Why thrift? The environmental, social, and personal impact of second-hand shopping

Thrift store Amsterdam
Thrift store interior in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

I began thrift-store shopping about the same time I began buying my own clothes. The inexpensive, one-of-a-kind gems I discovered by scrounging through piles of dusty garments made the whole endeavor seem more like a real treasure hunt than any of the simulations computer games offered. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Thrifting has become such a way of life for me that I sometimes forget there are people who have yet to succumb to its charms. But since I claimed thrifting as the most morally responsible mode of shopping in a recent post, it seems fitting to outline why I believe this is true.

Why thrift?

Environmental impact

Re-wearing clothes reduces waste and pollution. Every garment purchased second-hand means one less new one produced, which is important because regardless of material, the production of clothing is costly to the environment. Producing synthetic fibers like polyester requires lots of energy, as well as crude oil like petroleum; byproducts include toxic gases and chemicals. Sadly, pesticides used on most plants mean that even cotton and linen garments have a negative impact. Transportation-related pollution also decreases when clothing is re-used, as new clothes are much more likely to travel long distances before being sold than are their second-hand counterparts.

china factory pollution
Factory production of dyes and synthetic materials used in clothing contributes to air and water pollution. By High Contrast, via Wikimedia Commons

Second-hand clothes are less likely to end up in landfills. In order to survive its first wearer in decent enough condition to make it into your hands, there’s a good chance your thrifted item is pretty hardy. And every item that doesn’t break/rip/unravel once you take it home means one less item in your trashcan.

Social impact

Thrift stores make it easier to know where your money is going. To track the money you handed over for that brand-new Old Navy polo, you would need to trace the brand back to the corporation behind it, the assembly factories used by the corporation, their textile providers, and those textile providers’ raw materials suppliers—at a bare minimum. In evaluating all these steps (and the many others involved in the production chain), there are numerous considerations to keep in mind: Was your farmer using environmentally responsible methods? Was your seamstress of legal working age, paid a fair wage to work in a safe factory? Is the corporation behind it the kind you want to support, or one whose views you wouldn’t like to see perpetuated?

In short, it can be a bit of a nightmare to track the impact of your seemingly trivial purchase. However, with most thrift stores, this burden is greatly reduced. For better or worse, the original purchaser’s money has already supported the whole chain of production that led to your second-hand Old Navy polo.* Since most thrift stores in Europe, North America, and Australia rely heavily (if not exclusively) on donated clothing, this means you only have to question one link in the whole chain—the store right in front of you.

*Personally, I feel no qualms about buying second-hand from brands I’d avoid otherwise, since none of my money will end up oiling their machine. Still, there’s no sense in abstaining from firsthand Nike purchases if you’re going to serve as a walking billboard by wearing their logo everywhere you go.

Oxfam aid
Oxfam workers in East Africa distributing soap and food. By Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons

Many thrift stores directly support charity. It’s no coincidence that in Ireland, the term “thrift store” doesn’t even exist—they call them “charity shops” instead. In America, the best-known thrift stores are Goodwill and The Salvation Army, organizations which provide services to the unemployed, homeless, and disabled. In Europe, NGOs like Oxfam commonly use thrift stores to raise funds for humanitarian aid. By shopping at these kinds of establishments, your clothing purchase can go from supporting Third World child labor to supporting Third World childrens’ education.

Personal impact

Thrifting is cheaper. One of my all-time favorite dresses that I wore for years cost less than $1. Do I really need to explain to you why more money in your own pocket is a good thing?

Secondhand clothing is often higher quality than comparatively-priced clothing. As mentioned in the environment section, this means you’re contributing less to landfills—but it also means less frustration over incidents like your brand-new shoe breaking the first time you wear it. (This actually happened to me with some Urban Outfitters flatforms. I was not impressed).

Crazy vintage prints at a Swiss thrift store

Thrifted clothing offers more room for uniqueness. While it’s not the end of the world to see some other guy sporting the same sweater as you, most of us would choose to avoid such incidents, if possible. Since thrifted clothing infrequently comes in multiples, you’re much less likely to bump into someone wearing the exact same thing. In addition, there’s bound to be lots of clothes that were produced decades ago, or on the other side of the country, or in some other circumstance that makes them different than what the average shopper is buying off the sale rack at the mall.

Thrift shopping allows for more creativity. Thrift stores are notorious for the wacky and bizarre items they often contain. (Remember Macklemore’s footed Batman jammies?) While these items can be downright eyesores, many just need a person with vision to re-interpret them in a contemporary way. For some, this may mean simply adding the right accessories; others may completely reconstruct their garment with shears and a trusty Singer. Either way, thrifting can allow one to do more than mindlessly mimic what one sees on the display-window mannequin, by providing more varied and interesting materials as inspiration.

In short, thrifting is more environmentally and socially responsible, and personally rewarding. What are you waiting for?


The Ecologist, the US National Library of Medicine, and Fashionista.

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