Why Second Hand September isn't quite the radical challenge it seems

Influencers are using the Instagram hashtag for little more than virtue signalling – and in many cases, feeding the beast it claims to starve. 

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While tapping through my Instagram stories on the first Sunday of September, I came across a weekly series from a lifestyle blogger I follow called “Sunday Scroll”. The blogger – who heavily focuses on fashion – does a line-up of her favourite items she’s seen from high street retailers that week and lists roughly 20-30 items that her followers can go out and buy. This time however, her Sunday Scroll was a little different; she announced that she was participating in Second Hand September and would only be sharing items she’d found on the Depop, the individual seller app known for hawking pre-worn clothing.

Second Hand September is an initiative from Oxfam, encouraging people to head into their charity shops to purchase clothes this month and abstain from engaging with fast fashion. Participants would help contribute to Oxfam’s charitable causes, combat climate change, and still get to buy things. “Throwaway fashion is putting increasing pressure on our planet and its people – it’s unsustainable,” the Oxfam page reads for the campaign. “Now there's something you can do to help.”

The idea behind Second Hand September feels simple: rather than contributing to fast fashion consumption, which quickly ends up in landfills, contributing to the ongoing destruction of the planet, people – mostly women – can take up this internet challenge to not necessarily stop consuming, but to consume from what’s already available. This theoretically removes demand for cheap brands like Zara, Boohoo, and Missguided, churning out inexpensive, but often low-quality clothing. And at the time of writing, the campaign seems to be working: over 18,000 Instagram posts have been tagged with #secondhandseptember, many from influencers with large followings.

But even a cursory look into the #secondhandseptember hashtag, (the Instagram-selected icon, which somewhat ironically reads “you don’t need more stuff”), reveals a slightly murkier story. Rather than encouraging this already quite flimsy, self-congratulatory approach to tackling climate change, many influencers are using the hashtag to push associated fast fashion brands, drive traffic to their fast fashion-heavy blogs and even jumping on the tag with no mention of second-hand shopping at all.

Second Hand September is rife with fashion bloggers, for the most part, creatively twisting their usual output to make themselves seem "second hand" friendly. Influencers such as Sammy Duder (@theturqoiseflamingo, 18K followers), Amy Coleman (@amyscoleman, 16K followers), and Eliza DeLite (@elizadelite, 32K followers) have all posted clothes that are still available from fast-fashion retailers, making it implausible that they weren’t recently purchased from a shop. Many fashion influencers have even produced posts tagging brands so that followers know where to go and buy the clothes they found second hand. Alicia Healey (@theladysmaid, 61K followers) posted “It may be #secondhandseptember, but you can still window shop” alongside a winking face emoji. “So you may want to buy this gorgeous red dress from Hobbs… I certainly do.”

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

It may be #secondhandseptember but you can still window shop Also this gorgeous headband from @juliangarnerheadwear is available to hire from @cotswoldhatclub so I’m keeping it semi sustainableI’m well aware I fill your feeds with new stuff daily making it more tempting to buy new but the original aim of @theladysmaid was to show how to style your outfits not to shop everything I pictureSo you may want to buy this gorgeous red dress from Hobbs(I certainly do) or you may have a red dress in your wardrobe and this post has given you inspiration on how to wear it to an Autumn/Winter weddingThe only thing you’d have to worry about would be upstaging the bride(full outfit details via link in bio)#styleinspiration #dressoftheday #hobbslondon #headbands #hathire #juliangarnerheadwear #ladyinred #occasiondress #weddingoutfit #autumnwedding #whattowear #styletips #theladysmaid #wardrobewisdom

A post shared by Alicia Healey (@theladysmaid) on

While posts like these account for a large share of #secondhandseptember posts, some Instagrammers have acknowledged that the challenge is perhaps less straightforward than it would originally seem – encouraging their followers to adopt of zero-consumption fully. “I’m kidding myself every single time I walk in [to a charity shop] and think ‘oh it’s okay, I’m just here to take pics for my account’ WRONG,” wrote @AKwearsthings, “…An impulse purchase is exactly that, regardless if the item in question was bought new or not… So instead, I’ve been shopping my closet for fall and putting together new looks from old clothes this week…” A few second-hand brands, such as Fashion Revolution, have used the hashtag to share ways for their followers to sustainably stop buying new clothes, from suggesting educational books on combating social structures to tips on how to mend your clothes so you don’t have to throw them out after a few wears. Those consumers posting that they believe Second Hand September could change consumption habits for good, tend to be those who have chosen to stop buying new clothes altogether – while others are just filing online shopping baskets ready to hit “purchase” on 1 October.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

As we dive into the second week of #secondhandseptember, it’s time to talk about the pivotal skill for making #LovedClothesLast: MENDING. In a fashion system where garments are treasured for life, mending, repairing and altering are key components of a circular economy. Buying pre-worn clothes, or extending the life of vintage pieces often requires a little TLC. So today, we’re linking our favourite #mending resources in our Instagram story. From how to sew on a button (With @wilson_oryema) to how to turn a hole into a jumper into a crocheted flower (With @OrsoladeCastro), we’ve got you covered. Hopefully, the next time you’re browsing in a thrift shop, the little imperfections on pre-worn clothes don’t hold you back. And for the less crafty among us, mending doesn’t need to be a DIY act. Taking a piece to your local tailor is a brilliant act of localism, and professional take on upkeeping the wear and tear of a well loved wardrobe. Leave us a comment below to let us know about your experiences with mending #TradeFairLiveFair

A post shared by Fashion Revolution (@fash_rev) on

Climate change campaigners don’t necessarily believe that Oxfam or Second Hand September are taking a step in the wrong direction, but rather that they are addressing a symptom of our addiction to consumption. To radically combat climate change they believe it is not enough just to avoid buying new things as much as possible, but also to select more carefully what items we buy and where they come from. “We buy clothes with the same thought and care as we might buy a coffee or a sandwich, because they’re about the same price,” Patrick Grant, the designer and ethical consumption activist, wrote in GQ last year. “Our only sensible policy is to reduce what we buy and buy better things, things that we understand the provenance of, from producers we can trust to have done the science and the engineering to make us great products… We do not need to buy all this stuff.”

A challenge that would have more impact than simply “purchase clothes already in circulation”, would be to stop purchasing anything. A halt on consumption rather than just channelling it towards items already in circulation. (It’s worth noting that class also comes into consumption – when you have more money to spend on clothes, you can buy higher quality pieces that will last years, rather than seasons. Poorer people, conversely, may need to rely on items that could get you a whole outfit for less than £20 as well as shopping in charity shops where better quality clothes may be cheaper).

Of course, Oxfam can’t control what users do with its hashtag – nor is it responsible for changing consumer habits. Its shops sell second-hand items to fund its work, making this at least several steps away from private brands encouraging consumers to consume slightly differently.

An Oxfam spokesperson says the charity is "delighted by the overwhelming positive response to Second Hand September and the huge public support it has received.

"Buying second hand clothes for 30 days is something we can all do to make a small, but significant, personal step to help tackle the harm fast fashion does to planet and people by rethinking the way we shop for clothes. We hope it will be the beginning of a longer journey towards more sustainable consumption for those taking part.

"Oxfam knows climate change affects the world’s poorest communities most severely, who are feeling its effects right now. Swift and strong action is required from governments and businesses to tackle the climate emergency, and we will be stepping up our campaign on this in coming months."

It may still be Second Hand September for three more weeks, but the fast fashion machine never stops churning. With London Fashion Week starting on Friday (and a taste of what’s to come happening right now, during New York Fashion Week), we’ll see knock off items from the runway on high street brands in a matter of weeks – just in time for October.

When I logged back onto Instagram a week after watching the special #secondhandseptember version of my influencers' Sunday Scroll, she was going through the process again. But instead of the second-hand items she’d been pushing the at the start of the month, she had reverted to type, pushing clothes from Topshop, ASOS, River Island, and Zara. Steps toward resisting structures that feed unethical economies, contribute to climate change and drain our wallets aren’t wrong – especially when they’re in the name of supporting charities. But spending 30 days of your annual 365 consuming second hand (and still, well, consuming) is far from the radical cry your Instagram feed may claim it to be.

This article was amended on 12 September. It originally included reference to Seasons of Ella in the context of Second Hand September. Seasons of Ella is a sustainable rather than fast-fashion brand. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.