In with the old

How local vintage and thrift sellers rebuke an industry blighted with harmful environmental practices

By Kira Doman

Jake Phelps illustration

Buying a shirt should be a relatively innocuous act, but thanks to the practice of fast fashion, buying newly produced products has a detrimental impact on the world.

Fast fashion is an ongoing textile and clothing practice where inexpensive clothing is mass-produced to keep up with trends. The practice has garnered attention in the past decade with its harmful environmental practices. Fast fashion contributes to mountains of waste.

Here in the Green Bay area, connoisseurs of reused garments are combating how consumers look at and interact with fashion and other homogenized products.

Emily Kincaid is steeped in sourcing and reusing vintage goods.

Kincaid is the owner of Locals Only Vintage Collective (101 S Broadway) in De Pere. The thrift store specializes in vintage clothing. The store opened full-time in 2019 after transitioning from being a pop-up in De Pere. Its inventory is made up of local thrifters who use the storefront to sell their goods.

“The rise of vintage in the fashion world is equal parts awareness of sustainability and fashion in general,” Kincaid said. “It’s cool. It’s fashionable to wear old pieces.”

Locals (and reused) only

Despite the growing interest in shopping for reused and recycled goods, Kincaid said the industry has gotten increasingly crowded and more of the same problems have popped up during her time selling vintage clothes.

“I don’t think selling vintage is inherently sustainable,” Kincaid said. “I think in the way that a lot of vintage reselling has gone, it’s just following the footsteps of typical capitalism and all of the things that created fast fashion. It’s super discouraging because that’s just the way fashion has gone in all these businesses.”

According to the global business consulting firm McKinsey & Company, clothing production has doubled since 2000, but consumers are keeping purchased clothes for smaller amounts of time.

This churn contributes to the equivalent of one garbage truck burned or dumped in landfills every second according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Kincaid said shoppers have been brought up in a society that values efficiency and convenience above all else. By focusing on sourcing used goods she doesn’t contribute to more textile production.

Clothing from various fashion trends and eras are found inside of Locals Only Vintage Collective in De Pere.

Photo courtesy of Emily Kincaid

A selection of vintage denim jeans at Locals Only in De Pere.

Photo courtesy of Emily Kincaid

“I think we’ve lost a sense of money and autonomy in our society,” Kincaid said.

Kincaid said she hopes to eventually stay true to the shop’s name down to the finest detail.

“The goal is to localize everything so that you know where your garment is coming from,” Kincaid said. “That’s my dream. I want to have sheep so I can make a natural fiber, someone could make the yarn out of it, another person making the textiles. That keeps all of your money in one spot.”

Alison Gates is keenly aware of the different places clothes and textiles come from, and it isn’t always as nice as handspun sheep’s wool.

Gates is a UW-Green Bay professor who specializes in fabrics, art, textiles and how these products connect to large-scale social movements. She has been working in the textile industry for decades and said she is concerned and frankly sickened by the rate at which clothes are produced and thrown away.

“How much clothing that goes into our landfills is sickening,” Gates said, “(as well as) the tiny amount of clothing that gets resold after you donate it compared to how much gets thrown away.”

Oceans of waste

Apart from the literal dumpsters full of clothes discarded every day, fast fashion creates dangerous working conditions and relies on environmentally dangerous products and ingredients to create mass-produced clothing.

Fast fashion requires an enormous amount of water to process the textiles. This practice releases 500,000 tons of microfibers, a rough equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles, into the ocean on an annual basis according to the UNEP. In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a report that estimated 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from synthetic textile laundering. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that pollute oceanic and aquatic environments and ecosystems.

“I want to encourage people to think about what they’re buying,” Gates said, “what they’re putting on their bodies and what they’re bringing into their homes. “It really does have an impact when you think about who made it, how it got here, where you bought it and what you’re going to do with it once you’re done with it. Think about the whole life cycle.”

Gates said the people behind fast-fashion garments face harsh conditions and workplaces as well.

“Production sewing is exhausting work,” Gates said. “It’s very physical, it’s dirty. There’s no place that’s clean, there’s lint everywhere.”

Gates said the recent trend of fast fashion not only contributes to environmental harms, but the quality has gone down, something she said consumers don’t run into when shopping vintage clothing and pieces.

The inside of Green Bay’s Spark Haus Vintage (143 N Broadway). John McCracken photo

“(Vintage clothes) are better quality clothing because after the United States unionized, the employees were treated better,” Gates said. “They were given better working conditions and materials, and the products from that time frame reflect that.”

Gates is a natural proponent of vintage and thrift stores and said when she shops for vintage pieces, she always looks at the label to learn more about the garment’s history and to see if the older garment was union-made and had skilled workers producing quality products.

Gates said vintage shops are great to find pieces that don’t blend in as well as finding clothes that are made for different body types, styles and cuts.

“There’s a massive feeling of empowerment when you realize you don’t have to conform and you can change or make whatever you want,” Gates said.

In this haus, we reuse

Green Bay’s Spark Haus Vintage (143 N Broadway) lists “inclusivity” as a pillar of the shop’s selling model.

“I want to show people there is a different way to shop,” Spark Haus Vintage owner Kellie Hill said.

Spark Haus opened in 2018. The shop operates in the flex space inside of Kavarna Coffeehouse. Hill moved into the space after previously using the flex room as a transitional, pop-up location.

Hill said she focuses on what already exists instead of buying into an industry where producers quickly create, sell and throw away.

“It’s being aware of what you’re doing and what your impact is,” Hill said.

Spark Haus Vintage owner Kellie Hill said community and reducing waste come first in her business. John McCracken photo

She wants shoppers to use what already exists first and she doesn’t try and push items on shoppers as that contributes to a culture of unnecessary waste.

“I’m not going to try to sell something to someone if they’re on the fence,” Hill said. “That’s not sustainable, and it’s just creating more waste.”

This may seem odd coming from a business owner, but Hill said her primary mission is not to turn wild profits. She is instead looking to connect people with clothing and items they enjoy and afford. She said the community around vintage selling is more important than raking in the dough.

Community first, shop second

“I feel very detached from capitalism,” Hill said. “Money isn’t going to solve your problems. I want to show people you don’t need new stuff to have good stuff.”

Hill said she wants her store to be a refuge for people first and foremost.

“There’s a duty and responsibility in creating a safe community when owning a business. Hill said. “Even if people don’t buy anything, that’s really okay. I want it to be a safe space, and a place for community first of all, and a shop second.”

To facilitate this growing sense of community, Ava Winstin has been herding vintage sellers all under one roof. Winstin is the founder of the Green Bay Vintage Market, a pop-up event series launched in May that allows sellers without traditional storefronts to reach customers.

Winstin, who also operates Vintage + Sustainable Co. and Ava Winstin Photography, said shoppers don’t often think to shop at vintage stores and fast fashion sells because there’s not one single place to go find stores until she started the market.

A Green Bay Vintage Market held at The Premier this summer. Photo courtesy of Syncasta Darko

The first three Green Bay Vintage Market pop-up events were held at The Premier (520 N Broadway this year. Winstin said the response from both shoppers and vendors was huge and they have plans to expand the market to larger spaces. The next market is on Jan. 15, 2022, at The Barrell Haus, Badger State Brewing Company’s private event space.

Winstin said she saw buyers change their behaviors during the past year due to the changing economic landscape and people are thinking more and more about where their money is going.

“Especially since COVID, people choose to support smaller, local businesses because they saw how it affected their friends and family,” Winstin said.

Winstin said she first started selling vintage products as she was attracted to the community and the sustainable lifestyle. She said she only sources ethical products, researches the ingredients of what she sells and tries to limit single-use plastics as much as possible, no matter how difficult.

As of now, it is sometimes an unavoidable process for Winstin. She said she will reuse promotional materials for the market as well as her business materials for her shop.

“Being eco-friendly is not a perfect process,” Winstin said. “I just try to be mindful.”

Kira Doman is an editor and freelance journalist who graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay in the Spring of 2021. Her editing work can be found in The Sheepshead Review, The Northern Lights and Ellis Clark’s 2020 novel “With You.” Her writings can be viewed in The Driftwood and Green Bay City Pages. She is passionate about subjects such as social justice, current affairs and the arts. In her spare time, she is a barista, an average yet avid hiker, and a full-time cat mom.

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