Is Thrifting The Fashion Revolution We Need?

Reayana

Why thrifting through Instagram stores is not the solution for India’s growing fast-fashion industry.

Hassan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” episode on fast fashion highlighted the evils of fast fashion and the 2015 documentary The True Cost by  Andrew Morgan popularised the idea about the ethics of fast fashion. While Minhaj touches upon the ecological and ethical impacts that fashion has on our planet and us, mainly the brands  Zara and H&M, my critique of the episode is that although Minhaj spoke of the statistics of an American shopper, the episode mostly revolved around two non-American brands – Zara and H&M which are Spanish and Swedish respectively. In fact, the fashion industry has many bigger, richer and more influential conglomerates. Barring H&M, Zara and Uniqlo almost all other brands that contribute to fast fashion-esque problems such as Victoria’s Secret and Nike are American. 

“thrift stores are a tailored solution to a problem of large amounts of consumption and imports and that problem does not persist in India at the same scale it does in the US. Each Indian buys an average of 5 clothes per year, Americans consume 10 times more than Indians do.”

Simply put, Americans shop the most. China and America combined account for more than half of the clothes consumed in a year (39% and 16% respectively). Although China contributes the most numbers in this sector, if you factor in the populations of the two countries, Americans individually consume more. Americans buy 53 items of clothing per year while the Chinese buy 30. One solution to the American problem of hyper-consumption and a commodity-centric culture that is induced by late capitalism is thrifting. Put in context, thrift stores are a tailored solution to a problem of large amounts of consumption and imports and that problem does not persist in India at the same scale it does in the US. Each Indian buys an average of 5 clothes per year, Americans consume 10 times more than Indians do.

The Instagram thrift store phenomenon as of itself is innocuous, it reminds people to be mindful while consuming and also extends the life span of clothing, but if it is to become a cultural phenomenon I see it as an unnecessary imitation and injection of a piece of pop culture divorced from ground realities. In recent times there has been a proliferation of Instagram thrift shops in India. These pages are predominantly run by young women with the intention to promote slow fashion i.e. an eco-conscious way of consuming fashion. The collections usually consist of pre-owned clothes that an individual has owned, or sourced from vendors to set up a selected collection that may follow an aesthetic theme or are vintage. The clients are looking for alternatives to fast fashion and trying their best to consume fashion in a more cyclical way than linear. 

“Joshi is a big advocate for Instagram thrift shops and says that it ‘normalises the idea of not purchasing brand new to survive’. She also spoke about the social stigma attached to second-hand clothes that thrift shops help erase: ‘Many people are grossed out by second-hand clothes, they think it is unhygienic’.” 

Mrudula Joshi is a fashion design graduate from NIFT Mumbai and has worked in the Indian fashion industry for two years. She is a social entrepreneur and the founder of Ullisu, a sustainable lifestyle resources website. Speaking to me about her experience, she explains: “We were encouraged to find the lowest deals with factory vendors”. Joshi is a big advocate for Instagram thrift shops and says that it “normalises the idea of not purchasing brand new to survive”. She also spoke about the social stigma attached to second-hand clothes that thrift shops help erase: “Many people are grossed out by second-hand clothes, they think it is unhygienic”. She believes that there are many people outside the Instagram bubble of woke-ness that do not know why second-hand is trending and who need to be informed. The critique Joshi has of thrift shops is different from mine: “Currently thrift shops are not size-inclusive and more people need to join the movement for it to be”. 

“Jain explains: ‘I think online thrift stores are super because they’re so accessible to everyone…As we don’t have actual thrift stores in India it’s a lovely new experience…thrifting is the opposite of accessibility for me. It’s more about finding hidden thrift stores, going through a whole bunch of clothing and procuring unique pieces no one has seen before. That element is missing in the online experience.”

Surmai Jain is the founder of Polite Society, self-described as “a non-conformist power dressing” brand, Polite Society is one of the new fashion brands on the block. When asked about navigating through the fashion industry and the slow fashion phenomenon, she explains: “Thrifting has been around for years, and brands have managed to exist. Old can’t replace the new and vice versa so it doesn’t affect us that much”. When asked about her employees she says: “All of our workers have worked in export houses or mass production units before. It is a very different experience and a difficult transition for them. We might make only two garments a day but we don’t overlook the errors that are usually ignored in fast fashion garments. It takes them time to understand our values of quality over quantity.” On the thrift store phenomenon Jain explains: “I think online thrift stores are super because they’re so accessible to everyone, people who haven’t thrifted before are now discovering how it adds a unique value to one’s style. As we don’t have actual thrift stores in India it’s a lovely new experience. That being said, thrifting is the opposite of accessibility for me. It’s more about finding hidden thrift stores, going through a whole bunch of clothing and procuring unique pieces no one has seen before. That element is missing in the online experience.”

“India has a pre-existing robust system of informal markets. Formal retail accounts for only 35% of sales.”

India has a pre-existing robust system of informal markets. Formal retail accounts for only 35% of sales. The unorganised or informal markets, where most of the consumption is taking place consists of private commercial enterprises not registered with the government, which typically consists of self-employed individuals. By that definition, thrift shops are in a way gentrified informal markets. 

According to chief procurement officers (CPOs) at leading apparel companies, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India are at the top of the list for sourcing markets in future. India is on the top of that list for mainly two reasons. Firstly, India makes for a great hub for clothing manufacturing because of the easy availability of raw materials such as cotton, wool, silk and jute. Cash crops that are dedicated to serving the global apparel retail market are grown in abundance and 76% of farmers want to quit farming to pursue non-agricultural jobs. Secondly, because of the low labour costs that exist, if you compare the Gini coefficient (a ratio that represents income inequality in a nation or select group) among the top three countries on the CPOs list, India does the worst. Moreover, when it comes to minimum wages it does not look good either, Vietnam’s is higher and albeit Bangladesh has a lower minimum wage, India’s minimum wage systems are way more complex because the wages vary from state to state, based on skill and in many cases also vary based on sex. 

CPOs are always looking for new countries in Eastern Europe and Africa to set up shop in, for its proximity to the global west which will reduce transportation costs, they also are looking to replace offshore sourcing countries like China for countries like Mexico because of the formers rise in factory worker wages. A total of 41% of chief procurement officers expect to increase their sourcing share from India and the reasons for their interest and keenness in India do not seem altruistic.

“As we live in a world where the prowess of imagery is highly rewarding, the malleability of social media is not a factor to ignore. To participate in Instagram thrifting is extremely alluring for the factor of visuality, it looks good and feels good and although thrift shops do no harm, they do no substantial good either.”

As we live in a world where the prowess of imagery is highly rewarding, the malleability of social media is not a factor to ignore. To participate in Instagram thrifting is extremely alluring for the factor of visuality, it looks good and feels good and although thrift shops do no harm, they do no substantial good either. Not to discredit well-meaning endeavours that aim to democratise the fashion experience but if they are alienated from local consumption patterns, they end up just being emblematic and an insertion of the aspirational upper-middle-class into a scenario that could have happened without them. Indian thrift shops on Instagram feature expensive pieces and predominantly serve the middle class/upper-middle class with access to social media, whereas fundamentally, thrift shops are meant to serve the working class. 

The need for conversation around the issue of fashion’s impact on the working class and the environment are dire. India is leading the charts when it comes to population and has a growing middle class and thrift shops cannot serve these potential consumers/clients who want to consume new brands. A fashion revolution that forces big conglomerates to take into consideration their ecological footprint and take care of their factory workers is urgently needed. 

“In the postcolonial world, we live in today, where western cultural hegemony thrivingly prevails, reactions to environmental and socio-economical problems have to mutate with location change. Conversations need to be around lax FDI regulations that allow 100% foreign-owned single-brand retail operations, the impact of cash crops on the water table, the agrarian crisis and labour wages.” 

However, the conversations and actions are almost benign if not contextualised. In the postcolonial world, we live in today, where western cultural hegemony thrivingly prevails, reactions to environmental and socio-economical problems have to mutate with location change. Conversations need to be around lax FDI regulations that allow 100% foreign-owned single-brand retail operations, the impact of cash crops on the water table, the agrarian crisis and labour wages. 

“What India needs are pre-emptive measures, to stop the growth of the fashion market, to understand the growing middle class and their consumption patterns and their needs, to take responsibility for the workers and to understand which cultural movements to adopt from the west and which ones to discard.”

Thrift shops are a reaction to the consumption patterns of the west, it is a way of redemption, a way of curbing the damage done by the fashion industry. What India needs are pre-emptive measures, to stop the growth of the fashion market, to understand the growing middle class and their consumption patterns and their needs, to take responsibility for the workers and to understand which cultural movements to adopt from the west and which ones to discard. 

Reayana is an architecture graduate from Mumbai with a keen interest in cultural imperialism, urbanity and animal anatomy.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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