Is second-hand shopping truly sustainable?

As a generation, Gen Z loves a good dose of aestheticised nostalgia, and thrifted clothing is the perfect means for embodying an idealised past–be it 80s punk or Y2K tacky-chic. But in the age of an accelerating climate crisis, one can no longer simply be fashionable; one’s fashion choices must also be environmentally conscious. So, what are the pros and cons of thrifting?

Buying second-hand encourages recycling by giving new life to clothes that would otherwise have been discarded or dumped into a landfill. As a result, it is increasingly marketed as a sustainable alternative to fast-fashion. However, as enthusiasm for second-hand clothing grows, it seems that the market is beginning to encourage the very same behaviour as fast-fashion: overconsumption.

Just like any other kind of shopping, thrifting is addictive. The thrill of stumbling upon a cheap gem at the bottom of a heap of preloved garments truly is one-of-a-kind. This addiction is encouraged by popular social media content such as thrift hauls. The #vintageclotheshaul hashtag alone has 3.5 billion views on TikTok. As demand increases, so does the global second-hand market. In its most recent report, the online resale platform ThredUp expects the market to nearly double by 2027, reaching $350 billion, numbers which are driven mostly by online resale.

The fashion industry has long been one to prioritise increased profit and consumption at the expense of the environment. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled and the number of garments purchased per capita increased by 60%. It is estimated that in the EU, 11kg per person of textiles are discarded every year. Many environmentally conscious consumers donate their unwanted garments to charity shops in the hopes of finding them a second home. While this is better than discarding them altogether, with the amount of clothing being donated to these shops being larger than ever, it is estimated that charity shops only sell about 20% of the clothes donated to them. The remainder is sold to for-profit aggregators who repackage them and export them to far-away countries, including Ghana and Ethiopia, contributing to further greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental harm. 

Kantamanto is the world’s largest second-hand market and it is located in Accra, Ghana. Ghana imports about 15 million items of second-hand clothing, known locally as obroni wawu or “dead white man’s clothes”, each week. A browse through the clothing sold there would unearth labels from brands like H&M and Tesco, as well as price tags from charity shops like Marie Curie. The vast majority of what does not get sold at Kantamanto becomes textile waste and finds its way into Ghana’s rivers, lagoons, and the sea, clogging waterways and causing devastating environmental damage. 

So how can one be fashionable and sustainable? The key to fashion sustainability can be summed up by iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s phrase “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last”. According to Fashion Revolution, doubling the lifespan of a garment such as a pair of jeans, even by wearing it 60 times instead of just 30, reduces its greenhouse gas emissions footprint by almost half. And once those jeans become tatty and worn beyond repair, instead of heading to the nearest High-Street boutique, the most sustainable option (and often the cheapest!) for finding a fresh new pair will always be your favourite local charity shop.

Image description: A clothing rail of thrifted clothes

Image credits: Studio Grand Web via iStock