Textile waste is a combination of discarded clothes, accessories, furniture, carpets, footwear, and other nondurable goods. This type of waste comprises approximately 5% of U.S. landfills, per U.S. EPA reports. Although this 5% may not seem significant, this adds up to 70 pounds of textiles per person, or about 21 billion pounds total per year. This excess presents a rising challenge for the environment as fast fashion (clothes designed for trending consumption rather than long-term wear) turnover increases.
At present, more than 60% of fabric fibers are synthetics and derived from fossil fuels, according to one New York Times piece. About 85% of textile waste in the United States ends up in landfills without decaying or is incinerated, contributing to air pollution. If they don't end up in landfills, many of these synthetic microfibers will end up in some of the deepest parts of the ocean, in freshwater sources, and on some of the highest glacier peaks. These are examples of externalities, or factors not reflected in the market price, of textile products. Although consumers may understand the moral incentive of seeking alternative products to fast fashion, the economic incentive of fast fashion’s low prices is enticing and often is the only option for consumers. Thus, a leading counter-strategy for socially-conscious consumers is to turn to secondhand shopping and give used clothes a second chance.
When you need to get rid of old clothes, one of the most sustainable options is to donate them to thrift stores and shelters through programs such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or local secondhand shops. There is also the option to resell clothes—typically for less than their original price—to consignment stores like Plato’s Closet or through online reseller programs like Mercari, Poshmark, and Depop. While there's no monetary incentive to donating clothes, the benefits include not having to do any work to get rid of them after you make it to a donation center, as well as the knowledge that the clothes will hopefully be sold or brought to a good home where they will be needed and well-worn. On the other hand, a little more work in bargaining for or selling your old clothes provides the added benefit of some extra money.
In terms of transforming your wardrobe, the most sustainable method is to repurpose what you already own. However, if your fabrics are past their days of wear, or if you aren’t quite handy enough with a sewing machine, purchasing secondhand reduces the carbon footprint of your purchase. Resources for secondhand clothing are available in both online and in-person shopping arenas. At a thrift store, you’re more likely to have to dig through items to find something in your style that is also in your size and in decent condition, but the price is almost always very reasonable. This is in comparison to consignment shops, which price items a little higher than the average thrift store, but are pickier when choosing what to take and may have better quality or trendier items. Lastly, when purchasing directly from sellers via online programs, consumers will find higher prices for the ease of an ever-expanding quantity of items which are easily accessible through search bars and hashtags.
Sellers have put plenty of time and effort into making purchasing secondhand not only a financially available option, but also an accessible one. With all of these efforts to increase options and availability, two challenges have arisen in the secondhand fashion industry. First is the privilege attributed to having time to pick through secondhand clothes to find the best quality and most on-trend items. While most thrift and consignment stores were established as a way to get clothing that the original buyers no longer want to wear to people who need affordable clothing options, the result of rising thrift popularity can sometimes lead to over-picked styles and low-quality leftovers. In response to this concern, many secondhand stores are adopting models that let those in need have the first pick through donations. The “over-picked” dilemma is ultimately not as serious as it could be, with the enormous surplus of discarded items and the added bonus of many thrift store purchases directly supporting corresponding charities or organizations.
The second challenge faced by those seeking to increase the lifespan of already-existing clothes is the hoarding and price inflation of resellers on the market. Resellers are people who purchase clothes from thrift stores or consignment shops and resell those clothes for more than they purchased them for to make a profit. While this isn’t harmful on a smaller scale, they do ultimately eliminate the affordability of this eco-friendly option for many people who are unable to afford the increase in price. It takes a lot of resellers to begin damaging the secondhand clothing ecosystem, but it is becoming increasingly common for these resellers to buy in bulk quantities and force thrift stores to up their prices to keep up.
Sellers on the popular secondhand app Depop have come under fire recently for contributing to the possible gentrification and risk of exclusivity of thrifting by matching increasing prices of secondhand items. Depop issued a statement in response to such claims that its mission in launching the app was to create an online marketplace for “well-curated second-hand fashion at an accessible price point." Well-known shop owner Lucy of L.DROBE stated that “sourcing stock from charity shops can take anywhere between one to five hours,” which requires considerable time out of the workday and indicates losses in time and money. While it’s disheartening to see resellers increasing their prices to compete with one another on a marketplace that is supposed to be increasing the accessibility of sustainable fashion, Depop's Top Sellers program works to reward sellers who have higher rates of sales and low prices. This program highlights certain shops that curate feeds of high quality, reasonably priced secondhand items by displaying their profiles on the app's explore page. They have provided similar support for LGBT+ shops during pride, for Black-owned shops at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, and for shops featuring different vintage and modern clothing trends.
Consumers have a never-ending responsibility to make sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and globally-conscious purchases. By purchasing secondhand clothing and accessories, consumers not only impact the number of new products that need to be produced, but also decrease the demand for someone to be hired to produce new clothes. The mass production of fast fashion practices often comes at the expense of workers’ rights violations in terms of low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions. Not only is it important to seek out eco-friendly and sustainable means of purchasing, but also to make sure money goes towards ethically-sourced items. As textile waste rises from surges of fast fashion enterprises, the responsibility to make sustainable and ethical purchases is thrust into the hands of the consumer, who is able to put pressure on fast fashion companies' practices by shopping elsewhere.
One challenge with this goal is that fast fashion is often more affordable to consumers of low socioeconomic status, regardless of their views on the sustainability and ethical nature of the brand’s practices. Thus, the responsibility to pressure such companies is thrust into the hands of middle- and upper-class consumers, who have more flexibility with how they impact the market. With the enormous amount of textiles already produced and existing either in storefronts, closets, or secondhand shops, consumers should consider the meaning of the dollars they spend as supporting the practices of where they are going—is your dollar sustainable?