Why Thrifting is Better Than Fast Fashion

Fast fashion brands are killing the planet and hurting their workers

H&M store shot in the city at night

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

When looking for cheap, trendy clothing, fast fashion isn't the answer. Thrift stores and second-hand shops are starting to dominate fashion as we know it. The fast fashion industry has been highly criticized for how they treat their garment workers and their lack of care when considering their contribution to the climate crisis. Gen Zers and millennials have been particularly conscious of this through social media with 45% shopping ethically when they can afford it. 

With resale stores and websites becoming more popular and accessible, people shop more regularly at thrift and vintage stores. Even throughout the beginning of the covid pandemic, consumers were shopping online for clothes and other goods alike. In 2020, around 33 million consumers bought secondhand apparel for the first time, in person and online.

The reason for some of fast fashion’s popularity is because of how accessible and cheap it tends to be. However, there’s always a price tag that might not be as simple or easy to understand as a dollar sign. Here are a few ways that the fast fashion industry is a stark contrast to shopping at thrift and vintage stores and second hand.

GAP supply chains in Bangladesh and Cambodia were exposed for acts of violence against their women workers while on the job in May 2018. These abuses have been proven as ongoing incidents in their factories. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Working Conditions in the Fast Fashion Industry

Sweatshops are an epidemic in most countries, and many large companies violate workers’ rights. Approximately 93% of Fashion Checker’s surveyed brands don’t pay garment workers a living wage. This leads to workers enduring long hours yet simultaneously being unable to pay for their basic needs. The brands responsible for this are more common than you think: Shein, Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, and Victoria’s Secret are a few examples. Most of them are headquartered in rich countries like the United States. 

A lot of fast fashion brands outsource their clothing production to achieve cheap labor costs so they can sell for even cheaper. It's difficult to conceptualize what is happening to these workers and their families, as it's behind the scenes and they are very far away from the average American consumer. If you can't see the impact, it's easier to ignore or forget about it. What we do see are models wearing the clothes in ads, on their website, and the clean stores in which their products are sold. 

Issues of gender based violence in factories that supply H&M and Gap apparel are an example of the 68% of brands that have gender inequality at their facilities. Around 80% of garment workers are women. Their mistreatment includes low pay, physical abuse, sexual harassment, poor work conditions, and forced overtime hours. Global Labor Justice’s H&M report highlights that these aren’t isolated incidents, but an ongoing issue. 

The COVID-19 crisis showcased the social and economic inequality of the industry. A good way to take action against these issues is simply by paying attention. By amplifying workers’ voices and pointing out the flaws in fast fashion sweatshops, people can begin to receive justice. Sign petitions or email brands directly to demand them to pay all workers a living wage and manage a safe work environment.

An estimated 36 billion pounds of textile waste accumulates in the US each year. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

When thinking about the climate crisis, the narrative has typically been aimed at the individual person to offset carbon emissions through their consumption. Although this can make a very small effect, the largest contributors to climate change are large companies and corporations and their ways of manufacturing goods. Brands like Fashion Nova, Boohoo, Revolve, Pretty Little Thing, and Forever 21 all score less than 10% on the Fashion Transparency Index. Meaning that how they manufacture and distribute their goods is kept hidden tightly under wraps. 

Every year, the fashion industry contributes 1.2 billion tons of CO2 emissions that start racking up from when the clothing is beginning to be fabricated all the way to when it hits the shelves in stores or the warehouse. Fashion is the planet's third largest polluter after food and construction. This is also without considering the amount of waste that is generated by clothing that people throw away or can no longer use due to low quality. 

The idea of fast fashion sounds a lot like what the name is. Similar to fast food, things are made under the cheapest conditions, without consideration for those who work for them, with emphasis on generating a profit as quickly as possible. Companies often cut corners with their factory conditions, waste, and fumes without repercussions. 

On October 5th, Louis Vuitton's fashion show in Paris, France was interrupted by climate protesters walking alongside models on the runway. The peaceful and silent protest included them holding up signs that read in bold black capital letters: “OVERCONSUMPTION = EXTINCTION.” Very quickly after the activists started their strut, they were forcefully dragged out of sight and their signs discarded. The sign had environmentalist groups Amis de la Terre France, Youth for Climate, and Extinction Rebellion logos printed under the text.

Although Louis Vuitton isn’t considered fast fashion, luxury brands like it are still contributing to the climate crisis. They regularly burn unsold items, claim to pledge to cut down their emissions but haven’t made a dent, and use little to no eco-friendly materials in production. Fashion shows in general promote a lavish lifestyle and express wealth. You’d never see a thrift fashion show in Paris. 

Buying used items instead of new ones reduces the carbon footprint accumulated from new clothing production by 80%. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Replace Your Fast Fashion Consumption with Thrifting

Nearly two in five thrifters say they are replacing their fast fashion purchases with used ones. Thrift shopping is perfect for anyone looking to buy more affordable clothes. The act of thrifting has become a trend in itself with influencers visiting stores to find rare, forgotten items. With a massive supply of clothing that could be resold, buying them keeps garments out of the landfill. Most large thrift store chains including Goodwill and the Salvation Army give back to their local communities somehow either through charity, volunteerism, or flat-out donations. 

You can easily transform your closet by shopping secondhand. One in four shoppers cares less about wearing the newest trends constantly since the pandemic started. If you're in the Pittsburgh vicinity and are looking for places to shop, or have no clue how to piece together a thrifted outfit, read Thrifting In Pittsburgh: Where To Go, And What To Look For for some tips. 

Secondhand shopping is expected to be two times bigger than fast fashion by 2030, with good reason. Not only is it thrilling to find a unique item while thrifting, but the environmental impact that thrifting has can also potentially cancel out fast fashion waste in the future. In 2020, Goodwills across the nation harvested 4.6 billion pounds of goods from landfills. For most, thrifting isn’t just another way to shop, but a new way of living. Even new clothing that was produced sustainably can have their own problems. These brands tend to be more expensive, and most aren’t always completely transparent about their sustainability practices. 

Thrifting isn’t always the most ethical either. Unfortunately, the spike in thrift shopping has started an increase in secondhand clothing prices. This can make it less accessible to low income people in need of essential items. If you can afford it, ditch Goodwill and go to a more expensive secondhand consignment store or vintage shop. You can also combat this by upcycling your old clothing, raiding your parents' chest of old sweaters, or even swapping clothes with friends as another environmental alternative. Overconsumption, in general, isn’t sustainable or socially ethical, so thrifting in healthy doses is the way to go. 

As time goes on, fashion will evolve with the clock. A change in how we consume goods, especially in how we consume clothing, is necessary. By reading up and educating yourself on the issues that fast fashion poses, you can make a considerable difference. So, when getting an invite to a thrift shop or a retro vintage store, don't turn your nose up at the opportunity to try something different. 

Liz Anastasiadis

Liz Anastasiadis (they/she) is a writer + journalist, book lover & vinyl collector living in Cleveland, OH.
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