Fashion for the Earth

Unraveling the Impact of Thrifting

This month, designers and models will gather in New York, London, Milan, and Paris for fashion week and show off intricately crafted clothing. Although these high-fashion garments are beautiful, worsening climate conditions and environmental degradation have made it more crucial than ever for us to cut back on clothing production and consumption. 

But what about the average consumer, or even those who rely mainly on thrifting for their clothes? Many resourceful people have been scouring through used clothing racks and bins for years to find stunning vintage garments and outfit staples, but the process of thrifting has become even more popular in the past five years. We tend to think of thrifting as a promising possibility to give unwanted clothes a second life, but the reality is less rosy.  

The rise of thrifting 

From 2021 to 2023, the value of the global secondhand apparel market rose from $138 to $211 billion, and is expected to reach $351 billion by 2027. The online resale market has also exploded, enabling resellers to quickly scoop up the best pieces in brick and mortar stores and put them up for sale on virtual marketplaces, often for inflated prices. In 2023 alone, online resales accounted for $20 billion.  

We consider thrifting a sustainable alternative to purchasing new fast fashion clothes as it keeps clothing in circulation, but the landscape of thrifting is changing as more and more clothes are flowing into donation bins. The sheer quantity of donated clothing is astounding — Goodwill receives almost 6 billion pounds of donations a year. Purchasing used clothes does not fix the problem of fast fashion, which is rife with health and environmental harms. 

Is thrifting really sustainable? 

During the production of new clothing, harmful dyes and toxic substances are used and greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. Polyester and other synthetic fibers derived from fossil fuels make up nearly 70% of our clothing. When they are washed and dried, they also shed thousands of tiny particles called microfibers into freshwater, oceans, and the air.

While cleaning out our closets, we make piles of clothes that we donate indiscriminately to these stores. Once we drop these donations off, we adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” perspective. But these clothes have to end up somewhere. Thrifting and reusing clothes for other purposes may extend the life cycle of clothing, but it does not change the fact that many garments end up in landfills at the end of the day, especially those not designed for resale and use by multiple people over time. 

Even if you buy a cheaply made shirt at the thrift store to give it a second life, the reality is that the garment will likely not last long. Many fast fashion sellers do make clothing with durability in mind — they are concerned with keeping up with the latest trends and rely on poor quality materials and underpaid labor.

If you go to thrift stores now, you may see racks stuffed with products from SHEIN, Fashion Nova, or other fast fashion brands. The popularity of fast fashion brands coupled with changing trends fueled by social media means that many lower quality fast fashion items are donated to thrift stores, making durable vintage items harder to find. And those are just the pieces the store decides to put on the floor for sale. 

The fate of unwanted donations 

Thrift stores receive such a large volume of donations that they simply cannot sell it all on the floor. For example, Goodwill only puts around half of their donations out for sale at brick and mortar stores; the other half  is sent to wholesale outlet stores or salvage dealers. Pieces that are stained or noticeably torn or broken are usually not put out for sale. 

Thus, only 10-30% of donated clothes are actually purchased from thrift stores by consumers. The excess usually ends up on the salvage market. For-profit recyclers buy up the unsold merchandise and sell it in the U.S. for industrial wipes, carpeting, mattress padding, insulation, and even paper

But many of these salvage companies look to foreign markets for profit. Large bundles of clothing are packaged up and sent overseas to developing countries like Kenya, Ghana, and Pakistan. Importers often receive these secondhand goods at a rate higher than they can feasibly sell. But this export system supports an economy that many local people in these countries depend on — the garments are often sold at much more affordable prices by street side vendors than domestically produced clothing. 

However, textile importation stunts the success of domestic clothing manufacturers, which led East African leaders to initiate a ban on the practice. This ban later failed as the U.S. put pressure on these countries to continue accepting clothing exports. Textile exportation also essentially shifts the responsibility for clothing waste from developed countries onto less developed ones. This “solution” ensures that we can keep producing an exorbitant amount of clothing, because we have a “safe place” to dump our unwanted garments to keep them out of our own landfills.

So, what can we do?

The only logical solution is to deal with the problem at the source and put an end to the overproduction of garments to keep them out of landfills. The fast fashion industry makes around 100 billion garments each year, the majority of which are fossil-fuel heavy synthetic garments that pollute from cradle to grave.

As a society, we must reckon with the effects of our consumption. Fast fashion cannot exist with buyers who continue to support the industry. For whatever reason, whether it be impulse buying, shopping with friends for fun, or purchasing hundreds of pieces for social media “hauls,” consumers continue to buy clothes they do not really need. 

Most people use only 20% of their wardrobes most of the time. Instead of opening that fast fashion brand’s app, consider opening your closet and “shopping” for pieces you haven’t worn in a while. Shifting your mindset away from consumption takes time and effort, but if we all bought a little less, reused a little more, and purchased higher-quality goods, we could reduce textile waste and make thrifting fun again. To learn more about sustainable fashion and work with us to demand change from the fashion industry, visit EARTHDAY.ORG’s Fashion for the Earth campaign page and join our mission for a sustainable future.