“I’ve always been a charity shop girl,” says Rosie Coltman, a 32-year-old teacher from Leicestershire.
In recent years, she has shifted from fast fashion towards renting and repairing clothes, or buying secondhand or higher-quality items. She has bought a waxed Barbour jacket that, while more expensive in the short term, she hopes will be cheaper overall due to its durability. For a friend’s wedding, she hired a black Ganni dress for £50 from the app By Rotation. She also batch-cooks food to avoid waste, and prioritises buying from ethical and sustainable companies.
Coltman’s new habits echo a wider social shift. Faced with a cost of living crisis, the looming threat of climate disaster, and the pandemic’s upending of daily life, which has led many to rethink their habits, more people are pledging to consume less and spend more sustainably – reducing the strain on planet and pocket.
According to YouGov, 46% of Britons surveyed in August 2023 said environmental sustainability had affected their general household purchases a “fair amount,” rising from 41% of those surveyed in February 2020. (Although people responding that it affected spending to a “large extent” fell from 18% to 15%.) Meanwhile, financial burdens continue to weigh people down, with 1.8m UK households – almost 3.8 million people – having experienced destitution at some point in 2022, according to Joseph Rowntree Foundation research, and a KPMG survey finding that two-thirds of UK consumers planned to cut discretionary spending this year.
For Kat Butler, a 36-year-old graphic designer, the last straw came when the stitching came unpicked in a new pair of leggings she had bought. “Then I said to my family, ‘Yeah, I’m not buying new stuff any more,’” she said. Butler stopped buying “cheap and nasty” items that were “a terrible thing for the environment” and vowed to buy exclusively pre-owned clothes, making her consumption cheaper and more sustainable.
“If I don’t like it, I can just resell it,” she said. “It’s almost like a clothes library.”
In an effort to cut spending and buy more sustainably, Butler shops on sites such as Vinted and eBay or in charity stores, which is “always quite exciting”, she says. “It’s like an Aladdin’s cave, I don’t know what I’m going to find there.” Her only new items now are underwear.
She also upcycles old things – for instance, building her cat Gaia a midcentury-modern home from cardboard boxes, with rooftop cat-scratchers in the style of solar panels. “You don’t need to buy all these toys and beds and stuff from China that’s just made from acrylic,” she said.
For Claire, a 50-year-old NHS finance worker in Liverpool, Covid lockdowns proved an inspiration. She said seeing “images of nature recovering, of stillness, of blue waters and reduced air pollution” had made her “far more determined to tread more lightly on the planet”. Her motivation now is to cut costs and reduce her family’s impact on the environment. “It did change how we behaved, and we haven’t changed back,” Claire said.
She buys clothes from charity shops, gets household items such as toilet paper in bulk from ethical companies, and prepares almost all food from scratch to avoid processed meals.
“I’ve become much more conscious of trying to shop locally and not be too dependent on supermarkets,” she said.
Tony Herniman, a 51-year-old teacher in Bristol, said cost of living pressures had made his household, including his partner and two boys, aged nine and five, more attentive to costs. “Before the pandemic, we kept an eye on prices,” he said, but now “I’m really eagle-eyed: I literally noticed when we got cat food, ‘bloody hell, it’s gone up by 50p’ or whatever it is.”
Herniman said that apart from one summer trip away, holidays and weekends away were unnecessary luxuries. He has cancelled some TV subscriptions and keeps clothing such as coats and socks much longer, darning holes instead of replacing them.
“The level of inflation has been ridiculous,” Herniman said. “It’s pretty basic maths: if inflation goes up 11%, and your wages go up 6%, a small child could work out that’s not fair.”
He also gets frustrated by the environmental costs of the food supply chain. “I’ll be shopping [and I say] why do these blackberries have to come from Guatemala?” he said. “We’re trying to go for more seasonal fruit and veg.”
The mission for Herniman is: “How can we make the least [environmental] impact, while also doubling up with, how much is the cost? It’s a real juggling act.”
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