To Clarify: Thrifting and Sustainability

Monday, February 17, 2020

To Clarify: Thrifting and Sustainability 
by Megan Loreto

In the morning light of Sundays on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, people cluster around stacks of used clothing, rolled together and tied up with twine. The sale starts at 9 am. The clothes are dumped, unceremoniously onto the pavement and an eclectic group of people rush to find items of value. This is Jet Rag’s $1 Sunday sale. For those looking to thrift affordable clothing items for their wardrobe in Los Angeles, this is the cheapest clothes get. 

In the light of a rising environmental consciousness on a global scale, the fashion industry has been forced to respond to consumer demand for more sustainable practice. Younger generations are choosing not to shop at stores notorious for contributing to the wasteful machine of the fast-fashion industry such as Forever 21, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019, and H&M. Vice defined fast fashion as, “Cheap, disposable clothing, made indiscriminately, imprudently, and often without consideration for environmental and labor conditions.” Both of these companies, and many others, have faced scandal for incredibly wasteful practices in recent history. This new distaste for stores that used to provide clothing to a sizable demographic of young shoppers with disposable income has led to a rising interest from consumers who might have once turned their noses up at the prospect of secondhand clothing. 

In cities like Los Angeles, filled with college students, the demand for thrifted clothing seems to have skyrocketed. During weekends, young people gather around racks of newly donated clothing at local Goodwills or mill around thrift shops with their friends. In some regards, this could be considered an innocent—if not comprehensively good—pastime. However, while the net environmental impacts of the enthusiasm for thrifting is a positive development because it limits the amount of pollution generated by the fashion industry, this does not guarantee that thrifting is always a more sustainable option.  

“Sustainable” is a term which is assumed to be synonymous with “eco-friendly.”  They are not the same, however. The former term is a more comprehensive concept than the latter. Sustainability involves two components: the protection and promotion of the environment, and the improvement of human systems. In other words, the progress of an environmental agenda should support and improve society, not outweigh or leave behind the interest of human beings. 

Shopping in thrift stores by choice is a privilege that not everyone in Los Angeles, or in the world has. While some people shop in charity stores like Goodwill to find items to resell on apps like Depop or Poshmark, Goodwill exists to serve people without disposable incomes first and foremost. Young consumers with a certain level of wealth and privilege who take advantage of non-profits to make money for their own pockets, undermine the power of these stores to positively affect the underprivileged in our societies. With increased demand for items, Goodwill can ask for more money for certain items of clothing if they know some people are willing to pay. The issue is that not everyone who needs to have clothes on their backs can pay those increased prices. 

A similar example of this—shall we say—sustainability fallacy occurred during the transition away from plastic straws. People with disabilities were left behind and left out of consideration entirely when Starbucks suddenly changed their cups so that they had sippy-cup style lids last year. They made straws inaccessible unless they are explicitly requested by customers. There has been widespread backlash from many disabled individuals as well as their advocates in response to this change. This offers another access point of critique for sustainable movements that occur through a framework of privilege and ableism without consideration of people who may be marginalized or negatively impacted by decisions that benefit the majority.

This is not to say that the importance of the ban on plastic straws or a shift in young consumer behavior towards the purchase of second-hand clothing is negative. However, the success of sustainability must be measured twofold—not just by environmental benefit but by social progress and equity as well. For both of these cases, as long as people recognize their privilege, most negative effects can be negated. In terms of the plastic straw ban, this means not abusing the fact that straws are available upon request and not scrutinizing those who may still be forced to use plastic. In terms of shopping, this means donating your own clothing to Goodwill when items no longer work for your wardrobe, giving some of the money you might have saved on clothing this month to a foodbank, and—most importantly—not abusing the system for your own financial benefit.

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