Over the phone, Tara Stewart is excitedly telling me about her most recent charity shop find, a true treasure: vintage Levi jeans.
"I've never been able to find jeans in my size, vintage, ever. I got two pairs of Levi’s and I’m so delighted I found them. I get it, I’m a size 16, 18 and it’s really disheartening. It’s like, 'oh, I couldn’t be bothered trying things on!’"
We’re talking about how to shop sustainably as a plus-sized person. While this is something I have not had to struggle with, some of my eco-anxiety-ridden friends do, so I understand the giddy joy in her voice.
As more of us wake up to the impacts of fast fashion on the environment, all we want to do is make Greta Thunberg proud, and yet for a large part of the population, when it comes to shopping secondhand they're left with - quite literally - slim pickings.
Fast fashion appetite
This is largely due to the fashion industry itself, which is the second-most polluting industry in the world, behind oil. We buy more clothes than ever, with one study showing that the average consumer bought 60% more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment for half as long.
Our appetite is fueling a largely exploitative industry, where 80% of our clothes are made by young women aged 18-24. And fast fashion is only too happy to meet that appetite: Zara currently puts out 24 new collections a year, while H&M offers between 12 and 16.
Everywhere from the news to Instagram, activists, politicians, designers and probably a few of your mates are speaking out about the need to shop sustainably, and charity and vintage shops are the perfect solutions: cheap, interesting, plentiful clothes.
And yet plus-sized people very often struggle to find clothes that fit them in these shops.
Just as trends trickle down through the fashion industry, so too do biases, so that the majority of clothes you’ll find in charity or vintage shops fit smaller bodies.
"At its core, fashion is exclusionary of all body types other than the main standard of beauty at any time in history, so as someone who doesn't fit that mould, that does trickle down", Sarah Magliocco, a journalist and blogger, says. "If clothes are being made to fit a certain body type, they're the clothes that end up in the charity or vintage shops."
Magliocco took part in the plus-size swap shop held recently by Sustainable Fashion Dublin - an initiative that promotes sustainable fashion through swap shops and events - as one of the panelists for the discussion on shopping sustainably, attending an event that she herself had wanted in the past.
"I went to a swap shop and I was probably the biggest person there and I brought clothes and I could see people walking around with my items because people of a smaller size can wear things oversized and it looks cool and baggy. I picked up a few items but ultimately I was able to wear only a few of them and gave the rest away to my friends."
Sustainable Fashion Dublin aims "to make sustainable as appealing and accessible a prospect as possible for as many people as possible", says Geraldine Carton, who co-founded the initiative with Taz Kelleher.
"We were getting messages from people saying they were feeling a little bit daunted by the prospect of going to our swap shops. They loved the idea but they worried that there wouldn't necessarily be their size, because the reality is that vintage shops in particular, people just had smaller bodies than the majority of us."
"It's one of the big things we say, like 'go to vintage shops, go to charity shops and buy clothes instead of buying from the high street’ when actually, that’s not a very realistic prospect for people with bigger bodies."
She says that many of the people at the event told them of the "shame" they would feel trying to find sustainable clothes, a feeling that the fashion industry at large has not done enough to counter.
For all the focus on sustainable new fashion, many brands still do not include larger sizes in their ranges. "It annoys me", Stewart, a DJ and presenter, says. "I’ve looked at some clothes that have been made sustainably, like new stuff, and they’re not even in my size."
Shopping sustainably when buying "new" clothes is also expensive. Reformation, one of the buzziest brands of the moment, creates on-trend and elegant clothes from recycled materials, but their dresses retail for around €300 - and still only goes as far as XL or a size 12. Other ethical brands, which focus on recycled or responsibly sourced materials, cost that bit more, too, and are out of the price ranges for many people.
Choosing to shop sustainably is a privilege for many people, Magliocco says.
"There is an issue with sustainable fashion when it comes to accessibility. Even regarding people with different body types, people of different abilities, people of different economic statuses.
"You are leaving things up to chance when you shop sustainably", she says.
For those in the fashion industry, there is the added pressure of keeping up appearances, something that people not directly involved in the industry feel through social media, and the constant push to take part in trends. In this sense, we're all part of the fast-fashion engine, whether we know it or not.
Stewart stopped working with fast fashion brands, who had included clothes as part of her payment for DJ-ing gigs, in March of this year after learning more about the impact fast fashion has on the environment and human rights. She went so far as to pay back the brands the money they had paid her.
Before that, however, she had always relied more on charity and vintage shops.
"I love hip-hop fashion from the 00's and 90’s, but I also love getting glam, like noughties glam. I love to mix it up." She tells me about a pair of 50 Cent jeans she bought the day before, saying "I just love that someone in America who loved 50 Cent bought those jeans".
Magliocco has seen her style shift ever so subtly since focusing more on secondhand clothes, though not in the way you might assume.
"Growing up I always had a bit of a different fashion sense to people, and that’s what led me to start my blog at such a young age. Then when I moved into the industry that I’m in now, I felt a lot of pressure going to events to conform to a certain look, one that’s very trendy.
"I felt like I needed to go to the New In section of Zara and buy something fast forward to be photographed in and then never wear again."
Now, away from the noise and constant sell of new fast fashion, Magliocco says her style has never been more her.
"Being more mindful about how I shop has allowed me to come back to my preferred aesthetic because you do have to work so much more and put more thought into how you would like to look when you don’t have global access to every item of fast fashion clothing at your fingertips."
Making it work for you
While this is undoubtedly a hurdle that many people - by consequence of their body size - do not have to jump, it has its benefits. Magliocco says that having to be more conscientious about where your clothes are coming from means you shop in smarter ways. "I think when you are trying to shop in a sustainable way, you’re more aware of the different avenues that you can go down."
It helps that she utterly adores charity shop shopping, and she finds most of her clothes in thrift shops like Nine Crows Vintage and on Depop.
"It’s kind of like a little adventure every time you go charity shopping because you genuinely don’t know what you’re going to find, or you could find something you realise could be perfect for a wedding three months from now. It could be July and you find the perfect winter coat. You just never know."
True to form, Stewart refused to "take no for an answer", and decided to look into reworking pieces to suit her. Working with Karen O’Mahony who runs the alteration service Rag Order, the presenter has turned vintage finds into chic two pieces. "I decided to make it work in my favour. If it doesn’t fit me, I’ll make it fit me."
"I’m not saying that that suits everyone because it can be expensive to get stuff altered, but that’s why I started a sewing course and I’m in the middle of it at the moment. I started doing that because I wanted to learn how to do it myself, because it’s cheaper. The more I do it, the more ideas come from it."
What we can do
Accessing plus-sized secondhand clothes is the main hurdle, particularly for people living in rural areas. Magliocco suggests starting a swap group on Facebook for your area, where people can trade items with each other "and cultivate a small community of people who might be in your size range or within your topic of interest".
Stewart also justs making a day out of charity or vintage shopping in larger towns. "If you live in the country, make a fun day of it. Go to Galway, go to Limerick, go to Dublin. I’m not saying it’s easy or that everyone can do this, but if you can, make a day out of it, bring your friends."
And if you still want the high street look, she suggests Depop for older collections from shops like Zara, so you aren’t contributing to the production of new clothes.
A slow burner
The reality is, however, that getting the fashion industry to become truly inclusive is "a slow burner", Stewart says, and for many people, high street and fast fashion is their only option for now. Stewart asserts that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that case, and rather than telling people to avoid those shops entirely, she says we should "be more considered" when we shop.
"I’m just encouraging people not to be buying frivolously. Be like, ‘I found this dress, it’s gorgeous, am I going to get wear out of it, am I going to get it to wear it once, am I going to wear it for another event in the future?’"
Speaking through clothes
The reason we buy clothes and spend our lifetime building our perfect wardrobe is that they speak for us. So when finding clothes that fit and suit you is more difficult, the need to make statements with what you wear becomes all the more important - especially when it comes to sustainable fashion.
Both Magliocco and Stewart speak through their outfits. When asked what her favourite piece of secondhand clothing is, Magliocco utters a low "oh, my god", although the choice comes surprisingly easily to her.
"To get sentimental about it, my favourite secondhand items were once owned by dad", she says. "My dad used to work on motorcycles and he had boiler suits and I’ve worn those to festivals, I’ve cuffed them and brought them in at the waist. I’ve a lot of his big band t-shirts and I would wear them with shorts. As well as not damaging the planet by not contributing to the production of new items, I have a piece of my personal history as well."
Stewart wastes no time in summing up her favourite find: "I’d say this gold two-piece I have, it’s from the 60s", referring to a look that she worked on with Rag Order. "It was a maxi skirt, and I love that because it’s so old! It’s from the 60s, how crazy is that? That outfit reminds me that clothes should last, that we shouldn’t be putting up with them not lasting."
Tara Stewart has a brand-new RTÉ podcast series called Dirty Laundry that will discuss the way we buy clothes, what the future holds for influencers in the fashion space, and how the big brands are handling the climate crisis. The first episode will drop on the 12th of November - subscribe here.