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Thrifting’s Double-Edged Sword: Understanding Why Thrifting is Bad

A blue chair with a white blouse, blue jeans, and sweater

What is thrifting?

Have you ever browsed through a thrift store, discovering hidden gems among gently used items that once belonged to someone else? Going thrifting is precisely that- a unique shopping experience where you can find preloved treasures ranging from clothing, shoes, and accessories to furniture and household items, all at a discounted price. It’s not only about snagging a good deal; thrifting has become a great option for many low-income families seeking value without breaking the bank.

While thrifting has gained popularity for its sustainable and budget-friendly appeal, it is critical to examine its impact on various aspects. From ethical considerations to environmental concerns, this article explores the potential pitfalls associated with thrifting. However, we guide you through mindful secondhand practices that will contribute positively to both personal lifestyle and the broader global community.

Quote about why thrifting is bad: The roots of thrifting have inadvertently contributed to the prevailing culture of overconsumption.

Understanding the Origins of Why Thrifting is Bad

Thrifting throughout the ages dates back to the 1300s, during the Middle Ages when market squares buzzed with bartered clothing. People have been reusing clothes throughout time, however, it gained momentum during the Industrial Revolution, an era marked by more affordable and disposable garments. Struggling against anti-Semitic constraints, Jewish immigrants found a trade by selling secondhand clothing from pushcarts, providing a lucrative means of income.

The Salvation Army recognized the potential and, in 1897, pioneered the exchange of used clothes for food and lodging. The secondhand space became a lifeline for those struggling with the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. 

Secondhand Sustainability with a Twist

As the 20th Century unfolded, thrift stores were born and became a crucial adaptation to America’s increasingly mass-produced and disposable economy. Thrift stores, inspired by department stores, strategically displayed items and even organized fashion shows to dismantle the stigma associated with wearing used clothing. Beyond offering budget-friendly options, thrift stores played a pivotal role in justifying Americans’ new purchases, emphasizing the charitable aspect of donating used goods. Additionally, they imparted essential skills to immigrants who were navigating the complexities of the American marketplace.

Fast forward to the present, thrifting has evolved into a sustainable shopping practice, endorsed for its positive environmental impact. Paradoxically, the roots of thrifting have inadvertently contributed to the prevailing culture of overconsumption. By normalizing the idea of donating used items and promoting the cycle of acquiring new possessions, thrifting has played a part in shaping our modern patterns of excessive consumption. It’s a fascinating twist in understanding why thrifting is bad – from its historical role as a means of survival to its downfall as a double-edged sword in the face of overconsumption. 

Why Thrifting is Bad: Unraveling the Consequences

Why Thrifting is Bad: Overconsumption in Thrifting

Once a haven for budget-conscious individuals, thrifting has undergone a transformation in the digital era, propelled by influencers who have turned it into a trendy lifestyle. Social media platforms overflow with videos showcasing young shoppers navigating thrift store aisles and filling shopping carts with their latest thrifted finds. The allure of affordable treasures and the sustainability narrative have drawn a massive influx of millennials and Gen-Zers to thrift stores.

In 2019, the global secondhand market was valued at $28 billion, a figure expected to more than double by 2024, reaching an estimated worth of $64 billion. While the popularity of thrifting has surged, there are critics who raise concerns about why thrifting is bad for the environment. They highlight potential issues such as the production of disposable fashion items and the environmental impact of overconsumption, even within the secondhand market.

Why Thrifting is Bad: The Rise of Gentrification

The popularity of thrift stores, while bringing thrifting into the mainstream, has inadvertently fueled its gentrification. The surge in demand for secondhand clothing has led to a spike in pricing, transforming what was once a sanctuary for thrifty shoppers into an arena where affordability is compromised. This phenomenon contributes to the ongoing discussion about why thrifting is bad, as the shift in pricing disproportionately affects low-income communities, often composed of minority and POC groups. What used to be a pair of jeans for $5 may now be priced at $25.

The consequences of this gentrification are far-reaching. The influx of affluent shoppers, who can afford new and higher-quality clothing, contributes to overconsumption by purchasing more items than necessary. This aspect is part of the broader conversation about the ethics of why thrifting is bad, as it not only prices out low-income shoppers but also exacerbates the challenges faced by plus-sized consumers who already struggle to find suitable clothing in the firsthand market. The very communities that traditionally depend on the affordability of thrift stores are finding themselves further isolated and disadvantaged in the face of thrifting gentrification.

Why thrifting is bad quote: While secondhand shopping might seem like a noble act, a remedy to the excesses of the capitalistic system, the secondhand market is intricately linked to the firsthand retail market.

Why Thrifting is Bad: The Dark Side of Donating

While secondhand shopping might seem like a noble act, a remedy to the excesses of the capitalist system, the reality is far more problematic. The secondhand market intricately links with the firsthand retail market, and the surge in micro fashion trends and fast fashion has consequences that extend beyond our closets.

The arrival of disposable clothing designed for short-lived trends lures consumers into a cycle of fast fashion where garments begin to fall apart after a single season. Rather than disposing of these items directly, many turn to thrift stores, donating in the belief that their discarded clothes will find a new home. In 2022 alone, ThredUp, an online consignment store, experienced an 186% increase in items from the fast fashion giant Shein. The rise in disposable clothing flooding the thrift stores signals the end of a golden age when high-quality clothing used to be readily available.

The question arises of what really happens to your donated clothing – especially fast fashion that is crafted for immediate trends and lacking durability for a prolonged second life. Astonishingly, only 10%-30% of secondhand clothing resells in the store and finds a new home. As the influx of donations into thrift stores continues, a pressing question emerges: where do these garments end up?

What Really Happens to Your Donated Clothing?

The answer lies in a global journey, with approximately 15 million pieces of clothing from Western countries and China landing in Ghana’s Kantamanto, one of the world’s largest secondhand markets, every single week. While this might seem like a benevolent act, what really happens after we donate our clothing can carry severe consequences. This aspect adds another layer to the discussion of why thrifting is bad, as our exported secondhand clothing competes with local businesses, leading to potential economic collapse for those already struggling to turn a profit. Exporting used clothing overseas contributes to the erosion of local businesses and reinforces a dependency on the nations donating their used clothing. This, in turn, leaves them reliant on external sources for their clothing needs and jeopardizes their economic self-sufficiency. 

Kate Bahen of Charity Intelligence equates sending used clothing abroad to shipping our garbage for others to handle. An estimated 40% of all the donated clothes in Kantamanto remain unsold and thrown away; essentially evading responsibility and pass our trash onto other nations. This ultimately undermines the altruistic notion that donating our used clothes will prevent them from becoming waste and rotting in landfills, further emphasizing the reasons why thrifting is bad for the environment.

Quote: while there may be drawbacks to thrifting, it's importance to recognize that there's still a valuable place for secondhand shopping.

How to Navigate Secondhand Shopping

While there may be drawbacks to thrifting, there’s still a valuable place for secondhand shopping. Far from intending to discourage it entirely, embracing secondhand options can have significant positive implications. According to ThredUP’s 2023 Resale Report, opting for secondhand over new clothing reduces carbon emissions by an average of 25%. Extending the lifespan of a garment by just nine months can further diminish its environmental impact by 20%-30%, highlighting the sustainability of thrifting. These statistics underscore the potential environmental benefits of incorporating ethical and sustainable practices into our lifestyles.

Secondhand Shopping: Mindful Tips for You

Avoid Fast Fashion

A better secondhand landscape starts with the clothes we buy new. Steer clear of poor-quality clothing that lacks a viable end-of-life solution. These items are not designed for a second life and are often made with non-biodegradable materials. As a result, fast fashion, even if donated, risks lingering in landfills for centuries.

Prioritize High-Quality Clothing

Seek out new clothing crafted for longevity. Familiarize yourself with fabric materials and educate yourself on signs of solid garment construction. This ensures that, if the need arises, the item can find a new home, ready to be cherished and enjoyed by its next owner.

Practice the 3 Ls of Shopping

Apply the 3 Ls of Slow Shopping– Life-Style, Legitimacy, and Longevity- not only to your new clothes but also to your secondhand finds. Align the clothing with your lifestyle, confirm its durability, and assess its lasting value in your closet. This approach combats overconsumption and encourages meaningful purchases that align with your personal style.

Explore Various Secondhand Alternatives

Secondhand shopping becomes particularly appealing when seeking luxurious fabrics and high-end clothing with ethically questionable production methods, such as animal-based materials and durable synthetics. If you love the look of silk, leather, and fur but hate their means of production, second-hand stores provide a conscientious alternative. Additionally, while the production of polyester and nylon may not entirely negate the environmental impact, their durability makes them a sustainable choice for a second life in your closet. 

Diversify your secondhand shopping experience beyond local donation centers. Explore online marketplaces like The Real Real or the Vestiaire Collective, especially if you have an affinity for higher-end, luxury brands. Local consignment stores, where individuals bring in their own clothes and receive a percentage of the sales, provide another avenue for discovering unique preloved pieces. More often than not, these options still target a higher-end consumer and you’re not taking discounted inventory for people who may need it.

By adopting these mindful practices, you can make secondhand shopping a sustainable and meaningful endeavor, contributing to a more conscious and responsible fashion culture.

Blue chair that holds a white blouse, blue jeans, and sweater that are folded and piled on top of each other

Beyond the Bin: A Guide for Responsible Donations

Donate Thoughtfully

Before sending items to the thrift store, critically assess whether they are in a condition to sell. Dirty, damaged, or outdated clothing may not find a buyer, and donating may be a one-way ticket to the landfill. Ensure your donated clothes are clean and intact; consider taking some time to mend minor flaws like small holes or missing buttons.

Seasonal Sensibility

Donate clothing corresponding with the seasons to optimize the chances of selling and prevent unnecessary inventory buildup. For example, avoid sending warm winter coats and sweaters during the summertime; instead, wait for the appropriate season to enhance the likelihood of a successful sale.

Direct Donations

Rather than anonymously dropping off your clothes at a donation center, try to find more direct avenues like Facebook Marketplace or clothing swaps. This ensures a personal connection, providing confidence that someone who genuinely values and cares for them will appreciate your clothes.

Explore End-of-Life Alternatives

Diversify your end-of-life strategies beyond traditional donation centers like Goodwill or Salvation Army:

  • Look for special assistance programs in your local community that may require clothing like individuals looking for something to wear while attending job interviews.
  • Embrace creative repurposing by transforming old clothing into new items that suit your everyday needs, such as turning an old dress into cleaning rags or converting towels into face cloths.
  • Recognize the potential for recycling; approximately 95% of clothing and textiles can be reused or recycled. Damaged items can find new life as cleaning rags or be transformed into materials like paper, yarn, or insulation. Ensure your clothing is dry and odor-free before sending it to a textile recycling center.

The End-of-Life Responsibility

Whether you’re purchasing new or used clothing, it’s important to acknowledge the responsibility of the end-of-life phase. This act goes beyond a simple drop-off at a thrift store – it’s about ensuring your clothing finds the right home, whether through repurposing or recycling. If you’re not ready for this responsibility, reconsider the decision to acquire new clothes. By adopting these mindful practices, we can collectively stop fast fashion and contribute to a more responsible fashion system.

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