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Why Wearing Secondhand Clothing Is One of the Best Eco-Friendly Actions You Can Take

One of the easiest things you can do is contribute to the circular economy is to wear thrifted clothing! Here's how to get started.

Written by
Ashlee Sang

The world’s landfills are already overflowing, but we still have to buy items—from clothing and decor to furniture and home improvement items. Thrifting is one of the best ways to lighten your impact as a consumer.

Every purchase you make supports ideals, practices, and companies. By thrifting, you make a vote for sustainability, fair working conditions, good prices, and great style.

For the Planet

While your clothing choices may seem innocuous and simple, what you choose to wear affects more than how you look in the mirror. 

The fashion industry produces 10 percent of all humanity's carbon emissions, is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics. The clothing supply chain, much like other consumer goods, can be a vicious cycle of excess production and mismanaged waste. (Check out this insightful Ted Talk about “The High Cost of Our Cheap Fashion” by Maxine Bédat for more context.)

That's why shopping ethically is so important. While there are some amazing brands that care about the environment and their workers, it can be hard to navigate fashion standards and expensive to shop new. According to Fast Company, “In 2018, 40 percent of consumers couldn’t name a socially responsible company. 29 percent admitted doing no homework to determine which companies were socially responsible. Those who did research were most likely to rely on product packaging to evaluate whether a company was doing good work.”

Insert thrifting. Buying secondhand is by far the most sustainable choice you can make. When you purchase items that already exist, less finite resources are needed. Thrifting also delays existing clothes and other products from ending up in the landfill. (We’ve bought everything from cosmetics and cleaning supplies to clothing and appliances secondhand—almost an entire house full of someone else’s unwanted items that would have otherwise been thrown away. Mind = blown.)

For the People

Working conditions of fast fashion companies are often dismal, such as cases of sexual harassment and poor safety measures. Research from Remake estimates that 80 percent of garment workers around the world are women between the ages of 18 and 24 (many even younger), often earning less than $3 per day. These women find themselves simultaneously locked into poverty and dependent on the little wages they do earn.

Beyond the production process, treating raw materials can be hazardous not only for the end consumer, but especially for the worker. Pesticides, such as for high-volume, high-risk crops like cotton, can easily seep into our skin (which happens to be our largest organ). Leather goods have a history of being particularly hazardous, with the tanning process putting workers at a much greater risk of cancer.

On the other hand, thrift stores are often local small businesses, which boost economies and support communities. Fair wage enforcement is much easier because of local government oversight. Plus, the health risks of secondhand clothing and other items is much lower—even for synthetic fabrics and non-organic natural fibers—because the item has often been aired out and pre-washed.

Many thrift stores even have a social good component. (Hence the term “charity shop.”) Habitat for Humanity ReStores act as a fundraising channel to build homes for low-income families. Goodwill hires and trains workers who face barriers to employment. Proceeds from Salvation Army Family Stores support centers for people struggling with drugs and alcohol addiction. This nonprofit revenue has a real impact on people living near these stores.

For the Savings

Zero-waste advocate Bea Johnson makes a good point about our current consumer culture: “Disposability is a modern concept, something that was invented by the manufacturers and their powerful marketers out of financial greed. They promise us time savings in our life, so we can be more productive, but don’t the products that they sell rather hinder efficiency? They need to be bought, discarded. What a waste of time and money!” 

Clothes and home goods can be pricey, especially when you shop with transparent brands with air-tight supply chains. Make your wardrobe budget stretch farther by shopping secondhand. Every brand, size, style, and color under the sun can be thrifted. Shopping vintage or visiting a curated thrift shop may make a dent in your wallet, but the average thrift trip has cute finds at a fraction of the price.

For the Style

It can be intimidating to dig into the world of thrifting. Bloggers make it look so easy to pull off that thrift-store-ironic-chic style, meanwhile you either look like your 8-year-old self or a grandma. The good news is, it gets better with practice. The more you thrift, the easier it is to scan the racks and check all the best corners of the store or app. You can find some truly unique pieces when you shop secondhand, but you can also snag trendy items at a discounted price if that’s your vibe.

For inspiration, check out some of these thrifting, DIYing, upcycling style queens:

Get Started

It’s true—the crammed racks of clothes, the jigsaw arrangement of furniture, and the mishmashed shelves of a thrift store can be overwhelming. However, thrifting has never been more accessible. 

With local thrift shops, you can build a relationship with their staff and have the luxury of trying on items. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and garage sales are quick and easy ways to buy from neighbors with good taste and save tons of money in the process. 

Online thrift stores and apps expand your reach beyond your hometown. Plus, you can search for “new with tags” if you’re shopping for a gift...or for those of you who are still squeamish about secondhand goods. ThredUp, Swap.com, and The RealReal (for designer items) are all useful, exhaustive sites. For app shopping, Poshmark and Depop are crowd favorites. And then there’s the OG online thrift platform: eBay. New sites and apps crop up all the time—find whichever interface, style, and price point work best for you. 

Regardless of where or how you thrift, you will make a positive impact simply by shopping secondhand. So many beautiful, funky, functional items already exist—why not buy those instead of fast fashion throwaways and megastore tchotchkes?