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Climate action: How to increase repairing, upcycling and buying second-hand

Repairing what we already own and buying pre-loved things is one of the best ways we can cut emissions when it comes to our consumption.  

Here, we provide a roadmap to action for everything from clothing and technology to bikes and furniture.

Why is repairing and buying second-hand important?

On average, we wear an item just 14 times in its lifetime. There are over 75 million unused phones in the UK alone. Less than one in ten people consider repairing their home furnishings to increase their lifespan. 

Our consumer goods account for 10% of our total consumer emissions. Repairing and buying pre-loved items therefore has significant potential to cut carbon. It keeps items in circulation longer. It reduces the need to replace them with new products, thereby cutting the natural resources and emission intensive manufacturing processes required. 

In fact, waste charity WRAP has found that the most significant opportunity to reduce carbon, water and waste in the fashion industry is to increase the active life of our clothes. 

Repairing can span from everyday mends — sewing up a hole in a jumper or getting a smashed phone screen replaced — to the more significant revamps such as getting a chair reupholstered or a laptop refurbished.

Top tips for repairing

Asking “Can I repair this?” every time something stops working, develops a hole or falls apart, can require a culture shift.

If you feel daunted by committing to repairing everything all at once, why not focus on one sector where you know you often throw away items? You could start with clothing, or electronics.

You could also make it more of a fun, sociable activity. Maybe you have a friend who could teach you how to fix your bike. You could find a workshop to learn a bit about mending or altering your clothes. Or you could find a Repair Cafe to borrow tools and learn about repairs.

Clothing

If you’re feeling confident about repairing at home, the Love Your Clothes website has great tutorials. If not, search online to find your local repair cafe or workshop and get some help with repairs. If you don't fancy repairing things yourself, your nearest town may have haberdashery/sewing shops who will repair items for you.

Check our our guide to upcycling, repairing and second hand clothes >

Person repairing sole of shoe

Shoes

A trip to the cobbler will give your shoes new life, and in doing so lower their carbon footprint. Shoes can surprisingly often be repaired, sometimes even despite substantial damage to the upper part of the shoe. A common and easy repair job for cobblers is replacing worn soles or heels.

Check out our guide to shoe repairs and recycling >

Technology

iFixit has free online repair tutorials for many models of phones, tablets and laptops. The Restart Project is a London-based charity that runs workshops for the public on repairing electrical goods.

You may have a local tech-repair shop locally which can mend phone screens and other items like computers or even printers.

Bikes

The Cycling UK website has guides on basic bike maintenance, and YouTube is full of tutorials, if you want to do repairs yourself.

If you’d like a bit of guidance, bike kitchens are open workshops where members of the public can access everything that they need to do maintenance and repairs. Most have mechanics or volunteers on hand to lend expertise, but the central premise is that the bike owner does the labour themselves. Our guide to bikes has a list of nearly 50 bike kitchens/workshops in the UK.

Bike shops will also do repairs. Look out for any local or national schemes that can help with costs. For example, in Scotland the Scottish Government supports a scheme which provides free bike repair and maintenance work up to the value of £50.

Outdoor clothing and gear

Many outdoor clothing gear items can be repaired — from tents to waterproofs to clothing. The REI’s ‘Care and Repair’ website has great articles on repairing and caring for gear yourself. The iFixit website is also a good source.

Our shopping guide to outdoor clothing outlines the options you have, from fixing things yourself to finding an independent repair shop. More and more brands are also offering repair or care services, as we discuss in our guide.

Buying pre-loved items

There are lots of sectors where buying second-hand is a great and readily available option. There are now many dedicated platforms for buying second-hand online, including apps and websites dedicated to specific sectors, as well as the trusty charity shop.

When buying an item second-hand, you may want to take specific considerations into account. For example, if buying a second-hand phone you might need to consider battery life.

Below we run through the key things to consider for each sector, and point you to information that will help you in your hunt.

Jumper with label 'circular economy'

Clothing

Second-hand clothing shops are abundant — whether that’s charity shops, vintage shops or second-hand apps like Depop. Our guide to upcycling, repairing and second-hand clothing looks at the pros and cons of each option and explains what to look out for with each.

Check out our guide to upcycling, repairing and second-hand clothing >

In our shopping guides to ethical clothing and ethical t-shirts, we’ve also included some second-hand brands, such as Oxfam and Beyond Retro. Our outdoor clothing guide also outlines some of the key things to consider when buying outdoor clothing second-hand, and lists great websites, apps and other options.

Check out our shopping guide to ethical clothing >

Technology

There are plenty of second-hand tech products on the market, but identifying a functioning device with a decent battery life, sold through a secure site can take a bit of thought.

Check out our guide to buying second-hand tech >

Furniture

The most environmental choice when it comes to furniture is to buy second-hand, repair or upcycle, or make it from scratch — provided you use reclaimed or recycled wood. Our shopping guide to furniture shops lists some of the places you can look for second-hand options.

Check our our shopping guide to furniture shops >

Books

Many people swap books with friends, or buy them from second-hand shops or charity shops. If you read a lot of fiction and don’t wish to keep every book you’ve read, second-hand books are a great option.

The ultimate place to find ‘recycled’ books is a library. In the UK every local authority has to provide a public library service, so find out where your local library is. They’re free to join and use.

Many people buy second-hand books online. If you are keen to avoid Amazon, you may wish to also avoid second-hand online retailers like the Book Depository and AbeBooks as these are owned by Amazon. But don’t despair as our guide to bookshops has a number of recommendations for non-Amazon second-hand book suppliers.

Five kitchen appliances on worktop

Other second-hand items

Many other items, such as cars, bikes and appliances, can also be bought second-hand. Our guide to ethical online shopping includes some retailers offering second-hand items, as well as the trusty charity shop.

Freebie sites like Freecycle or Freegle can also offer second-hand options for free.

Libraries of Things are also popping up all over the UK.

A Library of Things is an organisation which loans out items to members of its local community, promoting a sharing economy. These items can be anything and generally include DIY tools, garden machinery, kitchen appliances, camping gear, event equipment and generally useful household items. These are great ways to use items second, third, fourth or fifth hand!

Find a Library of Things near you >

Get inspired: Hear how Kezia and Ellie switched to second-hand clothing

Kezia

As a broke student, I’d often source my clothes by ordering fast fashion online. It was cheap and reliable. But around two years ago, I realised that I didn’t like the new items filling my wardrobe after the initial excitement.

I wanted a way to slow down my clothes buying, so I knew I would truly love the items. I created a rule for myself: I had to look for items second-hand first, and would only buy something brand new if I couldn’t find what I wanted. After 18 months, I realised I’d only bought brand new fashion a few times, and decided to no longer buy clothes brand new, ever (aside from basics such as underwear).

I bought less and invested in pieces I’ve kept for longer. This experience has transformed my relationship with my wardrobe. Second-hand shopping should take a long time. I feel really connected to so many of my clothes because I spent so long searching for them.

At the approach of a new season, I identify a couple of items that will fill any gaps in my wardrobe. This can be pretty specific: a green cropped fleece or white wide leg jeans. I will then spend days, weeks or even months searching for the exact item that I want.

I have also revived my sewing skills — these were really useful when I bought something second-hand that didn’t quite fit. I began sewing my own clothes using mostly second-hand fabrics such as sheets, curtains or tablecloths, making some of my favourite items.

A side effect has been inheriting great items from friends and family that I didn’t know I wanted. I’ve got jumpers, dungarees and summer vests that I wouldn’t have thought to buy but which have become staples.

Ellie

It’s 2013 and I’m lugging two full bin bags of clothes to the charity shop on my university campus, hungover and miserable, knowing this wasn’t the first time, and wouldn’t be the last time I had a wardrobe clearout. I knew I had fallen hard into a habit of overconsumption.

I realised I wasn’t going to change overnight. However, I decided that if I was to continue indulging my habit, at least it would all be second-hand or handmade going forward.

Growing up, my mum was very much into upcycling and crafts (salt dough Christmas decorations anyone?). I insisted she taught me how to sew when I was 13 on the beast that was her 80s sewing machine. The only brownie badge I remember getting was the thrift badge (emblazoned with a happy little piggy bank).

I really had the tools from the start, but needed a change in my mindset and motivation.

It’s tempting to replace every fast fashion item in your wardrobe to fit the ideal image of sustainable fashion. But I try not to do this, and use what is already there. I have ‘cheaply made’ items bought years ago that have stood up to wear and washing surprisingly well. Give your ancient or second-hand Primark a chance!

I also try not to be discouraged if I slip back into old habits. Clothes may seem frivolous to some, but can also have emotional ties to our identities, culture, and social lives. Changing a habit is hard, and might have an impact in areas you don’t expect.

That being said, making a change also opens up a world of new potential hobbies, connections and positive challenges. I still keep the first dress I made in a box under my bed (a dove grey 60s style mini dress). It hasn’t fit me for about a decade, but it brings me joy every time I dig it out.

It’s an ongoing process, and as I learn more about sustainable and ethical practices, I expect my opinions and actions will continue to change.

Climate Gap Report

In October 2021, Ethical Consumer published the first annual Climate Gap Report looking at consumer action on climate change. It looked at ten key actions consumers must take for the UK to reach its emissions reductions goals, and how far we are from meeting them.

It found that without further action, we would miss all ten key consumer targets.

In fact, when it came to consumer goods, our emissions were increasing each year, pushing us in the wrong direction.

The report identified three key consumer actions to help reverse this trend:

  • increase repair
  • increase buying second hand
  • choose sustainable brands