In 2012, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis sang about their adventures at the “Thrift Shop” and the lyric “poppin’ tags” became a catchphrase. And thanks to the current fascination with decluttering, those thrift shops are packed full of fantastic finds today. From designer clothes at a fraction of retail cost to all the supplies you could possibly need for your latest Pinterest project, second hand stores, consignment shops, yard sales, and even used-goods websites are the places to go.
And why not? Obviously you’ll be able to save some money, but more importantly, shopping used is good for the environment. Producing new clothing is an energy-intensive endeavor. In today’s “fast fashion” culture, clothing is taken from the runway, quickly mass produced, and delivered to the retailer, using precious resources each step along the way. In the rush to hit the sales floor, these garments are generally produced inexpensively and tend to wear out, fall apart, or simply go out of style after being worn just a few times; often the next stop is the landfill. Americans alone throw away about 10.5 million tons or 70 pounds of clothing per person per year! That’s equivalent to 191 t-shirts each. Polyester, spandex, nylon, and rayon (all synthetic materials) take as much as 200 years to fully biodegrade. Since 2000, consumers have increased the number of clothing items purchased by 60%; however, each garment is kept half as long. Gone are the days when clothing was reused within a household: mended, passed down, then finally cut up for cloth. By buying used clothing, your carbon footprint is lowered. According to ThredUp, “If each article of clothing was given a second home after being discarded the first time, waste and emissions would be reduced by 73%.”
Clothing production also requires high water consumption. In general, growing one kilogram of cotton requires 5300 gallons of water, wet processing another 18 gallons, and printing 21.6 gallons more. To make one pair of jeans, approximately 1800 gallons of water are used. And 713 gallons of water are needed to grow the cotton for just one t-shirt. Cotton production accounts for almost 20% of pesticide usage worldwide. Nearly 90% of textile cotton is genetically modified, meaning it is highly pesticide-intensive which leads to soil acidification and water contamination. Harmful dyes and crude oil by-products used in processing can contaminate nearby bodies of water. To add insult to injury, textile manufacturing is often outsourced to underdeveloped countries with little to no enforcement of environmental regulations. The production of synthetic fabrics releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas which is 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide; chemicals used in the apparel industry and the production of clothing account for 10% of emissions worldwide.
So, shopping at your local thrift store can minimize the environmental impact of clothing production. But it benefits our planet and the people living there in other ways as well. Many organizations that operate secondhand stores donate to local charities; your money helps your community instead of multinational corporations. For example, employment is provided in not only the retail store, but also at donation centers and processing facilities. “Our retail stores generate revenue to support our mission, which is to provide skills training and employment services to individuals with barriers,” states Sarah Ekstrand, a retail marketing specialist for Goodwill of Central Iowa. They operate 19 retail stores and one online shopping site, ShopGoodwill.com, which sold 20,299 items in 2017 alone. “All of the support goes to individuals in our community.” In the past 10 years, Goodwill of Central Iowa has employed over 5,000 people and served more than 37,000 individuals as a result of the revenue earned from their stores. In an effort to keep unsold donations from still ending up in the landfill, many organizations utilize a trickle-down process for sales. After about four weeks in the retail store, clothing is moved to an outlet where items are sold super cheap or by the pound. Unbought goods are then auctioned off by the bin. And if they still aren’t sold, they’re sent to companies which can recycle up to 95% of the textiles they receive.
Megan Evans, a fashion influencer who authors the blog “As Seen on M.E.” feels we must avoid the waste created by fast fashion. “We are not always going to be able to buy every single thing secondhand,” she says, but thrift shopping is a means of “lessening the carbon footprint and it’s more sustainable.”