March 1, 2024

Thrifting vs fast fashion: ethically, how can we win?

Fast fashion is a global epidemic. With the rise of sites like Shein and Temu and programs like TikTok Shop, consumers are able to get trendy clothes at cheaper prices in record time… just quickly enough for it to be delivered before it cycles out of fashion again. 

The negative effects of fast fashion are both environmental and humanitarian. In 2018, textile waste that ends up in U.S. landfills–specifically from clothing and footwear–has grown to be nearly seven times the amount of waste that was produced in 1960. 

In just under 60 years, the yearly waste of nondurable goods (items with a lifetime of less than 3 years) went from 1,310 thousands of tons to 9,070 thousands of tons

Because of the synthetic materials used to make clothes today, these thousands of tons of pieces that end up in landfills will not decay like other materials will. Making clothes takes an astounding amount of natural resources; the production of a single pair of jeans takes around 2,000 gallons of water.

People working in factories making these textiles are often severely undercompensated and “forced to work long hours in appalling conditions.” There have been many instances over the years where these conditions have led to deadly catastrophes and countless fatalities. 

In order to combat the effects of fast fashion, going to thrift stores has also grown in popularity. Thrifting can be a positive shopping option as it decreases the number of clothing items people are purchasing from fast fashion sites.

Stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army and Savers provide access to relatively inexpensive clothing for those in lower-income situations.

Consumers are able to donate clothes that they do not wear anymore which reduces waste that would likely end up in a landfill. By creating a sales model supported by donations, thrift stores allow people to recycle clothes they may not wear anymore.

Financially, thrifting can be a great option since certain clothes are made to last longer than fast fashion produced in a high volume to stay in time with popular trends. 

Purchasing clothes that are made to last is more sustainable and cost effective since consumers don’t need to buy the same item over and over again.

Sustainability in clothing manufacturing comes in many forms such as clothing material, working conditions, employee compensation and distribution practices.

Unfortunately, it has become impossible to escape resellers. Look at Depop, TikTok, eBay, Poshmark, even Facebook—all of these platforms have one thing in common: thrifted clothes are in the clutches of price-gouging vultures.

Often, resellers actively seek out and purchase clothes from thrift stores that are in better quality and on trend, which can be a disadvantage for people who cannot buy said clothes otherwise. Then, the clothes they buy are marketed with buzz words, feeding right back into fast fashion trends. Tags like “Y2K” and “vintage” are all the rage.

Although sites like Depop are more sustainable than fast fashion stores, the alternative of overpriced “thrift finds” is not the best option. 

Thrifters also need to consider the impact of their purchase when it comes to plus-size clothing. 

The selection of fashionable plus-sized clothing is limited, as many clothing manufacturers do not make clothes in exact styles in larger sizes. Similarly, if items are made specifically for plus-sized individuals, those clothes often do not align with trends or defer to more “acceptable” styles for bigger sizes.

Because of the trend of oversized shirts and baggy outfits, thrift store shoppers seek out fashionable items and overpick larger sizes, even though they may not necessarily need that size. This leads to a deficit in options for plus-sized shoppers already fighting an uphill battle.

Finally, a factor to consider is location. “[I]f thrift stores aren’t common in your area and it would be difficult or cost-prohibitive for someone with few resources to travel to affordable clothing stores,” it may be a good idea to consider donating instead of purchasing or only purchasing things people genuinely need. 

Consumers can ethically shop at thrift stores by determining if they actually need the clothes they are considering purchasing, donating a few unworn items while shopping, being conscious of their location and the needs of their community and sticking to clothes in their size.


  • Charlotte Keller

    Charlotte is a third-year English Literature major with a Spanish minor. She is secretary of the Capital Book Club, an AIM Change Advocate, and Capital’s Student Government Parliamentarian. In her free time, she likes to make Spotify playlists and watch rom-coms.

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