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Pop Culture with Aminah: The Ethics of Thrifting for Sustainability

A sign saying "thrift store" on the side of a brick building
Photo by S. Jones

With spring and summer around the corner, many people are dusting off their warm weather clothes to survive the upcoming unbearable heat. Some are even starting to refresh or update their wardrobe. With the rise of apps like Depop — which allows users to buy and sell their clothing — many people are turning to secondhand options as a way to be sustainable. Most people who choose to thrift do so because they want to end the cycle of fast fashion (cheap clothing that is mass produced in response to fashion trends). However, this thrifting trend has come with its fair share of problems.

Thrift stores are generally located in lower and working class neighborhoods. They were created to provide an affordable, accessible option for lower income communities. Many people rely on thrift stores as their only place to buy the clothes they need. Within the last couple of years, viral videos on social media have drawn the attention of younger, more affluent people to thrift stores. Shopping there has become a more widespread choice for them — and some have begun buying items at an alarming rate. Some go thrifting with the sole purpose of finding items to resell for personal profits. This has led to increased prices and scarcity of essential items.

Some people argue that widespread thrifting and reselling is actually a good thing because it allows for more people to buy from more sustainable options. But the truth is, the sustainable options are only accessible to certain people when they are made inaccessible to others. Here are some tips for how to thrift ethically.

Consider shopping at a consignment store

Instead of buying newly manufactured merchandise, stores like Plato’s Closet and Rumors Boutique purchase clothes and accessories directly from people in their community. Their items are always in season and style, and most store locations usually donate anything that they don’t sell. Consignment stores provide you with an option to shop sustainably and give less-used clothes a second life.

Buy only if you need it

Overconsumption is still harmful, even if the source is less environmentally damaging than others. Before heading into a thrift store for new clothes, consider whether you need or want the item you’re looking for. If it’s a want, try searching other places besides thrift stores first — especially if the item you desire could be another person’s necessity.

Avoid purchasing essential items

Things like children’s clothes, plus size clothes, winter coats, shoes and socks are needed to keep thrift stores accessible to those who need them. If you’re looking for any of these items, consider shopping at other places first.

Do not resell items

Using a thrift store to buy trendy clothing in bulk is extremely exploitative when the store is an essential resource for people of lower income. The belief that those clothing items wouldn’t otherwise be bought or used is an unfair assumption to make and not an excuse for removing the opportunity altogether. Even though the intention is to be sustainable, commodifying these resources shows a lack of awareness and ethical lens of how your consumption is affecting people, not just the environment.

Don’t just buy, donate!

This is a great way to be more environmentally sustainable. For every item of clothing you purchase from a thrift store, donate two back. Even if you’re following thrifting ethics to a T, giving back to the communities you’re taking from is important. If you don’t have any clothes to donate, consider giving a monetary donation to the organization that runs the thrift store or volunteer your time there.

Recognize your privilege

If you’re going to thrift stores by choice, remember that it’s just that — a choice. Many people don’t have other options beyond thrift stores. Center the implications of your actions on these people rather than what you personally get out of your trip to a thrift store.

By Aminah Jenkins, Staff Writer


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