Found in the Goodwill bins, costing less than $5, and customized with paint pens by myself (left), and my friend Surana (right) [@Suranamacfarlane] Instagram. These beat-up Nike sneakers exemplify the endless potential that lies in pre-loved items. (Madison Paulus)
Essay | Can thrifting combat fast fashion?
The reality that the amount of water needed to make just one pair of my jeans could sustain me for 10 years seems unbelievable. If only we could swap jeans with water bills.
I was five years old when I faced the quantity of my consumption as my mom had me partake in my first annual Goodwill run, in an attempt to save my old clothes from an eternity in landfills. Little did I know the rolling hills of clothes strewn about my bedroom floor awaiting bagging were a portion of the 60 million tons of clothing purchased annually.
Threading through history
Thrifting, the process of purchasing donated and often used items, including clothing, is deeply rooted in my family. I interviewed my grandma, Connie Northern, to gain further insight into my family history surrounding thrifting. My grandma’s childhood recollections include a rag man who gathered waste fabric donations and communal thrift networks where her friends were able to donate their clothes to poorer peers. Thrifting in the United States spans further back, with Goodwill and St. Vincent De Paul beginning at the turn of the 20th century.
However, the mainstream introduction of thrifting was birthed from societal developments such as Progressivism and Populism, particularly from their focuses on morals and money, during the period between the First World War and the Great Depression. Today, the global thrifting industry is worth an estimated $14.4 billion.
My experience at age five grew into a passion for thrifting, although recently I have bought fast fashion due to the lack of affordable and accessible thrift stores in Washington DC. I have been curious about the impact that thrifting has on combating fast fashion and clothing waste, given that in each second it takes you to read this, a garbage truck load of fashion waste is burned or piled onto already mountainous landfills. Fast fashion consists of business strategies including mass over-production and the rapid cycling of products reflecting trends.
Fast fashion and sustainability
Fashion brands have shifted from four annual fashion cycles to 50 or more, producing 100 billion clothing items, 50 billion of which are disposed of, most worn only seven times. In addition to the accessible, trendy, and affordable nature of fast fashion products; global economic development, higher living standards, and social media has all been additional driving contributors to fast fashion by quickening the pace of fashion trends through platforms with widespread visibility.
Along with the growing presence of fast fashion since the 1990s, the production of fibers used to produce woven materials (textiles) used for clothes has also increased. These fibers include polyester and nylon, derived from fossil fuels, and contain microplastics that eventually make their way into our environment, according to Sharon George, research chair at Keele University focusing on green technology and environmental sustainability.
In addition to the waste and use of fossil fuels and plastic, fast fashion has broad environmental implications regarding land use, water consumption, and chemical pollution. Production of natural fibers such as cotton causes deforestation, overgrazing, and leakage of chemicals and pesticides into the environment through the excessive agricultural practices employed to meet demand.
Back to jeans, the water consumption from the clothing industry is absurd, with estimates ranging from 20 trillion liters to 215 trillion liters annually, amplifying water scarcity and pollution. A variety of different chemicals are also utilized throughout the production process, with estimates of the total kinds varying from 8,000 to 20,000.
Many of these chemicals pose risks to environmental and human health, exemplified by polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which “are immune hazards to the human population,” commonly used for water-proofing or stain-proofing, all while contaminating the environment, water, and our bodies. Despite the United States containing only 4.2% of the world’s population, we make up 14% of the world’s demand for textiles. The burden is most heavy on low-income countries producing the bulk of clothing products in high demand among the wealthy.
Of the 15% of clothing waste saved from disposal through donation, only one-fifth is sold to the public, while the rest is sold to industries to be repurposed, some ending up in landfills regardless. Despite the risk of donated items eventually being disposed of, the social impacts of donating clothing are overall positive, including increases in employment opportunities often among marginalized populations, support for charity fundraising efforts, enhancing clothing circularity, and limiting waste.
Thrifting also combats waste and its environmental effects, exemplified by Salvation Army thrift stores preventing 82 million pounds of fashion waste from ending up in landfills in 2018 alone. Public education is critical in limiting textile waste and its environmental impacts through increasing rates of involvement in the thrift economy.
Is thrifting the answer?
I am motivated by these findings to obtain most of my clothing through thrifting whilst in Washington D.C. While it has been difficult to find a good thrift store in D.C. in my budget, I am determined to regain power in individualizing my consumption and doing what I can to combat the negative effects of the fast fashion industry while reconnecting with my artistic side. Growing up in Seattle among the seemingly infinite sea of Goodwills, my favorite pastime was customizing thrifted pieces with materials such as bleach, acrylic paint, sewing, and more.
Understanding the degree to which fast fashion consumption contributes to environmental degradation and the climate crisis incentivized me to further research accessible thrift stores, and I have found two of my favorites, Value Village and Buffalo Exchange just outside the city. A practice that grew from necessity has since developed into a desirable activity closely linked to individual identities. The thrift economy depends on consumers like myself and the other 16-18% of American thrifters, to both donate and consume, while incentivizing others to participate. Partaking in the thrift economy provides a unique sense of satisfaction that is difficult to obtain from purchasing and discarding new items of clothing.