Second in a four part series. Intro is here, Part 1 on Consumption is here, and future posts can be found using the series: sustainability tag.
Thrifting is officially A Thing, now, which is good and bad. It’s good in that people are reusing and recycling clothing, which reduces waste and the demand for new clothing (assuming that a person who thrifts a shirt is then not buying another shirt on top of the thrifted one). Thrift stores tend to be small, locally owned businesses (with the exception of organizations like the Salvation Army*, Goodwill and Value Village), which I think is a key component to building sustainable societies. Small business are excellent for building community, nurturing local talent and creativity, and are often not directly reliant on a global, capitalist economic environment where only enormous corporations are viable. It keeps money in the community rather than sending it to line already rich businesses coffers, and it fosters a diversity of garments available. Thrift stores are sources of interesting clothing that’s not necessarily trendy at the moment, and as someone who doesn’t like, say, skinny jeans one bit (they look awful and aren’t comfortable on me), this is quite a boon. I’m not someone who follows trends in any way other than realizing that half the women on the bus are wearing XYZ, so apparently it’s fashionable now? I find thrifting much less exasperating than shopping in conventional retail stores, because thrift stores aren’t full of 20 versions of the same shape and style of clothing (which most of the time I find unflattering). It’s cheaper too, and means that I can explore my style without exceeding my student-sized budget. Thrifting encourages my creativity, and gives me a way to hone my skills at altering clothing. I am a big fan for many reasons.
But. (There’s always a but, isn’t there?)
Thrift stores still rely on clothes being made in the first place. The majority of clothes manufactured probably aren’t going to end up in thrift stores, so there’s a certain amount of waste necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and have enough wheat left to have a viable thrift store supply. This is variable, I know, and isn’t insurmountable, but the rise of fast (ie, disposable) fashion means that while there’s theoretically more grain to sift through to find the wheat, the wheat to chaff ratio is skewing towards chaff. Giving clothes second lives is great, but the clothes have to withstand one lifetime first, which effectively rules out many cheap, trendy clothes. That said, the fashion industry isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so there’s likely to still be a supply of clothing, but if we’re trying to reduce consumption of new goods as much as possible, thrift stores are not a cure-all solution. And while it’s highly unlikely that everyone will get on board to the exclusion of retail shopping, it’s unlikely that it will still work if everyone does.
Plus, as I alluded to in the first post, there’s the question of what happens to the discarded clothing that doesn’t make it to thrift stores in one way or another. There’s a booming industry of the global North exporting its discarded clothes to the global South, which really throws the local economics out of whack. Exported clothing is cheaper than locally made goods, and local businesses suffer. There are plenty of ways in which the global North meddles in the economies (trade regulations, economic subsidies that shut out international trade, political pressures, etc) of the global South, and this is just another specific item in a long list. Sustainability requires stability, and having an economy dependent on a high consumption rate is not, in the long run, stable; having economies dependent to some degree on the waste of a high-consuming economy is even less stable. It’s certainly not like thrifting is primarily fueling the disposal of clothes, but there still needs to be a focus on making clothes that are well made and not disposable in the first place, as well as an internal recycling mechanism for clothes that are still wearable but unwanted by the original owner.
These are all caveats, I think, and not indictments of thrifting. From a sustainability perspective, I think thrifting is very much a net positive, which is why most of the clothes I buy rather than making are thrifted. Sustainability’s not the entire picture of thrifting, though, and I had a whole other section for this post that I realized that it had little to do with sustainability and much more with the politics of thrifting, so I elected to save that for a separate post to keep the focus of this series. Next up is home sewing, and I’m hoping to get that up by the end of the week.
* I mention the Salvation Army partially because I think it’s important to point out their systemic homophobia. I know they do good work helping families in need, but there are plenty of organizations that do that without the bigotry. A little googling will turn up more, but here’s a couple of articles to have a read of:
The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle of Trouble
The Importance of Not Giving
No Gay Change for the Salvation Army