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Nowadays it’s not uncommon to find clothing under 5 years old labeled as “vintage.” Unfortunately it’s become a catchall term for pre-worn threads. This messes with the ethical credentials of vintage.

If we think of a hierarchy of ethical ways of dressing, vintage should be near the top. It is the antithesis of throwaway fashion, being rare, covetable and tradable. Re-wearing old clothes also displaces the need to make new virgin fibers – manufactured with oil-based petroleum or using cotton – both with hulking environmental impacts (also add in dyeing, finishing and the use of factories with dubious ethics).

Buying pre-worn saves clothes from the landfill and gives us an ethical way of satisfying a lust for new clothes without embracing fast-fashion culture. It’s a relatively easy sell for the consumer, too. The theory is you just pay the shopkeeper without having to worry about provenance and skip off in a ’50s cocktail dress.

Unfortunately we now need to ask a few more questions of vintage sellers. Top-flight vintage merchants – for example William Vintage, which tracks seminal pieces from private collections – are becoming increasingly rare as older pieces are archived in museums. There are far more now who don’t give a fig for crystal beading and built-in corsetry. They just buy and sell clothing by the kilo, rebranding them as vintage or retro.

Here the business model begins to resemble fast fashion. It’s a global market (as is the secondhand trade in textiles), and we now see outsourcing of collection and supply. There have also been unofficial reports of exploitation in sorting factories. International traders deal in huge quantities – the biggest in the United States sorts 35 metric tons every day of printed T-shirts and nearly 8 million kilograms of “vintage” every year for export. Buyers often buy bales “blind.” Vintage becomes about trucks and containers and trading “rag” by the kilo.

The secondhand textile market is, frankly, in a jumble. Charities have lost 50 to 100 Great Britain pounds per metric ton from prices in recent weeks, and this is partly due to a drop in quality of donated clothes. The German organization FairWertung has monitored the industry extensively and found illegal imports and scams to avoid duty. It says we need greater transparency in what is a rather secretive industry. Vintage needs to be cleaned up.

This article was written by Lucy Siegle and published in The Guardian March 16, 2013. Photo by Avery Carlton/Flickr.

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