Fast Fashion
As shoppers become aware of problems surrounding fast fashion, ethical swaps and clothing exchange platforms are changing the way we interact with our wardrobes.

It’s no secret that fast fashion is (quite literally) trashing the planet. In Australia alone, 15 tonnes of unwanted clothes and textile waste is dumped every 10 minutes. That’s 800,000 tonnes every year. And only seven per cent of this waste gets recycled — the rest goes to landfill where, depending on the fabric, it can take hundreds of years to decompose. The fashion industry in its current state is one of the highest-polluting industries globally, responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.

Fast fashion has seen the prices and quality of clothing plummet, while more textiles than ever are being made to keep up with current trends. Today’s consumers are buying 60 per cent more clothing and keeping them for half as long as we did 15 years ago. The average person wears only 40 per cent of their clothes — just think about how many pieces in your wardrobe go unworn. And of the clothes we donate to charities and thrift stores, only 15 per cent are resold for wear — the rest are sold as rags, sent to landfill or shipped overseas. 

There has been a lot of debate around the ethics and gentrification of thrift shopping. Second-hand stores such as the St Vincent de Paul Society and The Salvation Army started to provide affordable clothing and goods for lower socio-economic consumers and have now become a go-to for avid thrift-shoppers looking to make a quick buck. In recent years, with the retro revival and now the rise of Y2K fashion, thrift stores are being raided by eager fashionistas looking to make a profit on their haul. These thrifted pieces are resold for a profit on platforms such as Facebook Marketplace, Depop and Poshmark.

To help combat the ever-growing sustainability and ethical issues that come with fashion, a new wave of clothing exchanges and consignment stores have cropped up both online and IRL. These clothing exchange stores offer a more ethical solution to thrift stores, allowing customers to sell, swap and buy pre-loved garments.

SWOP, one of Australia’s most popular clothing exchanges, was launched in 2013 in Brisbane and has since added two more brick-and-mortar locations in Sydney and Melbourne. Co-founders Brigid Gordon and Bethany Wicks were inspired by the clothing exchange culture of North America in their travels and knew they had to bring this experience to Australia. Rather than swapping with friends or attending fashion marketplaces where the offering is a bit of a mixed barrel when it comes to brands and quality, SWOP operates as a consignment-inspired pre-loved store.

“SWOP is different to your traditional consignment store in that we offer cash or store credit on the spot for items that reach our criteria. Our standards are high, meaning we only accept premium items that will be loved by their new owners for many years to come,” explains Bec Anderson, manager of SWOP’s Newtown store. 

The exchange store only accepts brands that align with their values (designer, vintage, local, sustainable and/or handmade) — think Acne, Issey Miyake and Paloma Wool — and all pieces are individually inspected to guarantee quality, authenticity and general wearability so customers can shop mid- to high-end garments with peace of mind. “Fast fashion brands are a no-go, which means SWOP is full of fantastic quality items that you’ll treasure for years,” says Bec.

The SWOP process is quite simple: customers looking to sell their preloved garments can visit a SWOP store or send items in and are then made an offer of 30 per cent cash or 50 per cent store credit on the value of their items. While the store has trending fashion aplenty, their focus remains on timeless, vintage and staple pieces to enhance the modern fashionista’s wardrobe.

And for the pieces that don’t quite make the cut, Local Opy, SWOP’s not-for-profit op shop in Brisbane, awaits. The enterprise donates 100 per cent of profits to charity, creating a more affordable space for those looking to grab a trendy bargain. Local Opy donates to a different local charity every three months, and in 2021 donated more than $13,500 to charities like Micah Projects, WIRES Wildlife Rescue and Women’s House Shelta. 

The fast fashion cure

It’s almost impossible to escape fast fashion brands, and those of us who have fallen prey to an end-of-season or Black Friday sale can attest to the fact that shopping sustainably on a budget while trying to stay on trend isn’t always easy.

“There’s something special about curating your own personal style over time, and personal style is hard to achieve when you’re relying on mass market products,” says Bec. “Fast fashion and social media have created a culture of trend hyper-saturation and it’s literally impossible to keep up. Be patient, hunt for gold and treat your clothes like treasure.”

Enter: Circolare Club, an online clothing swap run solely by founder Hannah Kingsmill. Although not from a professional fashion background, Hannah always had a penchant for style and passion for sustainability. During lockdown, while her friends were clearing out their wardrobes, she noticed many of them were discarding items that had never been worn. And so Circolare Club was born.

“I think a lot of people find sustainable fashion a bit intimidating,” says Hannah. “Either it is too expensive, not their style, or sifting through racks at op-shops isn’t their thing. So at its core I knew I wanted to create something that made sustainable fashion really easy, accessible and fun.”

While SWOP offers a more curated collection, Circolare Club is a more affordable entryway into the circular fashion economy. Customers purchase one of three swap packs, fill out a fit style questionnaire (including sizes, measurements, likes and dislikes, style influences and social media links to capture your full vibe), send the designated number of garments in and receive a personalised mystery bundle of preloved pieces — it’s essentially a styling service and wardrobe revamp in one fun package.

Circolare Club offers three different tiers for swapping:

  • Beginner Swap ($20): Send in and receive two to three pieces. Perfect for trialling the clothes swap before committing to a full bundle.
  • Original Swap ($35): Send in and receive seven to 10 pieces, plus a personalised styling note with suggestions on how to style your garments.
  • Super Swap ($60): Send in and receive back 10 to 15 pieces, plus a personalised styling note with suggestions on how to style your garments. This is perfect for a full-closet overhaul.

The exchange platform currently operates solely online (thanks to COVID), but an IRL service is in the works. Since launching in mid-2021, Hannah has fulfilled more than XX orders, her most popular being the Original Swap. She attributes the success of Circolare Club to affordability, convenience and the pleasant surprise of experimenting with your style. “It’s just a really low-fuss way to refresh your closet, and you still get the fun of ‘new’ clothes, without the cost to your wallet or the planet,” she says. “Every 10 minutes, 6000kg of textiles enter Australian landfills, so keeping pre-loved clothes in circulation and out of these landfills is definitely a plus.”

Sustainable style 101: Eco-fashion tips from team SWOP

  • Shop for pre-owned items where possible — it’s the friendliest option on your wallet and the planet. Brick-and-mortar shops like SWOP are convenient if you live close by, but there are many other ways to connect with your local fashion community through social media and apps too.
  • Depending on where you live, it’s always nice to enjoy some old-fashioned retail therapy. Taking your time to browse shops in-person gives you space to consider what you’re buying, to feel the quality of the garments and try them on.
  • Beware of the sales! Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean you need it. Sales can be helpful if you’re making a big purchase though — just make sure you’re doing your research and the brand shares your values before you splash your cash. Ask yourself: “Do I need it, or is it just convenient?”
  • The “30 wears test” is a great way to be considerate about your clothing purchases. Before purchasing a new item of clothing, ask yourself if you’ll wear it 30 times at a minimum. If yes, go ahead! If not (if you’re craving something new for a special event, for example), consider the resale value prior to purchasing.
  • Take your time. A good tip is to create a ‘to buy’ list that you can revisit over time to differentiate your priorities and your impulses.

Going green

There are plenty of ethical, eco-conscious ways to shop, but it comes down to us as consumers to be aware and take responsibility for our own fashion footprint. Greenwashing is everywhere in the fashionsphere — but it’s also easy to spot. “It only takes a few minutes to research a legit sustainable brand’s practices — if it’s hard to find, it probably doesn’t exist,” says Bec. “Fast fashion brands and websites tend to slap an ‘eco’ label on some items or collections, but this is opportunism, not true sustainability. Take a second to look beyond the price tag and marketing phrases and consider their overall business practices.” There are plenty of conscious consumer sites such as Good On You and Britt’s List to provide insight and recommendations for eco-fashion labels.

When stocking your closet or looking for your next can’t-live-without piece, think longevity rather than currency. There are countless wardrobe staples, from relaxed denim to button-up shirts, statement boots and pleated skirts that can be timelessly styled with almost anything. Good-quality pieces are always worth the investment if you have the means. As Hannah points out, fast fashion may be cheaper to purchase, but the quality is much lower and items tend to fall apart after a few wears. She abides by the “Costs Per Wear” rule for those on a budget: the cost of a garment divided by the amount of wear you will get out of it.

Ultimately, the “less is more” mindset is essential for becoming a conscious consumer. “The most sustainable thing you can do is to wear and love what you already own,” says Hannah. “And really, no one cares if you post the same outfit on Instagram twice.”

Thanks to small clothing exchanges such as SWOP and Circolare Club, we have already seen a shift towards circularity when it comes to big brands and industry leaders. The Iconic, Australia’s largest fashion e-tailer, recently partnered with resale platform AirRobe to provide customers with an easy and convenient way to give their pre-loved pieces a second chance. Stella McCartney has long been an advocate for circularity within the luxury space, partnering with The RealReal in 2017 and prioritising recycled materials during production. Other luxury design houses including Burberry and Prada have followed. Burberry partnered with UK-based rental and resale platform My Wardrobe HQ, and Prada launched a line of Re-Nylon accessories crafted from recycled ocean plastic textiles.

“We are starting to see growth in the use of reclaimed and circular fabrics across the entire industry,” says Hannah. “But I think the most important shift to be made in the fashion industry is yet to come with the return to designing for longevity, with a focus on high-quality, well-made and well-cut pieces that are designed to be reworn and repaired.”