Do privileged shoppers at thrift stores take resources from those who need them?

Before I developed a social or environmental conscience, I was an avid thrift shopper. I had no idea about the impact of the things I buy and how my money supports those industries. As a teenager, I loved finding sweaters from the 80s and brands I couldn’t otherwise afford. Growing up, I wore hand-me-downs and as an adult I buy ‘new’ clothes as a last resort.

That being said, I have the privilege to afford new clothes. Considering how few clothes we really need (hint: we all have more than we need), it’s even more feasible for me to have purchased all 22 items in my wardrobe new at some point through the year(s). Shopping secondhand can be frugal, but it can also be a rejection of practices you don’t agree with. When I purchase secondhand, I opt-out of giving my money to manufacturers that don’t pay their employees a living wage. I opt-out of giving money to big retailers that open on Thanksgiving to charge even less for their already cheaply priced and produced goods. I opt-out of one of the most polluting industries in the world. I opt-out of a buying culture that says more, more, more, no matter the environmental or ethical cost.

While I could purchase most cheap, imported clothing new, it would be a strain, if not impossible, for me to buy everything again new and ethically made. Ethically made goods are usually not as inexpensive, and their price reflects fair wages and responsible use of resources. While that cost is worth paying, for most of us, it’s not within our means to purchase ethically made products at the same rate we can purchase irresponsibly made goods, which is ultimately a good thing because endless consumption is not sustainable. Many people turn to secondhand clothes, from thrift stores or consignments stores, as a more affordable and accessible way to opt-out of the myriad of problems with fast fashion.

Do privileged shoppers take resources from thrift stores that others need?

Or, does shopping at thrift stores take resources from those who depend on secondhand clothes?

It’s a fair question, and it’s worth considering. There are limited resources that we need to consider in two ways. First, there are limited resources on this earth. The most sustainable resource is that which already exists, so used clothing is more sustainable than producing new clothing because it doesn’t require the use of more resources. Second, there are limited resources of secondhand clothes that may be the most accessible and affordable clothing resources for those with very few financial means.

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When we donate clothes, they aren’t simply taken out of our donation bags, priced, and hung on the racks of our local thrift store. Clothes are sorted into donations that are accepted, those that aren’t, and then into more specific categories like shirts, pants, coats, and so on. One Salvation Army employee from Brooklyn recounts that there’s never a dry spell, with more than enough clothes rolling through each day to choose 11,200 items for the eight thrift stores the clothes are distributed to. At these thrift stores, clothes have one month to sell, and after they will be taken off the racks and sent away. Despite sending 11,200 items a day to the eight thrift stores it serves, this Salvation Army is still able to discard six tons, or 12,000 lbs, of clothing every day.

Unwanted donations are then sold to textile recyclers or sold in bales to secondhand clothing buyers abroad. At textile recycling centers, clothes might be resorted again for items that were originally passed up but still in good condition. The items that are unusable may end up remade into rags or other textiles but many donated clothes continue their journey overseas. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, about 80% of the clothes we donate to charity are resold to recyclers, and not in the charities we donated.

Between 2011 and 2015, American export of used clothing rose by $97 million. The US is the top exporter of used clothing, sending out 18% of global used clothing exports. The top global importers of used clothing are Pakistan, Ukraine, and Kenya. Not only are more emissions created from sending away these goods across the world, many suggest that the imports of low quality, cheap, used clothing are bad for the local clothing business. For example, “in the early 1990s, Kenya had about 110 large-scale garment manufacturers. By 2006, that number dropped to 55”. This decline is attributed to the removal of subsidies for clothing made domestically and the flooding of the market with foreign goods. Selling imported used clothing, however, is defended as a source of jobs for many people.

According to the Council for Textile Recycling, about 80% of the clothes we donate to charity are resold to recyclers, and not in the charities we donated.

Looking back at our original question, it seems unlikely that there are too few resources for more people to shop secondhand. In fact, it seems very unlikely as well that 80% of what we donate is actually unwearable or useless, and the ever-growing industry of used clothing exports tell us that the clothes charities resell are valuable, wearable resources. Considering that charities and thrift stores must pass on donations because there simply isn’t need, it seems that choosing to buy these secondhand goods could increase demand and therefore increase the number of accepted donations, and perhaps reduce the number of used clothing exports.

To answer the question if privileged shoppers take resources from thrift stores that others need:

  1. There are more donations than charities and thrift stores can accept

  2. Discarded donations are not necessarily unwearable or used-up resources

  3. Many clothes donations not accepted by US charities are exported and sold for profit

I will continue shopping secondhand, including at thrift stores, and continue to recommend this as a sustainable and accessible way to buy clothes. Don’t think of thrift stores as the new fast fashion, where you buy cheaply and dispose of clothing (perhaps by donation) quickly. Think of secondhand buying the same way you think of slow fashion: buy less and buy better.


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