Updated: Oct 19, 2021
For many, going out and visiting second-hand stores like Goodwill — whether it be with friends, family, or all on one’s lonesome — is a thrilling adventure! You never know what you’re going to end up finding in thrift stores, because inventory is typically donated or even sold to the store. Products, clothing in particular, aren’t usually donated in bulk, making almost everything that can be found at a thrift store unique to some degree. You know that ceramic figurine of an orange tabby cat lying on their back in a little crop of meadow with a nice red mushroom right by their tail that you just found behind a set of plates? That may have been mass-produced in the ’80s, but now you’re the only one of your friends who owns anything like it! The same can be said for clothing purchased from thrift stores, minus the odd set of matching tee-shirts you might find.
We’re often told that buying clothes second hand is good for the environment, but not everyone can articulate why this is. So in what ways exactly is thrifting good for the environment?
For starters, it takes business away from the fast fashion industry. This may sound a bit harsh, but let’s take a look at what fast fashion is before jumping to conclusions. Merriam-Webster defines fast fashion as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” Before the rise of fast fashion, which can be placed roughly around the early 2000s (though the seeds were planted much earlier), the fashion industry ran on a two-season cycle for their collections: Spring/Summer (January through June) and Fall/Winter (July through December). Nowadays, most fast fashion brands run on a 52 “micro-season” cycle for their collections, equalling roughly one new collection per week. This is because these brands realized they could replicate runway collections — as well as streetwear — almost as soon as they were seen or released.
This high turnover rate for trends has led to greater demand for the clothes these companies produce, which has two major drawbacks: products aren’t as high quality as they should be, and people go through them the way they might go through matches while trying to light 101 candles for a great-grandmother’s birthday cake. In 2014, people bought about 60% more clothing than they did only 14 years earlier in 2000, though they kept the clothes for half as long. This was due largely to the fact that the clothes went out of fashion quickly, but also to the fact that they fell apart easily. Fast fashion garments are not built to last, both in a physical and an on-trend sense.
For fast fashion companies to make more and more product while also continuing to make more and more money, corners “have” to be cut. This includes corners like assembly quality, but also ones like material quality and mindfulness, and respecting natural resources.
It takes a lot of water to produce one single cotton t-shirt — just over 700 gallons, in fact. Because of how much water it consumes to produce new products, the fashion industry as a whole is the “second-largest consumer of water worldwide,” according to Business Insider. Fast fashion has made the industry’s water consumption exponentially greater, due to the gargantuan number of garments churned out by fast fashion brands yearly. You would hope that fast fashion companies would want to reuse as many resources as possible safely to combat their high levels of consumption, but your hopes would be ill-placed. The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution. Dyes and other materials used in production are toxic, and companies don’t bother to choose materials and ingredients that won’t negatively impact our environment.
The resources that go into articles of clothing produced by fast fashion companies typically go to waste after only about a year or two of use, as that is the average life cycle of such garments. Every second, one garbage truck full of clothes is landfilled or incinerated. As the clothes of today are typically made of synthetic materials that include plastic, they don’t biodegrade in landfills and are unsafe to burn. Business taken away from the direct brand-to-consumer supply chain through thrifting often extends the life cycle of fast fashion garments, which means fewer resources end up going to waste.
All in all, when you choose to thrift instead of heading over to a fast fashion brand like H&M or Abercrombie and Fitch, you’re helping our planet by giving new life to pieces that otherwise would have ended up as pollution in one form or another. And while thrifting isn’t the best or only solution to fighting the negative impacts of fast fashion on our environment, it is a huge step in the right direction.