How Environmental is Thrifting, Really?
Clothes in the wardrobe

Digging through piles at Goodwill and sifting through racks and racks of hangars at Savers holding what could be hidden gems – or what could be garbage – is a fun and interesting way to spend an afternoon. It shouldn’t cost much, and there is the potential for everyone to find something. Thrifting has taken off in recent years, turning what was considered “low-class” shopping centers into hubs for trendy teens looking for something more unique than they could buy online. This way of shopping was designed to be much more sustainable for lower-income people initially, as a way to purchase items they may need without the hefty price tag of buying new. Donating to thrift stores was seen as an act of charity from those who did donate, giving their no-longer attractive garments and household items away to make room for their newer, better ones. But is it really as sustainable as we are led to believe?

Thrifting has been around for years, with one of the most famous thrift stores – Goodwill – starting in 1902 in Boston, MA. As stated before, thrifting was initially created and funded as a way to help give underprivileged communities access to some necessities and luxuries at a fraction of the cost. Of course, these items would be gently or gratuitously used, and almost always older, potentially out of style. Of course, for those who do not have anything, current trends may not seem like an incredibly important aspect, if something that should be considered at all. But for many people shopping resale and charity shops, these clothing items would be used to attend job interviews, jobs themselves, or for children, who would be much more susceptible to bullying for wearing something that was in style five or ten years before.

At some point within the past 8-9 years, young, affluent people decided to venture into these places that they had once deemed below them. The initial push of well-off teens moving into thrift stores is truly unknown, although with the rise in social media sharing, it is possible that someone that the thrift stores were designed for shared an interesting item that they had found, and this was enough of a catalyst to send trendsetters and resellers combing through the stores. Places that were once havens for those searching for an affordable way to clothe themselves were now filled with people who could afford to shop new, but were choosing used.

Of course, from an environmental standpoint, this looks like good news. Fast fashion accounts for 92 million tons of waste each year, with dropshipping mass-production brands like Shein leading the pack. So obviously, shopping resale, and giving new life to these clothing items is a great move for the planet. Unfortunately, with the huge rise in popularity of thrifting, and then reselling thrift finds for a personal profit, much of the resale market is now oversaturated with items from these fast fashion companies, with entire racks of clothes all being from Shein.

The reselling of thrifted items for a profit is a huge deal. When upper-class people descended upon thrift stores, they found pieces that may have been initially very expensive but were being sold at the resale shops for much below their market price. Because of these peoples’ experience with brands, and their knowledge of what things cost at face-value, they were able to collect the items that they knew were worth much more and resell them for a personal profit. This, of course, minimized how many options there were for the people who truly needed them, the people who were buying items out of necessity, as opposed to brand recognition.

This concerning trend continues to this day, with resale apps like Depop, Vinted, Mercari, and Poshmark consistently being updated and making sales. There is an upside to this, of course; people who may not physically be able to go to a thrift store can shop from home, and if there is a specific item someone is looking for, and they know that they do not want to buy it new, they can search on these apps. Again, though, the price is set by the sellers and demand for the items, so something that may have been $5 initially is selling for $50, because the person knows that there is a high demand for this item. Along with this, online resale can be attributed to much of the carbon emissions and packaging waste from shipping said items across the country, or even, world.

Another interesting aspect to look at is overstock stores. Places like Marshalls, Ross, and Burlington tout that they have designer names for much less, even including on their tags what the initial price was compared to what you, the savvy shopper, are paying now. While these stores may have began truly as overstock and defect sales outlets, it has now been shown that many of the items found at these stores are actually made and purchased directly for these stores. So, truly, they are creating even more fashion waste and environmental damage, while acting like they are helping eliminate over-production.

All in all, if done correctly, thrifting can be fun, resourceful, ethical, and environmentally friendly, but the best way to help cut down on fashion waste is to wear items you already have for longer. While many newer clothing items are not designed to last (re: fast fashion) the ones that do should be worn until they can’t be anymore. And if you do need to get rid of clothes, look for a local shelter or nonprofit that will take items directly to distribute to those who need them.

The Ethics of Thrifting

The secondhand clothing trade has been around a long time, and its social meanings have fluctuated. According to Dennita Sewell, professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, "The popularity of thrifting has come and gone throughout the years . . . .

The 10 Essential Fast Fashion Statistics | Earth.Org

Fast fashion is both an economic and sociological phenomenon that has grown to epic proportions. What we cut in costs for garments is borne twice over by the planet, and it is absolutely crucial that we change our regulations and behaviours.


Never Miss A Story

Get our Weekly recap with the latest news, articles and resources.
Cookie policy
We use our own and third party cookies to allow us to understand how the site is used and to support our marketing campaigns.