The Ethics of Vintage

Photo of bales of used clothing at a rag grading facility, Whitehouse and Shapiro

This week, I have been mulling over a March 16 editorial I read in The Observer. Lucy Siegle asks, “Are vintage clothes more ethical?

The immediate answer is yes, as Siegle aptly explains:

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. Rewearing old clothes also displaces the need to make new virgin fibres – 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).

Thus, from an environmental standpoint, wearing vintage and contemporary secondhand garments keeps clothing out of landfills, and just as importantly, does not necessarily require the use existing resources like water or petroleum.

Siegle then goes on to question the ethics of how vintage clothing is sourced today:

Unfortunately we now need to ask a few more questions of vintage sellers….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 second-hand 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 US sorts 35 tonnes every day of printed T-shirts and nearly 8 million kg of “vintage” every year for export. Buyers often buy bales “blind”. Vintage becomes about trucks and containers and trading “rag” by the kilo.

Here is where my reaction to her piece on the ethics of vintage clothing becomes more complicated.

First let me state that if sorting facilities in the U.S. (or other countries) are engaged in unethical labor practices, that is a concern that I share with Siegle.

Yet my view of large-scale sorting facilities – they are known as “rag graders” – is tempered by my knowledge of where they fit in the U.S. recycling picture.  Few Americans know about rag graders and what they do, so I’ll devote a portion of this post to what I’ve learned so far about the U.S. rag grading industry before coming back to the ethical questions.

Rag grading is a centuries-old industry. Rag grading facilities sort and “grade” used textiles to determine their quality and what the next stage will be in textile’s “life cycle.” For example, textiles which are unlikely to be used again (stained, ripped, unwearable) or that have a certain fiber content are recycled for use in packing materials, insulation, cleaning cloths, etc.  Clothes that are still wearable but have proven to be unsellable in the U.S. (these are often the unsold garments of charity shops) are sorted, baled and shipped to countries where they may find a wearable life again. [Check out Karen Tranberg Hansen’s book Salaula for an excellent anthropological account of the secondhand clothing trade of these bales in Zambia – her book also delves into the ethical questions surrounding this trade.]

Clothing that is from decades past is  graded as “vintage,” baled, and is sold back to vintage-clothing sellers who are looking for more supply. All of these graded textiles are baled and sold by weight, and the grades determine the price per pound, with vintage clothes most likely commanding a higher price.

Rag graders were once mostly local facilities, with nearly every second-tier city having a local rag-grader. As with the clothing industry as a whole, over the last three decades, the industry has become more centralized, consolidated and operates under larger economies of scale, which means there are some large sorting facilities that process tons of used clothing. That said, according to National Geographic, there are 2000 sorting facilities in the U.S., and most are family-owned.

Now back to the ethics. As long as a rag grading facility pays fair wages and has good working conditions, I do not view the clothing obtained from them as inherently unethical, as Siegle seems to imply.

In the U.S. these sorting facilities are a key component of clothing recycling. According to National Geographic, Americans on average discard 68 pounds of clothing a year, and only purchase 1o pounds of recycled clothing. To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. does not have government- subsidized clothing recycling. This means that someone – in this case, rag-graders – must be able to make a profit in order for the recycling of textiles to exist here in any large-scale way. The U.S. used-clothing recycling industry employs 17,000 workers in the U.S. and keeps 2.5 billion pounds of fabric from landfills (and if Americans were far better about recycling every textile as they should be, then it would be exponentially more).

The carbon footprint of shipping used textiles – whether it’s vintage clothes traveling in the back of a vintage clothing store owner’s van or bales of used clothing heading by ship to Africa – is a legitimate environmental concern. It would be better if all used clothing went into re-use locally. But if that’s not possible or presently likely, I would rather that the clothes move on a slow boat (or better yet, rail) than be deposited in local landfills.

Siegle ends her editorial with the words that “Vintage needs to be cleaned up.” My thought is that relatively speaking (with the caveats about labor and the environment I’ve already expressed), I don’t think that vintage is all that dirty to begin with and that vintage (or contemporary secondhand) is still a reasonable ethical choice.

– Nancy L. Fischer



Filed under Ethical Fashion, Vintage Clothing

12 responses to “The Ethics of Vintage

  1. Great article! Thanks for the resource 🙂

    • Hi Listen Girlfriends – Thanks so much for sharing your post on Mama Africa and how their good work is being undermined by cast-off Goodwill clothes flooding the Congo market. It shows that even though taking clothes to Africa is a form of recycling, it can still be damaging, and that reducing consumption and caring for our clothes for the long haul is the best option.

  2. Agreed! Wonder what you think of the H&M recycling initiative where they offer a 15% discount to dump off your old clothes?

    • Hmmmmm. If H & M customers would otherwise toss their used clothes in the garbage, then I suppose it’s helpful, but I don’t know if that’s what H & M customers would otherwise do if they weren’t offered a discount as an incentive for recycling.
      My initial response is I wish H & M sought to make the highest quality clothes they can and that they were made to be mixed and matched over the years to achieve longer wear and versatility. I read on Ecouterre that H & M is trying to be more transparent about their sustainability efforts but I haven’t yet sat down to look through their report.
      What are your thoughts?

  3. Pingback: The Ethics of Vintage | The Op Shop Queen

  4. Thanks for this post and comment conversation. I have never thought about the specifics of the rag-grading industry before. And I have never considered that there might be a further use for an intact but stained Tshirt, for example — other than being used for cleaning at home. If one drops off intact but stained clothing at a Goodwill/Salvation Army type store, does their staff put it into a pile to be sent to rag-graders (along with their unsold merchandise)?

    • I would like to unequivocally say that yes, if you drop off a stained shirt at Goodwill that it will go to the rag grader, but I have a feeling that this is a “your mileage may vary” type of thing. What I mean by that is you would need to ask donations at your local Goodwill to know for sure. I do know that charity shops prefer not to receive stained or unwearable items if they can’t be resold since that’s the main way they raise funds. Where I live (St. Paul, Minnesota) there’s weekly recycling pick-up and they do take cloth, so that is where I put the stained items that Goodwill can’t resell. I’m almost certain that the recycling facility is moving the items onto a rag grader, and that they will probably become paper (if they’re cotton) or insulation. So if you have recycling services in your area, look up their website – they may say what to do with unwanted clothes.

  5. Pingback: Antiques – the ultimate green products « Pip Marks

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