day could actually be one of the worst polluting culprits in our day and age. Why is that fashion is so bad for the planet?

Well, there are various answers to that questions, all of which depict quite a damning picture of what’s the cost of getting the latest collection from our favourite fashion stores, especially those high street shops that offer cheap and constantly updated new collections of clothing.

  1. TOXIC WASTE: it is a sad yet well-documented reality that our garments are usually produced in poorer countries, where lack of stricter regulations allow for unethical practices to be commonplace. One of the worst for the environment is the fact that untreated toxic wastewaters from clothes factories are dumped directly into rivers and the sea. These waste liquids contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, among others, endangering not only marine life but also the livelihood and health of the local population.

toxic waste thrown in river from fashion factories

  1. DEPLORABLE WORKING CONDITIONS: I truly believe that sustainable doesn’t only mean good for the environment, but also ethically made and supportive of local communities. There have been extensive reports of the fashion industry being terribly abusive and exploitative towards local workers, paying unliveable wages and imposing dreadful working conditions on women as well as children.

 unethical exploitative working conditions garment industry

  1. WATER CONSUMPTION: Although water is a scares resources in many areas of the planet, incredible amounts of it are used to dye and finish the clothes we buy. It is estimated that it takes about 20000 litres of water to simply produce 1kg of cotton. When you think that worldwide 780 million people don't have access to an improved water source, that seems like a terrible waste just to produce a dress or a t-shirt that will go “out of fashion” after just 6 months.

drinking water

  1. WASTE, WASTE AND MORE WASTE: With an industry that promotes changing your wardrobe every few months, and price drops that make clothing cheaper and more accessible to everyone, this all comes at a cost. When we stop valuing something for their quality and durability and we put an expiry date on them, the effect on the environment is immense. Only about 15% of unwanted clothes are donated or recycled, while the vast majority of whatever we don’t want anymore, end up in landfills. While cotton and wool can biodegrade, nearly 75% of our clothes are made with synthetic fibres, which can take up to 250 years to decompose.

unused clothes end up in landfills

 This is obviously not sustainable, and solutions are needed now more urgently than ever. What can we, as consumers, do to stop this madness?

There are so many things we can all do to help solve this issue:

  1. Buy less, and reuse whatever item of clothing you already have
  2. Buy second hand clothes from charity shops or markets whenever you need something, rather than buying it brand new from a shop
  3. If you really need to buy something new, make sure it is ethically made from a verified sustainable brand.
  4. If you have a baby, ask friends who have older children if you could have their older clothes. Reuse and recycle whenever possible, plus babies grow out of their clothes so easily!!
  5. If you are getting married or going to a wedding, think about renting your dress or getting it second-hand. You will only wear it once, and you will save yourself loads of money too!
  6. Borrow clothes with family and friends whenever you need something special, don’t just buy it!


This last idea is a favourite of mine, I always like to borrow clothes from my sister and friends, and I was absolutely thrilled when I realised that some groups had extended a similar concept so that even strangers could swap their clothes and renew their wardrobe while helping the planet. The concept is called “ CLOTHING SWAP” and it is basically like a big meetup event where participants bring items of clothing you no longer want but that are still good quality and not damaged, and exchange them for something else of their liking. Also called “Swishing”, it is a fun way of reminding people to make the most of the stuff they already have in their wardrobe that they don’t wear anymore, making someone else happy while keeping all these clothes away from landfills. Plus it’s a great social event, where you can meet likeminded people in a very colourful chatty environment.

I am incredibly lucky to leave very close to Leeds, where once a month a cloth swapping event called Leeds Community Clothes Exchange take place, so I said down for a chat with organiser Lauren to learn more about it.

Leeds Community Clothes Exchange


- Hi Lauren, nice talking to you!So what is Leeds Community Clothes Exchange, what are the reasons behind it and how did you get involved?

- Leeds Community Clothes Exchange is a community project encouraging the exchange of clothes and accessories in order to develop community spirit, reduce consumption and raise awareness of unethical consumer habits. We host a mostly swap event where people can swap up to 20 items of clothing and accessories for new-to-them items. Swappers can expect to find everything from vintage, designer, high street and basics to hand-made delights. It’s retail therapy with a guilt free twist. Take those good clothes hanging at the back of your wardrobe, the ones that no longer fit you or your style and swap them for new ones that do! I started attending the exchange as a swapper back in 2014 and quickly became a volunteer. I joined the management team in 2016 and have been one of the event Directors ever since!

- How do you run your monthly exchange sessions?

- LCCE is run entirely by volunteers, who work hard behind the scenes to make the events happen. On event days, volunteers set up the venue, hang and sort all of the items and co-ordinate items in and out using a credit system - one credit is earned for every item accepted into the exchange. We operate as a not-for-profit, with a £3 entry fee is charged to cover room hire, volunteer refreshments and other expenses. Outside of event days, the volunteer team deal with emails and social media, run workshops and give talks about sustainable fashion and share our expertise with other groups wishing to set up similar events. All our items are quality checked on the day, so we can make sure only good quality items are accepted (our rule of thumb is something you would be prepared to pay money for in a charity shop). Any items we can’t accept can be taken away for repair or cleaning by the swapper, and any items which are not being donated to a local charity for re-sale or recycling.

- What has the response been from the public and the community to this project?

- Extremely positive! We have been running for 11 years and have members who’ve been coming since day 1, which is a huge achievement! We currently have 2879 members and expect to welcome our 3000th before the end of the year! We’re also pleased to see a rise in the number of people coming forward to volunteer with us, showing that the sustainable community is booming in Leeds!

- We usually imagine women more interested in fashion than men, do you think this is also reflected in LCCE audience?

 - Whilst broadly we see more people who identify as female coming to our events, and we have a larger stock of ‘ladies’ clothing, we are seeing an increase in the number of people who identify as male attending regularly.

- With the UK men's clothing market reportedly being worth £15bn a year in 2018, what projects and initiatives do you think could be done to promote sustainable fashion across all sections of society?

I would like to see more media coverage of second-hand menswear, and more male-identifying people celebrated for their sustainable fashion choices. And to all the men out there who want to get involved, tell your friends and come along! The more of you who attend, the more menswear we’ll have on offer!

Why is it so important to reuse/recycle clothes and promote sustainable fashion?

 - Every year, 11 million items of UK clothing end up in landfill (source: Oxfam) which is a huge amount of wastage! Many of those items are made from synthetic fibres, so are essentially plastic, and will take 100s of years to decompose (if at all!). Even biodegradable materials use a huge amount of water and energy to produce, which is all wasted when those items are thrown away.

By extending the lifespan of clothing, we can reduce the impact of these materials on the environment, and make sure that we are getting the value out of the clothes we wear. Even damaged and unwearable textiles can be recycled to make filling materials, padding for car seats or industrial blankets. I’m a big believer in wearing what’s there, you don’t need to throw out all your clothes and craft the perfect sustainable capsule wardrobe. Wear the clothes you have, take good care of them, and pass them on to someone else when you don’t need them any more. And if you do need to buy new, try to invest in ethically produced pieces which can be worn again and again.

- I was talking to a friend a few weeks back and she told me she doesn’t feel comfortable wearing second-hand clothes. What would you respond to people who have similar ideas?

I think there is still a lot of stigma about wearing second hand clothing, people feel that it’s a bit gross, or that it signifies they can’t afford to buy new. To address the former, most charity shops will steam clean items before they go out onto the shelves, and the majority of items can be easily washed before use. Most new items will have been tried on multiple times too! So just pop them in the washing machine or get them dry cleaned and you’re good to go! 

Thankfully, the perception of second-hand as a less attractive option is being challenged at the moment, with the rise of second hand selling apps like Depop, kilo sales, Facebook swap and sell groups and Instagram campaigns to highlight the good quality and unique second-hand items out there. Bloggers like Tolly Dolly Posh, Emma Slade Edmondson, Aja Barber andVenetia Falconer are doing great work showing second-hand doesn’t have to mean unfashionable and Fashion Revolution have some great resources to help people start their sustainable fashion journeys. Second hand also offers a much wider range of items than the high-street and usually at a much lower price too!

- What do you think needs to happen in the fashion industry to see wide-spread social and environmental change?

 - Firstly, we need to curb our consumption. We buy more clothing than ever before, and lots of it is worn once (or less!) before it’s discarded. Loss-leader items (Boohoo’s £1 bikini anyone?) and continual sales encourage us to view clothing as a disposable commodity, and it’s up to us as consumers to reject this. I’d like to see brands being more transparent about their supply chains and commit to taking positive steps to improve their practices, from signing the Bangladesh Accord to paying living wages to their staff to using more sustainable fibres.

There is a lot of greenwashing prevalent within the UK high-street at the moment, so I’d like to see brands taking more accountability and being much more open to change. The industry should also go back to 2 seasons per year, rather than the continual micro seasons we see at the moment, as this reduces the need to constantly update.

- What are your best eco-friendly fashion tips for Autumn 2019?

Look in your wardrobe and see what you already have that you can style for Autumn - floral summer dresses always look good paired with tights and a chunky knit, and adding a waist belt is a great way to update an old jacket. The season’s trends for corduroy tailoring, brown outerwear and 90s style puffer jackets are also easy to find vintage and second hand, so check out your local charity shop or visit Oxfam Online to shop from the comfort of your sofa. And take part in Oxfam’s Second Hand September!

- What’s coming next for LCCE and what can other community centres/similar projects across the country learn from you?

We’ve got some exciting projects coming up, including styling models using second-hand clothing for the Leeds Festival of Gothica and curating part of the Slow Fast Fashion Exhibition at Leeds Museum. We’re also hoping to launch a series of upcycling and repair workshops in 2020 so watch this space for more details! 

Hopefully, other groups around the UK (and beyond!) can learn from our over a decade of experience! We have helped a number of exchanges set up across Yorkshire, Wales and the rest of the UK and are really excited to see the swapping revolution taking over the country! Head over to our website where we have a downloadable advice pack for anyone wanting to set up a similar event in their home town!


Leeds Community Clothes Exchange takes place once a month, next event will be on October 28th, you can check them out at www.leedscommunityclothesexchange.com

Instagram: @LeedsCommunityClothingExchange / @Lauren_Cowdery



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