Sue Carmichael rifles through a rack of skirts at her local op shop in Goulburn, New South Wales.
The long-time thrifter doesn’t have to look at the brands to tell which ones are from “one of those chains”.
She pulls out one to demonstrate.
“The elastic is coming down and it’s sitting alright, but your eye can just tell,” she says.
The 58-year-old buys almost exclusively second-hand.
Today, she’s on the hunt for a pair of white shoes for a function in Brisbane, but she says it’s getting harder and more expensive to find those good-quality items in op shops.
The rise of fast fashion has disrupted the traditional life cycle of clothing with fewer garments designed with the thought of second or third owners in mind.
Head teacher at The Fashion Design Studio at TAFE NSW Laura Washington says fast fashion is the antithesis of heirloom garments prized by thrifters.
“The lifespan of these clothes is greatly reduced — things like the grainline (the weave of the fabric) falls out of the correct alignment after one or two washes, the clothes dismantle much more easily, because it’s the construction and sometimes the poor workmanship or the quick workmanship,” she says.
But amid reports that the golden age of thrifting is over, long-time op shoppers say there are still treasures to be found if you’re prepared to wade through the glut of fast fashion on the racks.
Ms Washington describes herself as an avid thrift shopper and encourages her students to source second-hand garments to rework.
“I can still find those little treasures,” she says.
Demand for change
An Australian Fashion Council (AFC) report released this week found Australians bought 14.8 kilograms of clothing every year, or 56 new items, at an average cost of $6.50 each.
Much of it ends up in landfill — 10kg worth per person are thrown out each year.
AFC report author Peter Allan told ABC Radio Sydney’s Drive program the amount of clothes purchased has doubled in 25 years, but the public is demanding change.
“Consumers are now driving that back the other way and saying, ‘We’re looking for something more durable’ — something that’s a bit more timeless in its style and trying to stretch out the life expectancy of our clothing,” he says.
The industry has responded by setting up the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme to find ways to reduce textile waste, including a proposed levy on clothing imports.
That’s good news for op shoppers in the long run.
Salvos Stores customer experience manager Aife O’Loughlin says dealing with the volume of fast fashion is a huge challenge, but she is optimistic the Australian industry and consumers are changing their habits.
She says after having this conversation many times over the past five years, she is seeing a shift.
“[There’s] this priority and this focus locally within Australia around what we’re going to do, how we’re going to mobilise the industry, how we’re going to make changes and how we’re going to involve charity retail to keep products in circulation for as long as possible,” she says.
In the meantime, Ms O’Loughlin says there’s no hard and fast rules for dealing with fast-fashion donations.
“It comes down to obviously the condition that that item is in, and whether or not it will sell in the local community,” she says.
Thrill of the hunt
When Alex van Os was growing up in Avalon, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, she didn’t want to wear what everyone else was wearing.
She preferred rummaging through op shops.
“I already did have a strong sense of personal style at a young age, even in primary school, and I think the op shops just allowed me to experiment,” she says.
Now a sustainability stylist, Ms van Os says the volume of fast fashion on the racks has drained some of that joy.
“The racks are so full when you go into op shops, which is great, but you do have to sift through so much fast fashion,” she says.
She remains a strong advocate for buying from charity-run op shops.
“Whether I only find maybe one item rather than maybe before I was finding three or five items, I still know that my money is going to help someone else and stopping clothing from going to landfill, which is really important to me,” she says.
Digital selling platforms have also changed the second-hand clothing market, with top-quality items being sold online.
The Salvos Stores are among several charities to operate online shops to sell selected brands and sought-after vintage pieces.
But for loyal op shop customers, nothing beats the thrill of discovering a treasure in person.
“An op shop is a place where you can clear out your mind, because it’s a different kind of buzz in the store — it’s not music running and ‘sell, sell, sell,'” Ms Carmichael says.
“There’s people with stories.