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Thrifting: The Sustainable Solution We've Been Waiting For

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

As sustainability becomes more important to us all, the popularity of thrifting continues to soar, surpassing the fast fashion industry. The thrill of thrifting is unmatched; imagine walking into a thrift store and being welcomed by a sea of vibrant racks filled with unique and one-of-a-kind pre-owned treasures. The excitement builds as you carefully flip through the eclectic collection of vintage clothing, and finally, you discover that perfect vintage tee you've been searching for. But thrifting is more than just an exciting shopping experience; it's also a way to contribute to sustainable fashion. We can reduce waste and the fashion industry's negative environmental impact by choosing to shop secondhand. Thrifting is a lifestyle that is both fulfilling and environmentally responsible.

As consumers become more aware of fast fashion's heavy environmental footprint, reselling pre-owned clothing serves as an antidote. "Thrifting enables circularity by extending product life cycles through reuse and resale," said Nikki Mani, sustainable fashion designer. "It's a critical building block of a waste-free, closed-loop apparel model."

The statistics speak for themselves. When compared to buying new, ThredUp estimates that one reused item saves approximately 15 pounds of CO2 emissions and 700 gallons of water. Those savings add up with Americans discarding over 80 pounds of unwanted clothing each year. Passing clothes on to new owners reduces waste while meeting consumer demand with fewer virgin resources for unique textiles and garments.

Even more impactful, the rise of online thrifting platforms like ThredUp, Poshmark, and TheRealReal has brought resale into the mainstream. "By utilizing technology and innovation, we've made secondhand shopping accessible to millions of conscious consumers, keeping used fashion in circulation," said Julie Wainwright, CEO of TheRealReal, a leading luxury consignment marketplace.

Online platforms have revolutionized the way we purchase and sell pre-owned clothes. With the help of these platforms, we can easily handle essential tasks like photography, pricing, and shipping. ThredUp, a leading online marketplace, is encouraging secondhand shopping as a cool and sustainable trend. As a result, pre-owned fashion is redefining modern and sophisticated style while also promoting environmental responsibility. This trend has made it possible for us to be fashionable while also positively impacting the planet.

It is worth noting that the secondhand market is expected to double in size over the next five years, marking the beginning of a significant shift. James Reinhart, CEO and co-founder of thredUP, said, "Recommerce will surpass fast fashion in the next ten years, and thrifting is the way forward."

So beware of claims that thrifting is a frivolous fad. Buying used and passing on clothes is integral to building an ethical, eco-conscious wardrobe and cleaning up the fashion industry. With smart scaling and needed improvements, our collective thrifting fervor could be the game changer we've been waiting for.

As the resale industry expands, it is vital to consider the valid concerns around labor, accountability, and overconsumption that arise. Processing millions of unique used items every week requires significant warehouse operations and staffing. Although these jobs help reduce landfill waste, workers often face low wages and grueling production expectations. It is essential to address these issues and ensure fair treatment of workers in this growing industry.

Stronger oversight and industry standards are needed to ensure safe working conditions and fair compensation. Investment in automation and other technologies can also ease production pressures on the workforce. "As it scales, the secondhand industry must prioritize ethical labor practices that value workers and share sustainability gains," emphasized Ayesha Barenblat, CEO of Remake, a nonprofit advocating for industry reform.

More transparency and traceability around used clothes is another improvement area. Items reentering the market can contain chemicals or microplastics that are potentially hazardous if not handled properly at scale. And with clothes constantly moving through complex supply chains, maintaining quality control is critical but challenging.

Thrifting platforms should look to innovations like blockchain to tag and track inventory. Expanding authentication services and consumer protections would also help address fraud risks with anonymous sellers. And enacting standardized oversight for responsible handling, recycling, and disposal is critical to managing the waste generated through thrifting.

Lastly, thrifting's low prices and novelty could enable overconsumption if not paired with conscientious consumption habits. "The thrill of the thrift store treasure hunt can become an addiction to buying used clothes that may still be disposed of quickly," said Elizabeth Cline, author and ethical fashion advocate. She recommends balancing thrift store finds with more durable purchases and keeping clothes in use for as long as possible through care and repair.

But these areas for improvement aren't reasons to abandon the incredible potential of thrifting to transform fashion. The passionate consumer interest and scalability of online resale present tremendous opportunities. With conscientious business practices and regulatory initiatives, this momentum can be harnessed to reduce textile waste and demand for virgin materials at the massive scale needed.

Thrifting is essential to the closed-loop, circular production model that environmental advocates demand. For this model to work, non-profits, policymakers, and brands across the supply chain must collaborate to determine the specifics and align incentives. However, the growth of the secondhand market is a promising indication of progress.

Thrift shopping and buying pre-owned fashion is not just a fleeting trend, but a significant movement towards sustainability. Rather than feeling guilty about our thrifting obsession, we should take pride in the fact that we're contributing to a great cause. With continuous improvements and innovations, secondhand fashion provides a sustainable solution that we've been waiting for, and we can confidently say that it's here to stay.


Recommended Readings

Barenblat, A. (2020, June 23). It’s time to rebuild fashion’s contract with society. Business of Fashion.

Cline, E. L. (2012). Overdressed: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. Portfolio/Penguin.

EPA. (2022). Facts and figures about materials, waste and recycling.

Mani, N. (2019, August 14). Why fashion needs a circular economy. Eco-Age.

Reinhart, J. (2022, June 9). Recommerce explainer: Resale industry & market trends.

ThredUp. (2021). 2021 Resale Report.

Wainwright, J. (2020, September 17). How The RealReal is dominating luxury consignment. Vogue Business.

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