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Thrifting is taking over Fast Fashion - But is it any better?

Author: Sumedha Maheshwari

Editor: Khushi Jaiswal


Fast fashion is accessible, attractive, and follows all the popular trends. But unfortunately, it is also deadly and wasteful. In 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and brought to attention the modern-day slavery of workers. The Rana Plaza collapse claimed more than 1000 lives just for the sake of profit.

How was this connected to fashion? The factories inside Rana Plaza made clothes for popular brands like Benneton, Prada, Gucci, Versace, Mango, and many others. These are expensive high-end brands that should have been paying a fair wage to workers but were not. The building already had multiple complaints and warnings that it would break down. Despite this, people employed were forced not to heed it because they needed the money to live. The tragic aftermath of this incident spurred a significant shift in mindset as consumers realized that fast fashion was unethical.

It also has a tremendous environmental cost. The global fashion industry emits more C02 than international flights and shipping combined. It contributes to 10% of total carbon emissions at 1.07 billion tons of CO2. According to the Fashion Transparency Index 2021, 79% of brands have a company policy on energy and greenhouse gas emissions. But despite the urgency of the climate crisis, only 58% have disclosed a supplier policy issue, and a time-bound commitment on decarbonization was made by just 30%. A report by the Global Fashion Agency (GFA) and McKinsey also details how only 17% of brands are transparent about emissions at the raw material level – where the greatest environmental impacts occur for a garment.

Over the past few years, more and more people have become aware of these disturbing problems within the fast fashion industry and have moved towards sustainable fashion. Thrifting has subsequently emerged as an alternative. The idea of buying secondhand clothes which are eco-friendly and priced lower than these brands was the perfect solution for people looking to make ethical changes in how they consume fashion. Thrifting became popular with the working classes at the turn of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution brought in mass-made clothing that was easy for anyone to buy. The increase in production meant that textile waste increased, and secondhand shops popped up as a response. It was highly beneficial for working classes who could not afford to buy new clothes, and thus, out of necessity, clothes were recycled.

Thrifting has always been common in the West with places like Salvation Army and Goodwill. But it was never a trend until the last two years in the pandemic. Suddenly, an extensive consumer base shifted from fast fashion to thrifting in countries across the globe. Before, it had been a niche activity in which only vintage lovers, hardcore fashion environmentalists, and those too poor to afford anything else participated. But, the numerous upsides to thrifting have led younger generations like Gen Z to purchase at thrift stores. ThredUp, a resale service, reports that 40% of Gen Z-ers bought secondhand clothing in 2019. The secondhand market is actually expected to surpass the fast fashion industry by 2029.

A big reason for this change in the retail market can be attributed to the extra time due to the pandemic and social media. As people stayed home longer and connected to the news, the worsening climate crisis received more exposure. Additionally, TikTok and Instagram popularized thrifting through short, attention-grabbing videos. Many small secondhand online stores marketed themselves on these platforms and have taken off. The lure of finding something unique coupled with the easy accessibility of online shopping has launched thrifting’s popularity into the stratosphere. Fashion is changing into something sustainable and environmentally conscious. Or is it?

Thrifting is reducing the carbon footprint because an individual is taking a minimalist approach to fashion. But thrift stores started to become a trend which means people go overboard while buying these clothes. This style of shopping has given a false guilt-free pass to a consumer to buy as much as they want. Thus, under the guise of environmentalism, a person continues the very thing they were trying to avoid. Fast fashion is problematic because of the sheer number of clothes made, bought, and thrown out. Although thrifting, in theory, solves that problem by having people donate and buy the same clothes, only 10 to 20 per cent of these clothes are displayed. The rest are shipped to countries like Pakistan and Kenya or used as rags.

This means that the donations are too large to handle. When consumers decide to donate back their large purchases, it only adds to the problem. Going on a thrift shopping spree defeats the purpose of slow fashion. The clothes get wasted anyway, which means the environmental impact does not work in reality. Instead, these clothes should go to people who won’t discard them after one use and will continue to use them until it wears out. Thrifting is meant to make a consumer shop more mindfully and think about their choices. This thrifting does not always need to happen in secondhand stores. People need to take a look at their own closet first and wear what is already bought.

Clothes can be mended, restyled, chopped and worn in many ways. Upcycling is another way to thrift your own closet, which involves taking old and discarded clothing and transforming it into something new. The same clothes can be turned into different outfits. This does not mean people shouldn’t buy garments from thrift stores. It means buying when you really need something new. Fashion can never be fully sustainable as long as consumption exists. The only way to help is to slow down and thrift consciously.

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