Second-Hand September: How Sustainable Is Thrifting Really?

September 16, 2021

Happy Second-Hand September! Created by Oxfam, a British confederation focusing on alleviating global poverty, this month exists as a 30-day pledge to urge consumers to “Say No to New” in order acknowledge our unsustainable shopping habits. Second-hand shopping is a mode of purchasing that many participate in and apps like Depop and Poshmark have made it that much easier to thrift clothes than ever before. But how sustainable is this kind of thrifting really? And how has gentrified thrifting become an issue? As thrifting becomes more popular is it making the difference that we really want it to?

This Second-Hand September, it is important to address different aspects of the practice of thrifting. Often thrifting is overlooked as a form of sustainability, although fast fashion has immense effects on our climate. According to Good On You, throughout history, clothing has become much easier to make much more quickly thanks to inventions such as the sewing machine that were established during the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, over the last twenty years with the introduction of online shopping, “clothing became cheaper, trend cycles sped up, and shopping became a hobby” (Good On You, 2021). And thus the idea of fast fashion was born. Fast fashion refers to the “…cheap, trendy, clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand” (Good On You 2021). These fads are meant to be produced and on the market as fast as possible to keep up with the current trends, then unfortunately discarded after a few uses once the trend is no longer relevant. Now before we know it, a toxic and cyclical pattern of overproduction and consumption has been created, exemplifying why fashion is one of the world’s largest polluters. The effect of fast fashion is not only detrimental to our planet with the materials used but it also exploits garment workers all over the world who must work extremely hard to create these textiles, often for little pay, in order to meet consumer demand. Solutions to this issue include thrifting, donating, inheriting, and repurposing clothes in order to push poor production practices out of style.

Thrifting, is therefore an excellent way to combat fast fashion as it allows people to purchase clothing that already exists instead of buying new items that may be created by harmful production methods. Additionally, clothing that is no longer of use can pile up in landfills and other places they should not be, like in streets and dumpsters or out in nature. According to the wellness blog Swift, the average American disposes of 60–80 pounds of used clothing in their lifetime. So, thrifting is an excellent alternative, as one can recycle clothing and get use of something that someone else may not. Thus, the power of waste reduction is extremely significant. Not only do garment industries add to the problem of waste on Earth, they too are affecting our oceans. Polyester is a fabric that does not decompose in water; it stays in its original state which is harmful and even fatal to creatures who live in water from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. It can also require multiple gallons of water to produce just one t-shirt, proving this method of production to be unsustainable. Therefore water conservation and protection can be achieved by thrift shopping. Lastly, shopping second-hand can even decrease air pollution caused by fashion industry factories. 10% of the world’s carbon emissions are exuded from the fashion industry. Purchasing an item of clothing that do not contribute to those emissions is helpful in that it drives down demand for new clothes created by fast fashion trends. Predominantly, thrifting as well as all other types of second-hand shopping, have amazing lack of environmental impacts. Consuming this way is extraordinarily sustainable and is beneficial to all life on Earth.

For a long time, thrifting was seen in a negative way; something people with less money had to do simply because it was the cheapest option. Second-hand shopping was stigmatized as having a lack of cleanliness and people who shopped this way were looked down upon. But recently, thrift shopping has become much more popular, which critics argue has caused it to become gentrified. What they mean by this is that as popularity of thrifting increases, its accessibility has decreased; people in the upper and middle-classes have taken over and made stores of this sort less available to the working-class. Some say that people who do not need to shop second-hand should not be, lest those who really need this kind of retail will not be able to afford it. However, with the environmental benefits that thrifting can provide, is this something we really want to be encouraging people to do? Fortunately, there are tips to consciously thrift that can fix this issue. The biggest way to consciously thrift shop, is to only purchase clothing when you really need it. While over-consuming used clothing is much better than over-consuming new clothing, it is still overconsumption. Thrifting for fun (when you will not wear the items you bought) or posting thrift hauls to show followers what you purchased drive up demand and take away from those who rely on second-hand stores for everyday clothes. Another aspect of buying only what you need also includes buying things that you will actually wear and what fits you. Imperfect Idealist encourages readers and shoppers to stay away from plus-sized clothing, professional clothes, kids items, and winter coats as these are often described as “high-need items” that have fewer options in thrift stores. (Imperfect Idealist 2020). Additionally, according to Intersectional Environmentalist, shopping local is still prevalent in the world of thrift shopping. Well-known thrift chains have pushed low wages and poor working conditions in the past, so supporting your community can best be achieved by buying from locally owned thrift stores or local sellers (Intersectional Environmentalist, 2021). Lastly, with online thrift shops gaining adoration, in-person thrift stores are becoming more gentrified. Plus shopping online (second-hand shopping included) increase carbon footprints from priority shipping with tracking, which many resellers use. Supporting those who use carbon-neutral shipping or attending local clothing sales in person are ethical and environmentally-friendly methods to continue supporting local artisans. Thrifting can continue to be a positive experience for all once those who are privileged recognize how to consciously shop second-hand.

Overall, thrifting is advantageous in protecting the planet and actively fights against fast fashion practices. When it is done with consideration, thrifting can be auspicious for people of all financial backgrounds and statuses. Next time you go shopping, think how you can do so ethically, sustainably, and with other people in mind.

Also by Abby: I’ve Been Using Refillery Stations, And It’s Game-Changing For A Low-Waste Lifestyle

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Photo: Becca McHaffie via Unsplash

Abbey Serio
Abbey is a recent college graduate based in Southern California who is extremely passionate about sustainability and zero waste. She has been vegan for over 4 years and loves animals. In her free time Abbey can be found hiking, reading, listening to music, experimenting with new vegan recipes, gardening, and spending time with friends and family. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


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