Saturday, January 20, 2024

Why Thrifting Won't Actually Save the Environment ... Sorry thrifters

Thrifting is a popular trend among young people who want to shop sustainably and ethically. 

The idea is that by buying second-hand clothes, you are reducing your environmental impact and supporting local charities or businesses. 

But is thrifting really as green and guilt-free as it seems? 

In this blog post, we will explore some of the hidden drawbacks of thrifting and how you can make more informed choices when shopping for used clothes.

The Problem of Overproduction

One of the main arguments in favor of thrifting is that it prevents clothes from ending up in landfills.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the world produced more than 17 million tons of textiles in 2018, compared to only around 2 million 50 years ago. 

However, thrifting alone cannot solve the problem of overproduction and overconsumption that fuels the fast fashion industry. 

In fact, thrifting may even benefit from the excessive output of fashion brands, as it depends on a constant supply of cheap and trendy clothes.

As journalist and author Elizabeth Cline points out, "The thrift store system we have today was set up at a time in history when clothes were more rarefied and valued and that system will need a rethink and a reset in the era of fast fashion. The system is just breaking down at this point".

Thrifting may prolong the life cycle of clothes, but it does not stop the demand for new ones. Instead of buying one $100 sweater, we can snag a handful of $30 ones that might not last as long, or even a dozen of $5 ones from a thrift store. 

This creates a vicious cycle of buying and discarding clothes, which ultimately leads to more waste and emissions.

The Problem of Quality

Another issue with thrifting is that not all clothes are created equal. The quality of the clothing we buy affects how long it lasts, how often we wear it, and how easy it is to recycle or repurpose it. 

Unfortunately, most of the clothes that end up in thrift stores are made from low-quality materials, such as synthetic fabrics that are prone to pilling, fading, and tearing. 

These fabrics also have a higher environmental impact than natural ones, as they require more energy and water to produce and release microplastics into the waterways when washed.

Moreover, not all clothes that are donated to thrift stores are sold or reused. In fact, only about 20% of the clothes that are collected by charities or recycling facilities are resold as-is. 

The rest are either exported to developing countries, where they can disrupt local markets and cultures or turned into rags, insulation, or fibers for new products. 

These processes often involve chemical treatments, shredding machines, and additional transportation costs that increase the environmental footprint of the clothes. 

As Maresa Ponitch, who owns and operates Dusty Rose Vintage in Brooklyn, New York says, "A huge percentage of what thrift stores bring in they don’t put on the shop floor. (A lot of it) ends up being sent somewhere else for someone else to deal with".

The Problem of Ethics

Finally, thrifting is not always an ethical choice either. 

While some thrift stores support charitable causes or local communities, others are run by for-profit companies that exploit their workers and customers. 

For example, Goodwill Industries, one of the largest thrift store chains in the US, has been accused of paying its disabled employees below minimum wage, while its executives earn six-figure salaries. 

Moreover, some thrift stores have been found to hike up their prices or sell donated items online for profit, making them less accessible and affordable for low-income shoppers who rely on them.

Additionally, thrifting can also perpetuate size-ism and class-ism in the fashion industry. 

Many thrift stores have limited options for plus-sized or petite customers, as they depend on what people donate or discard. 

This can make thrifting a frustrating and exclusionary experience for those who do not fit into the standard sizes or styles. 

Thrifting can also reinforce the stigma and stereotypes associated with second-hand clothing.

How to Thrift Better

Despite these problems, thrifting can still be a positive and enjoyable way to shop for clothes if done mindfully and responsibly. 

Here are some tips on how to thrift better:

  • Buy less: The most sustainable way to shop is to buy less in general. Before you go thrifting, ask yourself if you really need or want something new, or if you can make do with what you already have. Try to avoid impulse buys or buying things just because they are cheap or trendy. Instead, look for quality pieces that fit your style, personality, and needs.
  • Buy better: When you do buy something, try to choose items that are made from natural, organic, or recycled materials, such as cotton, linen, wool, or hemp. These fabrics are more durable, comfortable, and biodegradable than synthetic ones. Also, look for clothes that are well-made, in good condition, and easy to care for. Avoid clothes that are stained, torn, or have missing buttons or zippers.

  • Buy local: Whenever possible, support local thrift stores that donate their profits to social or environmental causes, such as animal shelters, homeless shelters, or environmental groups. These stores not only help their communities, but also reduce the transportation and emissions associated with shipping clothes across the world. You can also look for online platforms that connect local sellers and buyers of second-hand clothes, such as Depop, Poshmark, or ThredUp.
  • Buy ethically: Be respectful and considerate of the people who work at or shop from thrift stores. Do not haggle over prices or take advantage of discounts that are meant for low-income customers. Please choose appropriate clothing.
  • Buy creatively: One of the best things about thrifting is that you can find unique and original pieces that express your individuality and creativity. You can also customize or alter your clothes to make them more personal and suitable for you. For example, you can dye, bleach, embroider, patch, or cut your clothes to create new looks. You can also swap or share your clothes with your friends or family to refresh your wardrobe without buying new things.


Thrifting is not a perfect solution to the environmental and ethical problems of the fashion industry. It has its own drawbacks and challenges that need to be addressed and improved.

However, thrifting can still be a fun and rewarding way to shop for clothes if done with awareness and intention. By following the tips above, you can thrift better and make a positive difference for yourself, others, and the planet.


This article is written by an independent author and does not represent the views of Firley Nonprofit.