Have you ever thought about the ethics and sustainability of thrifting?

Thrifting or shopping second-hand as an alternative to fast fashion has become increasingly popular. According to a report by resale service ThredUp, around 40 percent of Gen Z-ers were buying second-hand in 2019 compared to less than 30 percent in 2016. Because it keeps products in circulation for longer, it is absolutely better for the environment to buy second-hand—but this sustainable and “guilt-free” way of shopping also may have caused some ethical problems along the way.

The ethics of thrifting

The original purpose of thrift shops was to provide accessible and affordable products for lower-income communities. Now, you’ll see people from all income brackets shopping second-hand. With this rising interest and trend of thrifting, we’re also seeing an increase in thrift shop prices, which prevents those on a tight budget from shopping. Yes, while buying used clothes does avoid contributing money to an oversaturated consumer market, we’re also taking affordable donated clothes away from those who really need it.

The sustainability of thrifting

Though it seems harmless to continuously go and buy from thrift shops, overconsumption can still be a problem. Shopping has become less about necessity and more about following trends—and because of the low prices in thrift shops, you may still buy more than you need, and things that you just don’t need.

Thrift stores are so well-stocked because we cycle so quickly through trends. Thrifting feeds off the instability and unsustainability of the fast-fashion industry. Without it, there wouldn’t be such a massive second-hand market. In reality, only 10 to 20 percent of our donated items will be displayed. The remaining 80 percent are shipped to other countries like Poland, Pakistan and Kenya and turned into rags or post-consumer fiber, which is an energy-intensive task (not to mention the emissions that go into the shipping of unsold clothing).

Overall, unconscious donating and thrifting still perpetuates the “wear once and toss” mentality—leading to the belief that our clothing has no long-term value.

Shifting to mindful and ethical thrifting:

  1. Be mindful: only buy what you need, when you need it. Even if “the price is right.”
  2. Avoid buying items from thrift shops that are essential for those with a lower income: shoes, underwear, baby items and coats.
  3. Buy in your size. It’s hard enough to purchase items in larger sizes, and when smaller people are purchasing them when they have other options, it becomes even more difficult.
  4. Avoid reselling. Although it seems harmless in theory, removing used items from an already low stockpile to resell it for higher prices is detrimental for communities who depend on second-hand shopping.
  5. Don’t thrift in low-income neighbourhoods. Stick to stores in your neighbourhood or in those with similar income levels. If you shop in low-income areas, you risk raising the prices for local residents and take away the supply of pieces they need.
  6. Make a list of items that you need and host a clothing swap with friends. Trading items is a great way to find new pieces, and that way those thrift store pieces can be saved for those who truly need them.
  7. If you can afford to, shop sustainably. Investing in those staple pieces is a great way to be anti-consumerist, because you’ll be more conscious of how much you spend on a piece. Truly sustainable shops also only put out a select number of new pieces per season (that don’t always follow modern trends and are timeless), or run on a made-to-order basis. Many times, these shops have payment plans, or sales, though they encourage saving sales for those who truly need to shop sale.
  8. The most sustainable item is one you already own. Go digging in your closet, wear your pieces in fun ways, refurbish them, embroider them, and give them new life!

Thrifting is such a fun hobby, and it can be addicting to try to find hidden treasures. Just be sure to stay mindful of communities around you, and keep this list in mind when thrifting or shopping in general.