Is Thrift Shopping Sustainable?

On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer: buying clothes already in existence is the most sustainable thing you can do - right? It's not so simple. Here's why that eco-influencer hashtag #nonewclothes isn't doing sustainable fashion any favors.

- Fashion is in the top five largest industries in the world. It's not going anywhere. The approach we need to take towards the industry is transformation, not abolishment. Thrift shopping may be sustainable, but it doesn't actively support sustainable fashion. Sustainable brands are incentivizing regenerative practices, retraining and reforming the supply chain. Most small brands like myself are self-funded (fashion is notoriously hard-up for investors because of low profit margins, a result of industry devaluation. After an MBA, a 100 page business plan, 4 years of self-funding, and a profitable, debt-free business - still no investors). Without investors, we can't scale. Without consumer support and demand, the scales never get tipped in favor of sustainable supply chain. Business as usual wins.

- Thrift shopping perpetuates the modern consumer demand for cheap and fast, further devaluing an already devalued industry. While some may shop secondhand motivated by sustainability, most still just want to pay $5 for a t-shirt. Why do we expect to pay next-to-nothing for clothes, when they're resource and labor intensive? We now spend the smallest percentage on clothes ever in history, and for more items than ever. It's the wardrobe equivalent of junk food. Sustainable fashion requires us to pay true cost and reevaluate our relationship to clothing.

- 70% of all secondhand clothes end up in Africa, destroying local garment industries. Only a couple of decades ago, Kenya had half a million garment workers and a thriving independent artisanal industry. The number has now dwindled to 20,000. Our cheap used clothing is destroying local economies and creating further reliance on imports. In Ghana, this industry is captured in the Akan expression ‘Obroni Wawu’ - loosely translated as ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes,’ as they imagine that someone would surely have to die to give up so much of their stuff.

- 14 million tons of used clothing goes to landfills every year in the U.S. alone. Thrift shopping may seem to alleviate that number, but the reality is, recycling tackles the symptom, not the cause. The secondhand market gives consumers a false sense of security, reassuring us that the rate which we consume and dispose is normal and sustainable.

- When you do shop secondhand - check the content label! Fabric and manufacturing matters. Avoid synthetics, which shed microplastics on your skin and in the wash. Choose natural fibers, high quality construction and domestic manufacturing instead. You're more likely to value it, care for it and keep it around.

If sustainable fashion is a cause you believe in, the best way to support it isn't thrift shopping - it's purchasing from sustainable brands who are doing the work to reform the industry. I'm aware of the privilege associated with that. It isn't financially accessible to everyone, and that's what thrift is for! But if those with advantage, influence and income aren't willing to invest in sustainable fashion, who will? By all means, supplement with secondhand. But don't forget to put some skin in the game by supporting your favorite sustainable brands!


"Fashion should be about cherishing clothes and creating an identity, but today it's based on constant adrenalin and the excitement of purchasing. There is no anticipation or dreaming. Nothing lasts or is looked after. We each have a mini-landfill in our closets.”

- Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion


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