The complicated ethics of thrift stores

Photo obtained from Unsplash

Thrift (/THrift/): the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully.

Thrift stores, or charity stores, have been around since the 1890s, and boomed in popularity when better technology increased the amount of clothing produced, and therefore the amount of secondhand clothing available. As a quick fix for accommodating lower-income shoppers and encouraging other consumers to be sustainable, it seemed to do its job fairly well.

But “seem” is the key word here. The rise in thrifting’s “trendiness” due to our increased awareness of environmental impact, old styles coming back into fashion, and our desire to keep up with current trends complicates the initial mission of thrift stores.

To be clear, my intention isn’t to put thrift stores down for any of the ethical or environmental impacts detailed here; it is to ask consumers who can afford to change their purchasing choices to ensure that despite thrifting’s perceived benefits, they are not actually contributing to the severity of the situation. Having established that, we can turn our attention to the most obvious inadvertent impact: thrifting’s contribution to overconsumption.

With thrifting, it’s easy for consumers who can afford to purchase brand-new clothes and shoes every couple of months to assume that by giving their clothes away instead of tossing them to the curb, they are contributing to thrift stores’ stock and giving back to the community. 

But in truth, all this really does is lure the consumer into a false sense of security. We think that if we can’t see the problem, it isn’t there, when in reality, many of the clothes donated to thrift stores don’t even end up on the shelves. Instead, they get sent off either to be recycled back into fabric, or to developing countries, both of which can be problematic in themselves: recycling fabric is itself a very energy-intensive process, and by making developing countries reliant on the West’s waste, we divert their attention from building sustainable, local economies.

Regarding that last point especially, it further complicates things when we realize that exported clothing is much cheaper, so that thrift stores inadvertently continue to help those for whom lower prices are a necessity or simply an extra benefit. However, such cheap prices mean local clothing manufacturers or self-employed tailors cannot compete, damaging the economy in the long run as those workers may then also become reliant on cheap exports due to the lack of business they receive. In fact, the East Africa Community (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) hoped to ban secondhand clothing imports altogether in order to help their own economies prosper (though this opened a whole other political and economic can of worms we won’t get into right now).

But I digress. Thrift stores, with their main idea being to extend the lifetime of a piece of clothing past its first owner, can become just another cog in the machine of overconsumption without mindful consumers to slow that roll down from the root of the problem. Besides the negative quantitative aspects of donating too much clothing to thrift stores, when we think we can solve our problem of over-consumption simply by donating our “old” or out-of-style clothes, we aren’t given the chance to truly question our own habits. With so many unsustainable shoppers, when the only change made to their shopping choices is at the last step of the cycle, the negative environmental impact only piles up at the landfill.

Another thing to keep in mind is that when demand goes up, price goes up. With so many more people flocking to thrift stores, mostly those who can still afford to shop at retail price, prices inadvertently rise due to factors like resellers, or those who take clothing and repurpose it for a richer audience. Such methods, while potentially entrepreneurial or sustainable, still ignore the original purpose of thrift stores, and reflect upon the privilege of those who have the time and money to pursue such ventures.

Again, that’s not to downplay the positives of thrifting. Recycling clothing does prevent the additional environmental impacts that stem from the making and transportation of brand-new clothing. Fast fashion sometimes contributes positively to thrift stores as well, the ever-changing trends keeping them stocked as people look to buy the latest fashions. The paradox of how thrift stores thrive off of fast fashion, the same thing that slowly but surely harms the environment and their business, is an intriguing idea that perfectly reflects the complicated ethics of our world. 

Nevertheless, only we as individuals can fix overconsumption, and not just by delaying the problem further down the line. The most important thing for consumers to remember when thrifting is to think about our own habits first before we decide to buy new clothing. So I’ll leave off with one last thought: though going thrifting once in a while and donating clothes is in no way harmful in itself, when we do such things recklessly, we run the risk of meeting exactly the ethical dilemmas we’d hoped to leave behind.