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I found a Chanel jacket for €50, but even charity shopping feels like cheating now

I’d far sooner buy from Oxfam than from Shein or Temu, or any of those online brands selling ersatz, flammable party dresses. But it’s like sticking a plaster on a gangrenous limb

Kate Moss with the late designer Vivienne Westwood: later this month, the personal archive of the designer, style icon and progenitor of punk will be auctioned for charity. Photograph: PA Wire

Later this month, the personal archive of the late Vivienne Westwood, designer, style icon and progenitor of punk, will be auctioned off at Christie’s for charity. Until her death in 2022, at the age of 81, Westwood was a seismic force in fashion. Celebrities and punks flocked to her boutique, named and renamed, at different times, Let It Rock, Sex, Seditionaries, World’s End and Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die. The auction reveals the wardrobe she left behind: Harris tweed suits, faux-pearl necklaces and elaborately tailored dresses from collections called Witches or Britain Must Go Pagan.

Westwood was a political magpie, aligning herself, at times, with the Labour Party, the Green Party, at one point the Conservatives, and at another, We Are the Reality Party, led by Bez of the Happy Mondays. But she was a consistent voice for sustainability, becoming, in her later years, that strangest of things: a fashion designer who told us to stop spending money on fashion. “I don’t feel comfortable defending my clothes,” she told Carole Cadwalladr, in a Guardian interview in 2007. “But if you’ve got the money to afford them, then buy something from me. Just don’t buy too much.”

Some of my earlier memories from childhood are of visiting charity shops, watching my mother buy second-hand books. For me it’s always been about clothes instead. On mornings off, if I want time away from writing, I buy a takeaway coffee and walk from Upper Rathmines to George’s Street, stopping at each charity shop along the way. If I have more time, I’ll continue the hunt to Capel Street, or Dundrum, or Rathfarnham.

These visits are a kind of low-stakes gambling; I invest time and energy, and throw myself on the mercy of the charity shop gods. Some days yield nothing, but others reward me. I have in my possession two Chanel jackets, one bought for €50 at a second-hand shop, another for €40 at a market in Berlin. I have a McQueen dress and two Balenciaga bags, more silk scarves than any one neck could wear and a ludicrous pair of Saint Laurent platforms, bought for my book launch – then a far-off dream – that I put aside, in the end, when my book launched on Zoom during the pandemic.

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I remember the dressing-up box I had as a child, holding an old Laura Ashley dress, and an embroidered waistcoat that made me feel like a pirate. A part of me wonders if that era never ended; when I look through the clothes I own today they strike me as costumes, most of them second-hand, holding, in their fibres, stories and identities that are not my own.

Sometimes I think of myself as having hacked the system, assembling a wardrobe of trophy items at minimal cost. But at other times, I see this tendency as covering for something. Second-hand shopping is clearly more sustainable than buying new, but it also encourages me to view clothes as temporary, or disposable. It’s a way of participating in consumerism while telling myself I don’t. I can move from style to style, item to item, seeking out the next thing without stopping to get to know myself and what I really want. The Talented Mr Ripley comes to mind; like its anti-hero, I have built for myself a life in someone else’s clothes.

A week ago I decluttered my wardrobe. It was overdue. I hauled several bin bags through the door of a charity shop. Others, regrettably, I brought to the dump. Then I surveyed my clean room, the surviving clothes arranged with breathing space on shelves and hangers. This must be my personal style, I told myself. Time has proven these items to be my favourites.

This process got me thinking about clothes; what we’re looking for when we buy them, how we feel when we wear them, and the emotional space they occupy in our lives, especially when they sit there, unworn, representing false starts and imaginary futures.

The landfill in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is so large that is now visible from space. Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

I also thought about the cost of shopping this way, both to myself and to the world around me. In the wider scheme of things I’d far sooner buy from Oxfam than from Shein, or Temu, or any of those online brands selling ersatz, flammable party dresses. But it’s like sticking a plaster on a gangrenous limb; the fashion industry is responsible for roughly 10 per cent of global carbon emissions every year, an amount scheduled to double by 2030. It’s up there with oil and agriculture on the list of the world’s most polluting industries. Despite all the offsetting initiatives, “green” fashion and brand manifestos, only 1 per cent of used clothes are recycled. The rest are incinerated or go to landfill, those near-apocalyptic spaces in Ghana, Kenya and Indonesia where unwanted textiles go to die. One landfill, in Chile’s Atacama Desert, is now visible from space.

The answer, obviously, is to buy less, or nothing at all. But for many of us, myself included, I suspect this is a lot more complicated than it sounds. It’s harder to imagine an absence than a presence. It’s harder to find happiness in what we have, instead of looking forward to buying something new. It’s easier to shop for a fantasy self than it is to accept ourselves, and dress for who we are instead of who we want to be.

Westwood’s activism attracted its fair share of criticism, with some accusing her of greenwashing, and not doing enough, and critiquing her for continuing to design clothes using petroleum-based materials. Still I’ll argue that she did more to address this crisis than the vast majority of her industry colleagues. I also have to respect her uniquely theatrical, often reckless approach to getting her ideas out there; the slapdash manifesto; the appearance in a bird cage, for Julian Assange; that time she drove a tank to the home of David Cameron, to protest against fracking, looking like she was having the time of her life waving from behind the gun turret.

For the record, I genuinely do believe it’s possible to love clothes, and personal style, while respecting the planet. I also think that the vast majority of responsibility falls not on individuals but on governments, private companies and international industries. It’s both laughable and disturbing to me that we live in a time when fast fashion is accelerating rather than scaling back, and when the planet’s richest men are openly discussing abandoning us for Mars.

I love fashion. I hope I always will. It lends dimension to life, a small sense of drag, or theatre, that we can carry with us every day. That is something to take from Westwood, who lived as her fantasy self, and the wildly original wardrobe she has left behind. Personal style is forever, and the only way to have it is to truly know oneself. We should all be wearing clothes that last, and that make us feel good; a wardrobe so exquisitely constructed, and so carefully assembled, that it outlives its wearer, and tells their story long after they’re gone.

Roisin Kiberd is a writer focusing on culture, technology and existence