According to the EPA, Americans produced nearly 17 million tons of textile waste in 2017, with almost 70% going straight to landfills. The production of clothes often has a huge environmental impact in water waste and CO2 emissions; to make just one pair of jeans takes around 1800 gallons of water. Fast fashion stores like Fashion Nova and Forever 21 offer runway designs at affordable prices, in return for low ethical standards for garment workers in developing countries and a growing problem of overconsumption as people buy tons of cheaply made goods that wear out quickly. Clearly, fashion is not exactly green.
Thus, sustainable fashion has been a buzz word lately, but it still seems to be almost impossible for the average person to be able to buy clothes with the environment in mind.
In the past few years, thrifting has exploded in popularity, with many millennials and Gen Zers opting to buy clothes second hand. Whether attributed to concerns for the environment, an effort to be more frugal, or simply due to trends on social media, people are flocking to stores like Goodwill or Buffalo Exchange to find unique pieces at low prices. Searching for the thrift tag on TikTok or YouTube yields millions of results, with popular creators like bestdressed sharing tips on how to make the most of a trip. If anything, the stigma surrounding second hand shopping has certainly waned. Thrifting is often touted as an alternative to fast fashion and a way to keep clothes out of landfills, but is it really as socially conscious as it seems?
Debates have ensued over the newfound popularity of thrifting. A prevalent argument has been that thrift stores have been gentrified; upper and middle class shoppers treat them as commodities and take quality clothes away from low income individuals who are genuinely in need, and raise prices, ultimately defeating the original purpose of the stores. The increased demand for secondhand clothes also exacerbates the lack of plus size clothing (especially for low income people, who are disproportionately more obese) because it has become trendy to buy clothing in larger sizes and fit them to smaller sizes. One thrift shop owner in Virginia, however, argues that there are more than enough clothes to go around (which would otherwise go to landfills) and that a somewhat demographic divide exists between the clothes that upper and lower class shoppers will buy.
Setting aside the gentrification issue, it’s also been pointed out that thrifting does nothing for the issue of overconsumption that goes hand in hand with fast fashion. People crave new items, and cheap prices tempt them to buy clothing in huge volumes, only to wear them once then throw them away. This does nothing for sustainability. Under a capitalist system, there is always the danger that once something becomes popular, it will lose its original purpose in sight of greater profits.
So what’s the alternative? Many brands that claim to be ethically sourced are of questionable validity. These stores can appear to be environmentally friendly with choice advertising because there are virtually no legal standards for sustainability. The few truly sustainable brands are too hopelessly expensive for the average person to buy. Plus, many consumers have the misconception that higher prices on general clothing brands mean that they pay their workers a more livable wage, but in reality, many mid-level brands use the same factories that fast fashion brands do.
There’s no perfect option to shop sustainably, so the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to fashion is simply to be mindful.
- The best way to reduce your footprint is by reducing the volume of clothes you buy each year, and making sure what you buy is of quality material and can be worn over and over.
- When donating to thrift stores, make sure the items are ones that people would actually want to buy.
- Be wary of textile recycling services, as many simply ship clothing to resale markets in developing countries like Rwanda or Ghana, where they disrupt local production or end up in landfills.
- Upcycle clothes that can no longer be worn and make the effort to mend clothes that are in need of small repairs instead of throwing them out.
- Normalize repeating outfits.
- When thrifting, be mindful of how much you buy.
- Be careful when online shopping, because returns may not be resold to other customers and instead be thrown away.