Second-hand Retail for the Green Economy

Last week I presented my research and ideas on second-hand retail at the Annual Green Economics Conference in Oxford. I have always looked at second-hand consumption from a sustainability perspective, but until Ben Armstrong-Haworth suggested I speak at the conference, I had not thought about my research on the wider scale of green economics.

Throughout history, reusing and making-do has been the primary way of life. Second-hand trade was the primary form of trade for material things, and much of what was consumed in the home was also produced in the home. It was at the time of the Industrial Revolution that a binary way of thinking emerged between production and consumption; suddenly mass production allowed society to move into a material culture and ‘new’ things became the norm.

As consumers we receive many conflicting messages – spend money and consume to help us out of the recession, consume ethically and recycle for the good of the planet. Recycling has been pushed forward as one of the ways towards a sustainable economy, but the argument I made during my talk was that direct reuse should be prioritised as the primary form of consumption. Although recycling is beneficial, direct reuse sees more benefits gleaned as the process of recycling requires further input of energy and materials, whilst direct reuse, apart from the transportation footprint, does not. Reuse should be the primary consumption method for a greener economy with the aim of minimizing the number of transformations, reducing the speed of resource flow through the economy. Of course trade of second-hand products may or may not involve exchange of money, but in the case of charity shops, eBay, car boot sales and nearly new sales it does involve exchange of money and is therefore adding to our economy.

For optimum reuse value, consumers need to prioritise quality over quantity, and manufacturers need to make things to last. There is growing awareness of the built in obsolescence of products, a manufacturing trait which is simply unacceptable. We all know the scenario – cheaper to buy new than to replace small parts. Understandably, companies want to make money, and due to such strong competition on the market, they need to make money. The only way to change things is either enforced regulation from government, or increased consumer pressure – I would suggest both.

With this in mind, these are some of my recommendations and key arguments, based on the literature.
• Reuse should be prioritised over recycle
• Manufacturers must be more responsible regarding long-life product design. Enforced regulation (difficult on global scale)
• Encourage loan rather than purchase of large electrical items
• Encourage continuation of fashion for vintage and antique pieces
• Regulate advertising that depicts pleasure gained from consumer culture (like that enforced for UK alcohol advertising)

Post to Twitter

Mary’s Kinky Knickers British Manufacturing on Mary’s Bottom Line

The three part series Mary’s Bottom Line was interesting for many reasons. For one, who would ever expect plain-spoken Mary Portas to cry? She nearly made me cry – but it was actually forever unemployed father of one Andrew who managed to push me over the edge. The twenty year old had never worked, turned up to the interview in a borrowed suit that was far too big for him, genuinely seemed to want a better life for his son, and turned out to be a natural whiz on the sewing machine. The whole series was inspirational, depressing, frustrating and heartening all rolled into one.

If you didn’t watch it, the channel four series saw retail guru Mary Portas try to ‘bring back UK manufacturing’ (her words) by starting a British-made underwear brand – Kinky Knickers. At one point, clothes and textiles manufacturing was the fifth largest employer in the UK, with factories centred in the Midlands, Leeds and London suburbs. British employment in the industry slumped from nearly half a million in the 1980s to less than 140,000 by 2005 as retailers chose to source from overseas where production costs were significantly cheaper. Mary cherry-picked Middleton, Greater Manchester for her new knicker factory. Middleton was a centre for silk production in the 18th Century, before developing into a cotton spinning town in the mid 19th Century. These days the industry has all but gone, leaving high rates of unemployment.

So along comes Mary to save the day! She hires a team of young unemployed local people, most of which have never touched a sewing machine in their lives, and re-opens an old factory which is managed by the lovely Lynn. The knickers had to be 100% British and Mary had difficulty tracking down the stretch lace as British manufactured. “Was it ever in England?” she asks, referring to lace production. How much research did she do exactly?

In reading reports/articles/blog posts about the programme online it is clear that criticism of the show falls into two camps. Firstly I must say I think Mary has done something really great; she’s brought the issue to public attention and given some lovely people employment. I do hope Kinky Knickers continues to grow and sell and thrive. But it was Mary’s words that she wanted to ‘bring back UK manufacturing’ that ruffled a few feathers in the ethical fashion community. Yes British manufacturing has fallen significantly in the last thirty years, but it is still here in some areas albeit not on TV. LuvaHuva and whomadeyourpants? are just two brands specifically making lingerie in the UK although granted their raw materials don’t claim to be sourced solely from Britain. They have both been founded by inspirational women and grown organically after a huge amount of hard work. You can see why it’s frustrating for some that Mary Portas can swan in with Kinky Knickers and immediately get orders from the likes of Boots, Liberty, John Lewis and ASOS.

For the mainstream media however, it was the price of the knickers that got people talking. At £10 a pair, many people see this as too expensive, despite Mary’s claims that she has made it affordable to all. I don’t know how much Primark’s knickers cost and I wouldn’t wear them if you paid me, but I do know you can get three very pretty knickers from Topshop for a tenner. This doesn’t mean though, that a tenner for a pair of knickers is expensive. Even at M&S, these very simple every knickers cost £12.50 for one, and if you visit luxury lingerie brand La Perla you will pay £215 for these beautiful but teeny briefs.

If you break it down to basic product costing, the La Perla pants are clearly not worth £215, but similarly you don’t get something for nothing. Sadly when it comes to value fashion that seems to be exactly what people do expect. What did you think of the show?

Post to Twitter