- Writer Sam Corbin gets most of her clothing from secondhand sources to help offset the environmental damage caused by the rise of fast fashion.
- She’s not alone: New, sustainably made clothing exists, but experts stressed that buying used is the way to go, despite the fact that the resale industry isn’t perfect.
- Grassroots action, better regulation, and consumer awareness can help improve the current sustainable fashion landscape.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
My personal law of physics dictates that if you compliment something I’m wearing, I will automatically tell you where I got it and how much I spent on it. Most of the time I probably sound like a pauper’s Ariana Grande: “Oh, this sweater? Gee, thanks! I just found it on the street.”
As someone who gets almost all of her apparel secondhand — in thrift and consignment stores, on sidewalks, at clothing swaps — disclosing the cost and source of an outfit has come to feel like the fashion equivalent of salary disclosure. I’ve been shouting mine for the better part of a decade.
More recently, it’s become a way of wearing my politics quite literally on my sleeves. As the realities of fast fashion’s terrible effects on our planet become ever more studied and ever more apparent, a penchant for used goods has started to feel more than just budget-savvy. It now feels urgent, necessary, and non-negotiable.
Our planet is hurtling towards disaster, and our collective appetite for cheap button-downs is one reason why.
We’re buying more than ever from a market that values quality less than ever, and a ravenous appetite for growth is slated to produce 100 million tons of clothing annually by 2030. The fashion industry is responsible for 8 to 10%of global carbon emissions, to say nothing of its water use and exploitative labor practices in countries across the globe. Faced with the sheer scale of this nightmare, why ever buy anything new?
“The only true sustainable way to shop is to not shop at all,” Rachel Kibbe, a brand consultant for circularity and sustainability in fashion, told Insider. “Unless you’re buying clothes that [already] exist.”
Even the most well-intentioned sustainability initiatives produce little by way of scalable, affordable, well-made clothing.
Dana Thomas, a prolific fashion author, recently cited a Stella McCartney shirt as the closest thing she’d found to a sustainably-constructed clothing item. The price tag? $550.
From a supply chain standpoint, though, that price isn’t unheard of. “It’s labor and parts,” Kibbe said, “[because] you source fiber from small farms, who are paying a lot more not to use pesticides, and you’re paying fair wages.”
In some cases, fashion brands hawking that ethos are found guilty of “greenwashing” — the movement’s most powerful pejorative — using buzzwords like “organic” and “natural” to reap the market benefits of an eco-consciousness they can’t actually prove they’re practicing.
It’s worth noting that sustainability isn’t always a clear-cut claim. Everlane — often cited as a leader in affordable sustainability — rates as “Not Good Enough” on the watchdog app Good on You due to a lack of clear evidence surrounding water use reduction and living wage protections. An Everlane spokesperson defended the brand’s efforts, noting a recent partnership with bluesign to help audit chemical use in its supply chain. The spokesperson told Insider that, when it comes to living wages, Good on You “doesn’t have the information about how robust the audits we do are,” but also acknowledged that the company could be more transparent about these efforts.
Resale still comes with a whole lot of baggage.
While certainly more affordable than a Stella McCartney, Everlane’s $18 cotton tees still aren’t as easy on the wallet as, say, the $5 option from H&M. So if the most sustainable and affordable way to shop is to buy and resell clothes that already exist, why isn’t resale the norm?
According to Carrie Peterson, co-owner of the consignment and thrift store Beacon’s Closet, a lot of it comes down to consumer psychology. “Sometimes people just want the newest thing, to avoid what they perceive as the inferiority of secondhand goods,” Peterson told Insider. In our newness-obsessed consumer culture, thrift store shopping feels like Mom saying “there’s food at home.”
Thrifting also doesn’t have the same kind of bespoke convenience as going to a store. “In a thrift environment, you can’t carry a single style in a range of sizes,” Peterson said. You can’t flit from rack to rack, selecting garments based on size, style, and silhouette. Even in well-curated thrift and vintage stores, the eccentricities of the stock can feel arbitrary and unkempt. “Each piece is the only one we have, so it does take time to thrift. That’s an investment and a luxury not everyone has,” Peterson said.
Stigmas surrounding secondhand notwithstanding, the resale economy isn’t exactly suffering. In fact, from a business standpoint, thrift store shopping and the clothing donation that supports it is on the rise: A 2019 report by resale marketplace thredUP predicts the value of the secondhand market will reach $51 billion within the next five years. The “Marie Kondo Effect” shows no signs of slowing down.
The gospel is spreading with or without my help. So, should we all just sit back and wait for the scales to tip?
There’s a darker side to clothing donation and resale.
Not exactly, according to Kibbe. While the act of donating clothing to thrift-store-cum-nonprofits like Goodwill or Salvation Army may seem wholly positive, the vast majority of donations aren’t actually sold in-store. Most donated garments are sorted and resold in bulk exports to rag traders overseas — traders who, thanks to a decline in quality because of disposable fashion, are paying less and less for our cheaply-made rags.
It’s a cruel twist: The more we consign or donate, the less the sellers can recoup. This chain has a consequence on the consumer side, too: Because many thrift stores rely on the income from rag exports, their retail prices are actually going up.
This isn’t the consumer’s problem to fix entirely, of course. And it’s unequivocally better to try to sell or donate a garment than to junk it. But it’s not enough just to dump our clothes on thrift stores, buy more of them used, and wash our hands of the conversation. We need to understand where our clothing is ending up and why, and to demand more from the fast fashion practices contributing to the supply chain’s decay.
From calling out clothing brands to thrifting your couch, there are plenty of things you can do to make sustainability a bigger part of the conversation.
Everyone Insider spoke with agreed that buying used is still the most viable option from a sustainability perspective. But they also emphasized that we need to hold industry leaders — and the governments that regulate them — accountable.
“To be clear, it is enormous grassroots movements and cultural changes that are driving the conversation about sustainability,” Elizabeth Cline, author of the book “The Conscious Closet,” told Insider.
On a micro-level, that grassroots shift can include volunteering to sort clothing in your city, or using social media to demand transparency from brands. It can also come from extending the second-hand ethos beyond your wardrobe: Save for a bed frame and a small kitchen table, all of my furniture is either vintage, thrifted, or gifted (i.e. a mixture of street finds and friends’ moving leftovers). I do my fair share of furniture and decor giveaways on Instagram, too, seeing as many of my possessions through to a good next home as possible.
Major shifts will come from demanding policy change, consumer education, and better behaviors from the fashion industry that got us here. But in the meantime, buy used. It means, at the very least, one less dollar for the status quo.
“There are already enough clothes in the world,” Cline said. “The responsible thing to do is repair, recirculate, and re-wear what’s already out there.”
Sam Corbin is a New York–based writer and humorist. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vulture, BuzzFeed, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @ahoysamantha.
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