Thrift Shopping Ethics 101

The environment isn’t the only thing to think about, but it’s a huge factor

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s 2018, so if you’re still spouting a lame excuse for not liking to shop pre-loved clothing, it’s safe to say that no one’s buying it. Reduce, reuse, and recycle isn’t just for the single-use plastics of your life. The time to look for sustainability in everything was long before now, and it’s far from over.

Personally, my love for thrifting started young. Limited Too was not a far-off dream, financially speaking, for my family, but it was definitely not something that was in the budget outside of the handful of super-special items to add to my wardrobe right before school started in the fall. I remember looking through my best friend’s closet in awe of all her LTD2 before getting ready for a birthday party, her pulling out a bedazzled Kelly green T-shirt her mom had just picked for her. She’d gotten it for 99 cents at Salvation Army, she told me. I was shocked! Ninety-nine cents for my favorite brand, and available to purchase in the same shopping plaza as our grocery store. The nearest mall was a 40-minute drive away (which inevitably made my love of fashion all the more intangible). Suddenly, it was all within reach.

My mom was not a fan of me shopping secondhand (at first, perhaps because of pride, but she has long gotten over it and eagerly shops vintage with me whenever I visit home), but indulged my search for these brands I so dearly loved. The habit carried on later into middle school when, in order to fit in, the words “Hollister” or “Abercrombie & Fitch” needed to be emblazoned across your chest, not quite matching the gauchos or bright plaid Bermuda shorts we all just had to have (2007 was weird).

In my early adult life, secondhand shopping became a necessity. I got my first retail job at Free People, meaning I was paid minimum wage to sell fast fashion clothing that singularly cost more than I’d make in a week. In order to dress the part, and avoid the unpleasant conversation with managers about not dressing “on-brand” enough, I’d dig through the racks at Buffalo Exchange for last season’s wares.   

Even now that I have a job that pays for me to live more comfortably, I still nearly always opt for purchasing secondhand, in the interest of finding the most environmentally friendly and sustainable mode of existing as a relatively trendy person in NYC.  As ThredUp shows through a series of adorable infographics, “thrift quickly becomes a lifestyle.” Not only does shopping resale save serious funds in the long run, especially when adding high-end and couture pieces that would otherwise be financially out of reach, but, according to ThredUp’s reports, if each article of clothing was given a second home after being discarded the first time, waste and emissions would be reduced by 73 percent. That’s a huge difference!

Back in 2013, 12.8 million tons of textile waste was sent to American landfills. Unfortunately, thrifting isn’t the end all, be all answer to this enormous problem. Kyle Stewart, director of donated goods retail at Goodwill, told HuffPost in 2016, “The goal is to liquidate. We want to try and keep as much out of the landfill as possible.” The efforts to keep donations from still creating ultimate waste are shown in a trickle-down sale process: Items first hit the traditional Goodwill store, where they have four weeks to sell. After that, they hit the outlet level (those ultra-cheap, by-the-pound or 99-cent Goodwill stores that you keep hearing about, but have never taken the chance to check out). Then, à la Storage Wars, bins of unbought wares from the outlets are auctioned off. After that, if they really can’t sell, they’re sent off to textile recycling companies like S.M.A.R.T., which on average are able to find another use for 95 percent of what they receive, sending 5 percent of unsellable and unsalvageable clothing to landfills.

Of course, the ethics of secondhand shopping are more nuanced than simply slapping on a label of sustainability. This is something that has taken me a while to notice and learn, on behalf of privilege and serious lack of resources.

Walking into big-box thrift stores like Salvation Army and Goodwill is always a similar experience. Items are organized by type, often by color, almost never by size. As someone who has been on the thin side for my entire life, I never have had to worry about sifting through the racks to find garments in larger sizes. I never noticed that, while some of these donation-based thrift stores have plus size racks, not all do. As aesthetically pleasing as color-based organization may be, especially when you just need a black Harley Davidson T-shirt or a red fringed leather jacket, it’s pretty discriminatory, especially as you begin to move away from donation-based thrift stores and into the land of curated consignment. Grabbing a vintage Pendleton skirt that was a few sizes too big (only to have it brought to a tailor and brought down to a size 4) feels a lot more justifiable when you don’t have to be faced with the fact that it was probably one of the only larger sizes on the rack.

There’s a great deal of gray area when it comes to shopping for a wardrobe at thrift stores for the sake of sustainability, particularly low-priced options that are donation-based. While it can be easy to simply focus on the numbers, it feels important to remind shoppers to remain cognizant of where they’re sourcing their hip pre-loved wardrobe from. Are you driving out of your way to a low-income neighborhood to check out if their stock is better than the one in your town? Probably a bad idea. Are you cherry-picking designer out of your local store only to flip it for more money on eBay? That’s not a cute look. Of course, if you happen to be sorting through the prom dress rack at Savers and come across a lone Alexander Wang maxi for $25, well, it’s your lucky day. No shame in jumping on a stellar find, just don’t be an asshole.

Those by-the-pound or 99-cent outlet stores that I mentioned prior are often, actually, better options for both your wardrobe and for your conscience, especially if you’re a hot mess and have a rambling inner dialogue like me and don’t want to worry! Given that they’re the second stop on the way to the landfill after first being passed over at average thrift stores, rest assured you’re not cherry-picking. It doesn’t mean you won’t find incredible designer or traditionally out-of-budget deals—at my first trip to the Goodwill Outlet in Queens, I snagged a pair of knee-high Sam Edelman boots in perfect condition for two dollars. Bless.

Secondhand stores to be leery of are those that appear well-curated and high-priced but don’t offer consignment programs. Question their sources! Are they digging through big thrift stores only to resell a floral frock for 40 times the price? Or, are they bidding on unbought wares in bulk and then performing their curatorial magic? Being a conscious consumer is a never-ending task, but your wallet (and the environment, and, indirectly, other thrifty consumers) will thank you.

While it’s the topic of an entirely separate essay, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Salvation Army has a history of horrible discrimination against the queer community, and so doesn’t deserve your hard-earned funds. Loving the LGBTQIA+ community and the environment shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive!

TL;DR?

Millions of tons of waste each year come from discarded apparel. Give your no-longer-worn wares a second life by donating or consigning. Better yet, buy pre-loved in the first place. It’s cyclical!

Size-wise, stick close to home. Believe me, your dream plaid school-girl skirt that you’ve just had to have after hearing “…Baby One More Time” all your life will appear in your size at the right moment. Don’t force an item to be right. What’s meant to be is meant to be. I’m not saying don’t snag a men’s flannel for that perfect, cozy and oversized fit, but don’t buy a 2XLT polo only to cut it up an make it a co-ord set.

Scouring for designers is bad, especially if you’re physically going out of your way to do so, or planning to flip for profit. Try personal resale apps and sites like Poshmark or The RealReal if you’re really just in it for the cheap Gucci.

Remain a conscious consumer. Question the sources of your favorite curated vintage stores, especially if they’re not consignment-driven.

Salvation Army doesn’t deserve your money. Love the queer community.  

Happy thrifting!