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The Nifty Thrifter talks upcycling and sustainable shopping

Big sales, glam models and glossy ads draw lots of us into fast-fashion shops before we can say "pay your workers fairly". But, one savvy Instagrammer is celebrating a kinder way to shop.

Becky Hughes on Instagram

Credit: Becky Hughes – Instagram

Think cheap high-street fashion stores are your only options on a student budget? Think again.

Becky Hughes (a.k.a. The Nifty Thrifter) is the recent graduate behind a successful Instagram account that champions sustainable fashion, with over 16,000 followers. Through her account, she's highlighting the financial, ethical and style benefits of buying second-hand fashion and staying loyal to the humble charity shop.

Since 2019, it's been her mission to cut out fast fashion from her shopping habits and, after seeing her Instagram, you might be tempted to do the same.

We originally interviewed Becky for this article in 2019, and caught up with her again in 2021 (you can read the update at the end of the article).

Benefits of buying second-hand clothes

Becky Hughes on Instagram

Credit: Becky Hughes – Instagram

During her undergraduate degree at Queen's University Belfast, Becky found that the uni lifestyle led to a fast-fashion habit – something a lot of students can relate to. She told us in 2019:

I’ve always been interested in fashion and I’ve always read about fashion.

Throughout university especially, I’ve always been looking for ways to find cheap clothes.

I used to be going out all the time and I would be looking online for things that I could buy that would be cheap.

Wanting low-cost, accessible clothes for nights out at uni, she found herself drawn to fast-fashion websites.

But, when doing more research into fast fashion, Becky was shocked to learn how much harm the industry is causing.

I was finding out so many awful facts about fast-fashion brands: that the workers weren't necessarily getting paid the living wage, and that the impact on the environment is ridiculous.

In fact, she highlighted in our 2019 interview that 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions were coming from the fashion industry, using more energy than the aviation and shipping industries.

Becky thinks we're currently caught in a worrying cycle as a society where "we buy, we wear and we waste". As a result, she decided to make a change.

Over the last year or two, I’ve been thinking to myself: there are other ways that I can still buy cheap clothes that I’m able to afford as a student, but still be fashionable too.

I’m still able to create outfits that I think reflect my personality, and I found that through charity shops.

So, about last year, I started to make the big shift over to not buying any more fast-fashion brands.

Check out our list of the best sustainable fashion brands.

Finding second-hand clothes in your style

Becky Hughes on Instagram

Credit: Becky Hughes – Instagram

If you're worried you won't be able to find clothes that suit you and your style in charity shops, don't be. Becky said:

I think I've actually become more me from buying second-hand clothes.

She adds that when shopping second-hand, you can find clothes that you'll never see anywhere else, allowing you to be so much more creative and individual with your style.

Before, it was very easy for me to go on fast-fashion websites [...] and pick out a dress for a night out.

They make it too easy for you.

I think from charity shopping and vintage shopping, I've been able to take time in finding what I actually like, and creating my style.

I'm thinking about things that I will wear again, things that will have a lifespan in my wardrobe, rather than a dress that I'm going to wear for that night, and then get rid of.

It might take longer in charity shops to find the right clothes, but when you do, it's worth it.

I do think it's about taking time with second-hand shopping – you do have to put time and effort into it, but I think the rewards are so much greater than the temporary satisfaction that you get from buying a little dress from [a fast-fashion brand] that you wear once.

How to buy cheap sustainable fashion

Becky Hughes on Instagram

Credit: Becky Hughes – Instagram

At first, it can feel like an impossible task to find a gem among the rails in charity shops. So, what is Becky's secret to finding the best second-hand clothes on a budget?

She's got some handy tips for finding the best looks. The first: don't feel pressured to find the perfect item right away.

The number one thing I would say is to take your time.

A lot of people would get frustrated because obviously in a fast-fashion shop, you know what you want, you know where you’re going, you can buy it and you can be out of there in 10 minutes.

However, if there’s something specific you want to buy from charity shops and vintage shops, it is much more difficult – so I would recommend taking an afternoon out.

As well as taking your time to find the right things in charity shops, Becky also emphasised that you need to be happy to put in the effort.

You kind of have to be in the mood to charity shop, in that you have to have the motivation to be able to look through every single item on the rail that’s in your size.

Check the brand, I’d say, straight away.

Check [...] not necessarily what brand it is, but more of the quality. Is that something that’s going to last in your wardrobe?

But, even if you can't find any clothes you like in your size, don't lose faith – with a few small adjustments, you can upcycle charity shop items to make them your perfect fit.

To update your wardrobe without spending a penny, try using swapping websites.

Upcycling fashion tips

Becky Hughes on Instagram

Credit: Becky Hughes – Instagram

A simple yet effective way to dress more sustainably is to upcycle your clothes. It's particularly handy for charity shoppers as it means you're able to buy a much bigger range of items, including ones outside of your size.

Becky's a big advocate for upcycling. When looking in charity shops, she suggested:

Don’t restrict yourself to just whatever’s in your size.

If there’s something [that is] a little bit too big, or a little bit too small, get creative.

It’s very easy to make small adjustments to clothes to allow them to fit better – I’ve changed belt holes on jeans before, I’ve sewn up hems for things to fit me, so just be open to making a few little changes to clothes.

Not only does upcycling allow you to buy things in different sizes, but it also helps you show some love to the items already in your wardrobe.

Whether you're wanting to fix some damaged clothes or individualise items which have lost their appeal, it's a great (and cheap!) way of making them last as long as possible.

Check out our guide to saving money on makeup for tips on recycling cosmetic packaging and getting rewards for it.

Sustainable costume design

Assembly Required Lyric Theatre

Alongside her Master's degree in Belfast, Becky worked at the Lyric Theatre, where she brought her love of second-hand fashion to the stage.

For a play in 2019, not long before we first chatted with her for this article, Becky designed the cast's costumes by only using second-hand clothes.

The play, called Assembly Required, looked at the relationship between humans and robots, exploring what made a robot and what made a human. For the costumes, Becky scouted charity shops for clothes with a metallic tinge.

I experimented with a lot of things and I had items of clothing from Depop, I had things from eBay, I went down to charity shops […] near me in Belfast and I just raided all of those.

One of the guys was over 6’7" – he was a tall boy – and I had to find navy trousers that would fit him, his waist and his height, from a charity shop.

That was a challenge in itself but I managed it, and that was simply from persisting and hard work.

And the hard work paid off. Becky said:

I would say the reward from the end of it, to look at all of the costumes and be like, "I didn’t buy a single new thing for any of those", was worth it.

If you're looking for an outfit for a particular event and you don't think you'll rewear it often, you could try renting clothes to avoid them going to waste.

Building a sustainable fashion career

Becky Hughes on Instagram

Credit: Becky Hughes – Instagram

Since we chatted with Becky in 2019, her Instagram account has massively grown and evolved. One significant achievement has been as one of the leading voices advocating for a boycott of Boohoo.

Following the revelations that Boohoo was paying some staff less than minimum wage, she posted on Instagram and called for her followers to take their business elsewhere. The post was liked over 110,000 times, and her other posts targeting fast-fashion brands have since attracted thousands of likes too.

We caught up with her again in 2021, and she told us "quite a bit has changed since 2019". Here's how her relationship with sustainable fashion has grown over time:

I've lessened my consumption drastically and don't go second-hand clothes shopping to buy loads of things I don't need anymore.

I still love going into charity shops and vintage stores and finding unique and exciting pieces (!) but I'm now watching my consumption all the time.

Looking back, I was probably still buying too many clothes.

Becky views her new approach to shopping to be healthier.

I hated that I felt I had to fill some sort of consumption-void by buying clothes every week.

It was unhealthy for me and didn't make me happy.

However, now I really do feel I have a much better relationship with clothing, and I know exactly what I have in my wardrobe for the first time in my entire life!

If you're hoping to reduce your fashion consumption, steering clear of 'buy now, pay later' sites like Klarna could help. Find out more in our guide, 'Klarna reviewed: Is 'buy now, pay later' safe?'

Becky is making a name for herself in the sustainable fashion world and clearly has a bright future ahead of her.

She was recently invited to watch a documentary on sustainable fashion called 'ReDress the Future' by WaterBear Network at a screening in London which she describes as a "proud moment".

I was surrounded by people who work in sustainable fashion that I really look up to and admire.

It was exciting to gain a sense of where the sustainable fashion movement is heading and how we can be an active part of the movement long term.

And what are Becky's biggest goals for the future?

I would love to be a sustainable fashion consultant one day and work in the industry in the long term, or own my own business that focuses on more than just buying stuff we don't need.

I feel like I have learnt so much the last couple of years and I would love to share everything I've learnt with other people as I will continue to do via Instagram and YouTube.

I also think that consuming less clothing has made me a much happier person and I want to help other people try to lessen their consumption too!

Tips for buying new ethical clothing

If you, like Becky, hope to move away from fast fashion to shop more sustainably, it's good to buy second-hand when you can, but when there is something you want to buy new, how do you shop sustainably?

The key is to take time when shopping to find out if the product's been ethically made, work out what outfits you could wear it with and think about how you'd style it. Becky highlights that it can also help to leave it in your basket for a while in case you change your mind.

Ultimately, it's important to remember that you don't need to be perfect to make a difference. Becky said:

As a society, we've got used to just buying cheap clothing for the sake of it as it's become easier and cheaper to buy something rather than looking after, mending and appreciating what we've already got.

I would like to switch that narrative and try to ensure all my old clothes stay out of landfill – instead, I upcycle or re-style them!

I'm absolutely in no way perfect though, but I like to try to do things imperfectly than not do anything at all.

You can follow Becky on Instagram for more updates on her journey, info about problematic fast-fashion practices, as well as tips on how to shop sustainably and consume less.

Buying second-hand clothes is one of many great (and easy!) ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

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