Thrifting: the aesthetically pleasing way into sustainability

by Myrto Nastouli, Columnist

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, especially when it comes to fashion. But what about thousands of unique treasures carefully collected, waiting patiently to be discovered and given life once again? Over the last decade, more and more, especially young people, are turning their backs to fast fashion and its ruthless policies towards the environment, by supporting a new eco, pocket and worker-friendly way of shopping, the so-called “thrifting”.

“Thrifting” describes the act of shopping at a thrift store, flea market, garage sale, or a shop of a charitable organization, usually with the intent of finding interesting, unique items at a decent price. A larger philosophy permeates the act of thrifting which strongly supports the recycling of formerly-owned items, finding new use and new love for vintage material goods which had been thrown out, and the excitement of imagining what the former life of the item was like.

Debutant in the Elizabethan England (1558-1603), mainly appeared as “charity shops”, later adopted by the Christian Church and European Jews immigrants in America, “thrifting” has a long history before its big break in the 1980s, since when it’s becoming increasingly popular every day. From clothes to shoes, accessories, furniture, electronic devices and many more, shopping second-hand offers a wide range of options, covering consumers’ needs and personal preferences and making this “treasure hunt” game more appealing and promising to potential customers.

Taking into consideration the -usually- lower prices and the big wake-up call for the environment that motivates a lot of people to recycle in general, it is no wonder that 17% of Americans shop at thrift stores. Nevertheless, there is never “too much” when it comes to sustainability and the idea that someday the majority of the global population will be pursuing pre-loved items, is not utopian.

Although the positive effects of thrifting are numerous and can be noticed in multiple sectors of everyday life, the most common concern the environment.

A very disturbing fact about the fashion industry and its blame to environmental pollution is that it is the world’s second-largest polluter, after the oil industry. Being responsible for 10% of all humanity’s carbon emission, it aggravates the greenhouse effect and provokes health issues. Also, during clothing production, some textile companies dump the untreated wastewater that contain mercury and arsenic, metals that are extremely harmful to the aquatic environment (50-80% of all life on earth), in rivers, which in addition to the above, leads to the fashion industry catastrophically affecting all flora, fauna and the human population.

Textile Waste
Another “success” of thrift shopping is the reduction of textile waste. We can easily admit that fashion never stops evolving, trends come and go daily, the clothes wear out and don’t fit anymore and it is all normal; but where do all these pieces of apparel end up? The answer is pretty much always in the trash. Studies show that the average American tosses out 81 pounds of clothing every year, which means that only in 2018 17.300 tons of textiles ended up in landfills all over the United States, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The harm textile waste causes to the environment is beyond any imagination. Materials like polyester that nowadays can be found in most clothes, can take up to 200 years to decompose, meaning that the environmental pollution created just by one piece of clothing can affect even 8 generations. On the other hand, thrift stores recycle clothing, often even more than once, delaying the disuse of clothes and their accumulation in landfills and thus reducing textile waste by half.


There are of course a few companies that partly take responsibility for their actions and offer textile recycling programs, often in combination with a remarkable discount, or partner with eco-friendly organizations, in order to maintain their customers’ trust and predilection. Some of the most well-known brands are: Levi’s, Zara, H&M and The North Face. Nevertheless, I feel the need to clarify that these initiatives do not adequately repair the natural disaster big brands cause and a lot more steps have to be taken to achieve the limitation of the pollution due to fast fashion.

Water Consumption
Aside from polluting the environment, the fashion industry is also to blame for huge consumption of water, since it is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply and automatically affects the water supply for drinking purposes. For example, it takes 650 gallons of water to make a new cotton t-shirt and 1,800 gallons for a pair of jeans. A quick look at these numbers can reveal the unwillingness of this world to utilize Earth’s resources based on fairness and respect between its people.

Work conditions

In addition to environmental disaster, fast fashion is found guilty for unethical work conditions. Famous brands’ huge factories that are mainly based in East Asia take full advantage of their employees – often minors, offering minimal pay compared to their hard work (often less than $3 per day), trapping them into poverty and making a decent lifestyle impossible. Also, poor safety measures often lead to cases of sexual harassment in workplace, cases that most of the times are not getting addressed, in fear of the victim’s dismissal.


Prices
As far as the price is concerned, second-hand items are usually a lot cheaper than those of mass production. Furniture and electronic devices can be found even lower than half the initial price and any damage can be renovated at a low cost. In terms of clothes and shoes, there are times when a second-hand piece costs higher than a fast fashion one. This is usually the case of vintage or used designer pieces, that despite their higher price, they compensate the buyer, since they are of better quality and have a longer service life. In simple words, it is always better to buy one quality piece of apparel than three that not only will not last, but will end up polluting the only Earth we have.

Community
Shopping from local thrift stores and supporting small businesses in general, creates a sense of solidarity and mutual aid that makes the community more cohesive and functional. Also, it helps boost the economy within the community since money is being exchanged between its members.

An interesting approach to negative effects of fast fashion on people and the planet, given by Patrick Woodyard at TEDx University of Mississippi, here.

Over the centuries, thrifting has come to be considered from “stigma” to a global trend. The new sustainable, eco-friendly way of life that it supports, attracts more and more people, who acknowledge its multi-field benefits and their accountability when it comes to treating the planet with respect. Realizing the harmful policy of fast fashion towards the environment and its employees is the first step to seeking a healthier, ethical lifestyle.

Think Green and always remember that second-hand does not mean second-class.


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