Buying a shirt from Goodwill doesn’t make you an ethical consumer

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Photo: Nick Canchola

Buying a shirt from Goodwill doesn’t make you an ethical consumer

by Nick Canchola

How does one shop ethically in 2020? It’s a big question. One extreme approach is to attempt to abandon all unethical consumption, from fast fashion to thrifting. Within the past year, fast fashion has been under fire for its adverse effects on the environment. According to The World Bank, fast fashion makes up roughly 10% of current global carbon emissions. Most fast fashion also exploits labor, promotes overconsumption, and drains water supplies. There’s a dark side to thrift shopping too, one that involves questionable business practices. The offered “solution” is supporting local and sustainable brands. 

Conversely, it’s a luxury to support sustainable brands. Sadly, “sustainable” typically correlates with expensive, leading to price barriers and elitism. A more impactful and equitable way to promote ethical shopping involves supporting sustainable business as well as practicing accessible environmentally-friendly habits. It’s impossible to consume 100% ethically under capitalism, but there will always be choices that are better than others.

Due to relatively inexpensive production costs, fast fashion has driven consumption to the extreme. These low production costs lead to fickle style trends, forcing people to tirelessly keep up. A 2017 Greenpeace publication reported, “The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago.” Consumers’ increase in purchases leads to an overuse of raw materials. On the flip side, brands that offer sustainable solutions often struggle with elitism, racism, and non-inclusivity. One brand, Reformation, which states on its website, “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2,” experienced its own controversies. Former employees shared their experiences of mistreatment, which caused the company to reflect on shortcomings in regards to BIPOC. While Reformation has pledged to change old ways, this is a reminder to question and challenge all types of organizations, regardless of their stated missions.

Thrifting, while better for the environment in a number of ways, also has its downsides. On the plus side, it helps extend the life of clothing and provides discounted items to the masses. However, a subculture of thrifting gentrification has emerged that (in some cases) takes limited resources from other communities. It's also a common side hustle to buy and resell at a higher price which raises other ethical questions. Larger charity corporations such as Goodwill have been exposed for unfair practices, including taking advantage of disabled employees and drastically overpaying top executives. CBS reported that an Illinois chapter planned to fire its disabled workers due to an increase in the minimum wage, and The-World-Herald reported that Goodwill’s CEO earned over $1 million in 2014. These business decisions don't reflect the supposed values of an organization that is primarily philanthropic. Despite these issues, thrift shops are the current solution to elongating the life of clothing. Advances in textile recycling, upcycling, and clothing swaps are additional solutions, but they have yet to surpass the relevance of thrifting.

Here are some accessible ethical consumer practices that provide a more inclusive approach to ethical shopping. A University of Lausanne case study reported that 70% of carbon emissions during the life of a cotton T-shirt are from washing and drying. One simple way to combat this involves reconsidering how you clean your clothes. Noah Clothing claims that “Aside from underwear, most things don’t need to be washed frequently. Spot cleaning can often erase small marks or stains.” Reassess what items need to be cleaned more frequently than others. Pants, jackets, and hoodies last for a couple of wears before needing a wash. When you do need to wash your clothing, use cold water to save energy and money. Heating water for warm settings burns unnecessary energy. Lastly, hang dry (if possible) to help extend the life of your clothing. Tumbling drying agitates the fabrics and expedited the aging process, leaving your beloved shirts thinner and smaller than when you first purchased.

As someone who loves fashion, I’ve recently become more aware of my consumer practices. Today, before making any purchases, I try to consider the long term life of this item. Is this product part of a trend that I’ll eventually outgrow ( 5th-grade fedora phase)? Do I already own similar pieces of clothing? Will this be easy to wear? While these questions might seem insignificant, they help nurture a pattern of mindful purchasing. The fashion industry loves to prioritize recycling out of the 3 R’s of waste management (reduce, reuse, and recycle). Yet to capitalism’s dismay, the best solution to manage waste is to simply buy less.

For those with the resources to support them, here are sustainable companies and small businesses to support. Again, keep in mind that not everyone has equal amounts of disposable income. These companies below are offered merely as an alternative to larger corporations.


Small Businesses/Sustainable Practices

  • Allmyhatsaredead - “Some Dead Guy” (@allmyhatsaredead on Instagram) sells custom vintage embroidered hats with Grateful Dead embellishments. Bootleg merch is a key part of Deadhead culture, and Some Dead Guy is continuing the legacy.

  • Big Bud Press - Founded by Lacey Micallef and Philip Seastrom, Big Bud Press prides itself on production transparency and inclusivity. Teen Vogue stated, “[Big Bud Press] makes clothes that help people step in and out of their comfort zones,” which is reflected in their 3XS-5XL size range.

  • Bricks and Wood - This South Central based streetwear company founded by Kacey Lynch seeks to provide timeless and quality products. Additionally, “ [Bricks and Wood] plan to use [their] platform to not only change the narrative of fashion but to also give smaller communities similar to South Central a larger platform that showcases high standard creativity from places less fortunate.”

  • ClownPaint shop - Founder Rachel Moreno works with a variety of mediums, from textile crocheting to stickers to earrings. Evoking the theme of clown paint, products are typically bright, playful, and fun. She believes that “no matter what your identity is, finding a style that you are excited to wear is an act of empowerment.”

  • Darryl Brown - Sells elevated workwear, executed by former Kanye West stylist of the same name. Brown’s first collection took cues from his previous career in steelwork and railroad conducting to deliver a product at the cross-sections of midwest work culture and fashion.

  • Edistsew - Brooklyn based tie-dye artist, Edistew, creates unique one of one vintage dyed garments. If this is out of your price range, consider checking out their approved tie-dye guide.

  • Hot Cactus LA - Founder Carlos Morera runs this cactus emporium of John Mayer-approved succulents out of Echo Park, Los Angeles. Aside from cacti, they also sell fire merchandise, books, tools, and more!

  • Pachamami - CEO Palomita Jacome designs and creates a variety of upcycled vintage clothing. “Pachamami is devoted to honoring the earth and committed to sustainability,” achieved through her business practices as well as a reverence of personal ancestral history. Also, Palomita hosts virtual moon circles and community conversations.

  • Petrified Goods - Founder Austin Williams “petrifies” vintage Patagonia products by re-embroidering them with Grateful Dead patches. Inspired by the do-it-yourself culture, many of these pieces are one of one and evoke bootleg merch culture.

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