Is Thrift Shopping Sustainable or Ethical? Notes from an Industry Insider

thrift shopping sustainable ethical - notes from a thrift shop manager
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Is Thrift Shopping Sustainable or Ethical?

A few years ago, the ever thoughtful Kamea of the Green Dreamer Podcast interviewed me on the subject of how to thrift like a pro and support the second-hand economy to grow

I love when people engage in conversation with me on this topic because, as most of you know, I managed a thrift shop in Charlottesville, Virginia for five years. Being able to share niche-specific knowledge that relatively few people possess in a day-to-day way is really fun for me, even better when it relates back to the work I do here.

In today’s post, I’ll cover topics around donations, the ethics and sustainability of thrift shopping, whether it’s ok for higher income folks to shop secondhand, and how the thrift economy ties into larger ideas of slow fashion.

1 | What first got you personally into/interested in the secondhand world?

I actually got into secondhand as a shopper as a freshman in college.

My friend, Mary, and I had a class together on Thursdays and afterwards we would jump in her car and head to Goodwill. As a lifelong sales shopper, the low prices and chance for creativity were overwhelming and thrilling to me.

I started selling vintage clothing as a side gig while still in college, right after etsy took off. When my husband got into a program in Charlottesville, there was a thrift shop management job open and I applied. So I’ve been wearing secondhand for over ten years and selling it for around 8. Now, as someone interested in sustainability, it has taken on even greater meaning as a good environmental choice.

2 | What are some of the biggest misconceptions you feel people have regarding what happens to clothes after they get recycled/tossed out/donated?

People who donate to the thrift shop are often under the impression that we will be able to sell or give away all of their clothes as viable secondhand options. This is simply not true for a few reasons:

  • Styles change and become less desirable over time
  • Depending on the demographics of the town, donor clothes may not appeal stylistically or practically to our customer base
  • Cheap, fast fashion clothes, especially teen clothing, is almost always ratty and falling apart by the time it gets to us, and thus has no resale or wearable value
  • Sizing has changed drastically due to vanity sizing and a lot of people, women especially, will not buy an item if the size marked is larger than their perceived or contemporary size

Unfortunately, I’ve heard the argument, “well, homeless people will wear it” from a variety of donors over the years. And that’s problematic for a few reasons:

  • Practically speaking, homeless people need clothing that is durable and in especially good condition because housing insecurity means they have fewer options to avoid difficult weather and living conditions
  • It does NOTHING for a person’s dignity to tell them they are stuck wearing the clothes no one else was willing to wear or buy

People who send clothes to recycling centers are sometimes operating under similar misconceptions about some far-off person in need making use of what they’ve given, or they assume that their rattier items will be turned into carpets or reworked into new textiles.

While this is occasionally a possibility, it’s extremely limited, and made more difficult by globalization, as centers that would do this processing are no longer local.

3 | Can you walk us through the various paths a piece of clothing can go upon disposal? What determines this (e.g., where you toss things out, the condition of the clothing, the brand name if that matters, the styles…)?

Most people have about three options:

  • Donate or swap
  • Send to a local textiles recycling center
  • Throw it in the trash

Donate It

If you donate the item, you should ask yourself the question, “Would I or someone I know PAY to buy this garment on the secondhand market?”

  • If the answer is no, don’t automatically donate it. Call ahead to see if they have the infrastructure to send it to a textiles recycling center. If they don’t, the thrift shop or charity will most likely have to pay a service to throw it away, and that doesn’t help anyone.
  • If it’s yes, donate it.
  • If it’s maybe – like if it’s a vintage piece or cashmere with a small moth hole – try taking it to a locally run thrift shop and asking the manager what they do with these pieces. At the shop I manage, we will put out high quality items “as is” or sell older wool and cashmere to felters.

Textiles Recycling

Some places have independent textiles recycling facilities that are open to the public. My area, Charlottesville, does not. We sometimes send items to a regional charity that claims to do some textiles baling and recycling just in case.

Often what we think of as textiles recycling centers are actually balers who ship large palettes of clothing overseas. Countries like Rwanda plan to fully ban these imports in 2019 because the influx of cheap, secondhand goods competes with local production. I’ve heard more recently that secondhand economies in other countries are thriving and really doing a service for people who work within them, but that depends largely on the specific country. It’s difficult to generalize.

Some large thrift chains like Goodwill have the infrastructure to sell off unusable garments for recycling, with a small portion being made into things like insulation, but many thrift shops will have to throw these items away.

Trashing It

Before trashing it, think about whether or not you could use it in some other form.

  • My husband and I have pet rats who like to cuddle in old cloth, so I give old t-shirts and other unsaleable items to them.
  • You can also cut old cotton into cleaning rags.

In terms of what we accept…

People are brand conscious, but this varies by demographic and location.

At the shop where I work, we sell a lot of Chico’s, J. Jill, LL Bean, J. Crew, and Talbots, not only because that’s what people like in this area, but because these brands tend to use higher quality fabrics and sewing, and people who shop secondhand regularly become experts in identifying that sort of thing.

For people who buy from indie and ethical brands, I actually recommend you resell on sites like Ebay and Poshmark because local thrift buyers aren’t likely to know the brand, and this limits its ability to be resold.

I often hear people suggest that diverting any amount of clothing through the resale market rather than donating it hurts low income people who “need” rather than simply want these things, but low income people are just as brand aware as anyone else, and they’ll purchase or select what they’re familiar with, which for the majority of the population, regardless of income, are department store, big box store, and international brands.

thrift shopping sustainable ethical - notes from a thrift shop manager
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4 | As thrift shopping becomes more popular, some shops are raising their prices. This seems counter to the historic goals of thrift shops to provide low cost clothing to people in need. What are your thoughts on that?*

I’m of two minds on this one. For one, I think we need to consider inflation before launching into this question. The shop I run has maintained almost the same price list for 27 years in spite of the value of the dollar almost halving in that time period, which means that, in real economic terms, we’ve actually lowered our prices. In that same time period, the cost of new clothing has gone down thanks to a removal of certain trade embargoes, allowing lots of cheap, sweatshop made goods to enter the American market. And then you have to factor in worker wage stagnation over the past 30-40 years, particularly for hourly wage workers who are most likely to be in need of affordable, secondhand goods.

So when someone suggests that, say, $6.00 is too much for a secondhand blouse, they’re speaking to a number of systemic and economic issues that aren’t really about the thrift shop. 

My shop has been very hesitant to increase prices even in the face of increased facilities costs (and my own need to make a livable wage) because we know that people rely on us for discounted goods. It becomes important to weigh all of these issues and provide a solution that does the best for everyone, in terms of ensuring a viable business model and meeting community needs. I have definitely seen some local shops go overboard, prioritizing fundraising for their charities over accessibility. But it’s actually a hard question to answer and the ethics are relative to the specific needs and interests of the shop.

The secondhand economy’s woes are often symptomatic of much larger issues, and I think it’s worthwhile to trace these issues back to their roots.

5 | Putting the price question aside for a moment, if people who aren’t low income continue to shop at thrift stores, won’t they end up snatching up all the good stuff simply because they can, leaving less for those who really need it?*

This seems to be the hot-button issue right now, and I can see that it derives from a place of care. But for the most part, I would classify this as a classist myth rather than a reality (by that, I mean that middle and upper class people have created this dichotomy as an exercise of their own guilt rather than based on any knowledge of the industry).

Yes, in low-volume thrift areas, this could be a concern. If you live in a place with relatively few thrift shops and noticeably slim pickings, talk to the thrift shop employees about why that is. If it’s truly low volume or high need (and you don’t consider yourself low income), consider doing your secondhand shopping via swaps or online instead of using local resources. You should also take your business elsewhere if the store has a policy of saving the best product for back-room sales to dealers – this is unethical!

But there are several reasons why this is generally not a serious cause for concern:

  1. In the vast majority of non-rural (suburban or urban) settings, thrift shops receive far more donations than they can sell locally, and I’m talking about sale-able items. Even at the shop I managed, which was low volume compared to other local thrifts, we literally didn’t have the room to put out about 30% of the clothing that was donated. There’s simply enough to go around.
  2. While it’s true that some brands and styles are more popular across the board, at the most extreme ends, I often noticed a clear divide between what presumably higher-income folks were buying (judging by the brand names of items they donated) and what our social services clients were selecting. This was based along the lines of brand, style, and particular product, and often based on different lifestyle needs. I do not mean to imply that demographic draws a hard and fast line when it comes to aesthetic, but it could draw enough of a line to not create direct competition in the case of immediate need.
  3. There’s a question here of how anecdotal evidence regarding this concern came about. As a casual shopper, you can’t actually *tell* who is low income. There are plenty of people who shop secondhand because they need to, even if they don’t fit a particular stereotype. Pay attention to yourself and don’t worry so much about other people’s choices in this case.

Implied in this question is a concern about resellers buying large quantities of goods in order to mark up the price. This is certainly cause for concern in markets where many resellers shop at once. At my store, we could generally tell who the resellers were because they would either tell us outright or purchase huge quantities of goods in different sizes and styles.

Apart from the occasional traveling reseller – we once had a couple buy ALL of our shoes – the local resellers were often middling to lower income themselves. This meant they were buying to supplement their own income rather than as a full time job. The way I saw it, the thrift shop was still doing its job in this case, by offering an income stream to people who needed it. Plus, it was the resellers who often helped us make budget, and thus made it possible for us to continue to be generous with our voucher program to low income families.

The key here is to be smart, use sustainable shopping practices by not egregiously over-buying, and understand the dynamics and mission of your local shops.

6 | Speaking of accessibility, do you think it’s ok for non-plus size people to buy plus size clothing, either for upcycling or for an “oversized” look?*

Generally speaking, no. But let me clear up an assumption here first. I have heard many people say that the reason there is less plus size clothing at thrift stores is because of upcyclers purchasing outside the range of their appropriate size. But in my experience – and I’m only speaking anecdotally – our shop received far fewer plus size pieces in the first place (this was also true for men’s clothing).

Now, I could speculate about why that was, but there wasn’t a way to gather hard data on it. That being said, it would have been a travesty to know that people were purchasing from this already-sparse category just to cut up the clothes to use as something else, because a considerable portion of our shoppers sought clothing in plus sizes, and we rarely had a good selection. If you’re looking for fabric to upcycle, check out the home linens section, or ask the thrift shop staff if they have damaged or stained garments/sheets that you can buy at a lower price.

I will say that, from the position of General Manger, I wouldn’t have called out a petite shopper for buying plus-size clothing, because I couldn’t know the full context of their life or who they were buying for. I also know that older/vintage styles run much smaller than contemporary ones, which means that analyzing the size label alone wouldn’t indicate much. I say this only to caution bystanders not to call out people if you don’t know their intentions.

7 | It’s great that more and more people are shopping second hand – either exclusively, or to supplement their shopping habits. But if fast fashion continues to churn out cheap clothes at exponential rates, which means just more cheap clothes being dumped into the secondhand world, how can this become circular/more sustainable?

This one is complicated from the thrift shop side of things, because it’s just a reality that on-trend, newer items will sell quicker than older items, and so in a way we’re codependent on these companies that churn out new stuff all the time.

The solution is two-fold, but both are about quality…

  • Buy high quality, used things before buying new. Part of overconsumption – there’s a psychological part, too, but that’s not all of it – is that our clothing isn’t satisfying. It doesn’t last and it’s too trend driven to sustain our needs. So I advocate “shopping secondhand first” for the best quality things you can find, either online or at local thrift shops.
  • If you can’t find it used, buy the highest quality NEW thing you can afford that suits your personal style. Pay attention to things like the strength and consistency of the weave, the seams, the sewing quality, how it fits you. This will ensure that, even if the item is a dud, it will be able to continue on the secondhand market. I have been a vocal critic of Thredup’s new incorrectly named “Remade” line, but it will be interesting to see if they can prove the concept.

I would also recommend that everyone do the mental work to understand why they are drawn to shop and what their true personal taste is. I recommend The Wonder Wardrobe course by Daria Andronescu and Tara Button’s book, A Life Less Throwaway. They helped me a lot.

8 | What final actionable tips do you have for us as individuals in terms of A) how we can maintain the value in our existing clothes as much as possible, B) dispose of them responsibly so they can be re-used, and C) support the secondhand ecosystem to keep growing and help the fashion system go circular? 

  1. Pay attention to care labels, line dry when possible, and fold things that may stretch if stored on hangers. Use cedar to avoid moth holes!
  2. Either use the item for as long as possible or find the best market for resale, whether that’s online or at a local thrift shop.
  3. Consider if there are quilters or other crafters who may want unsaleable things for upcycling.
  4. Wear the heck out of your secondhand finds and tell everyone you bought them secondhand. This helps further destigmatize secondhand fashion and makes the experience fun and relatable. Don’t buy new trend pieces that don’t suit your longterm style, especially when they’re made out of cheap polyesters and other synthetics.

9 | What trends are you seeing related to secondhand shopping that make you most hopeful right now?

It’s no longer stigmatized! People of all ages and demographic makeups are shopping secondhand these days, and that’s a good sign not only for sustainability but for community building. I love working at a thrift shop because it’s one of the most diverse spaces you can find in my little Southern town.

Greater accessibility through online platforms and apps is great, too.

And it doesn’t hurt that we have a more democratized fashion scene that allows for people to express themselves in all sorts of ways, which makes vintage clothing and used goods more attractive than they used to be. All the teenagers are buying up clothes from the 90s, for instance. And I’ve gotten really into 1980s winter coats.

Any other questions? Ask in the comments.

*These questions were asked at a later date.

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thrift shopping sustainable ethical

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. This post has so much great information in it. As a sustainability and theology nerd, I was so excited when I found your blog. Keep up the great work. Peace!

    1. Thank you! Nice to meet you!

  2. […] As I’ve stated before, how people shop hasn’t changed, that behaviour has simply been redirected. Additionally, people manage their guilt by donating old clothes to second-hand shops. However, the rules of donation should apply. When donating, pay attention to the quality of clothing or material that you’re planning to donate. Pay attention to the life span of certain materials. Because the chances are that the clothes you’re presenting aren’t going to make it to the shelves. The reality is that not all of your clothes are salvageable for many reasons. Thus they’re more likely to end up at a dump than in stores. To find out more about donation processing and material recycling, click here. […]

  3. I’ve never bought new in probably 45 years I either make it or buy second hand. The sad part of this now is all the stores are raising there prices. I won’t even deal with salvation army way to high same as habitat for humanity. I’m not rich and clothes have been around along time. So why make me suffer because all of a sudden you have a conscious… Half the clothes made are sweat shops now you have a conscious!!!! Puleeze. I’ll go back to remaking my clothes I made them they will last longer.

    1. I’m so glad you have the skills to make your clothing. What a gift. As I note in this piece, I don’t think it’s helpful to blame consumers for increased prices at thrift stores. That rests squarely with the thrift stores themselves. But, of course, they do have to adjust for inflation to some degree in order to keep the lights on. I really hope that thrift stores recognize that they’re pricing many people out of their stores, which totally goes against their mission!

  4. I hear the oversized-to-flip issue and will admit that I’ve done a couple times. I do try to keep it to a minimum (largely in part because I’m not great at scheduling sewing time, especially with a new baby) but when I do it, I only buy if 1. I know exactly what I would make and how, 2. I really can use most of the fabric (ie doing a lot of shirring or something similar that requires a lot of fabric), 3. It’s a super outdated style that I assume won’t be high on most people’s list. My main thing, though, is knowing before I buy what I would do because I don’t want it just sitting around because I like the fabric or pattern on it when it could be used by someone else.

    1. Yeah, I think with items that really aren’t good for resale – either clearly outdated, misshapen, or stained – there is an argument to be made for upcycling. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great article! Love thrifting too.

    To avoid buying plus sizes that others may “need”, I wait until they are one the $1.00 or .50 racks.

    I buy for a lot of others, homeless, low income etc…so waiting gives others a chance to buy first but still allows my budget to be able to assist others in need.

    1. That is a great strategy! Thanks for pointing out that you buy for other people – that happened a lot at the thrift shop I managed, so you couldn’t just assume anything by the types of items in someone’s basket.

  6. We .reuse clothing of ours to make quilts and Jean’s and heavy garments can be recut into new clothing for kids in a new style Jean’s make great futons T shirts make great pillows wool would make grat Rugs
    I only have concerns of the virus staying in the clothing and not being properly washed out and should we be exchanging these items during a pandimic or just repurposing our own things stop waisting things and money

    1. That’s great that you and your family are so thrifty in the full sense of the word. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the virus living in clothing after washing, but I’m very concerned about poor ventilation and the difficulty of cleaning a thrift store. I have only thrift shopped once during the pandemic because of Covid protocol. It has been a good exercise in understanding what I really need.

  7. I enjoyed this article but wish you had addressed the issue of those buying larger sizes to repurpose them and it limiting availability for those of us in the plus size community.

    1. You’re absolutely right to point that out. I’m going to add that to the post now. One thing I noticed at my shop is that we received far fewer plus size pieces in the first place, so it would have significantly impacted our customers if people were purchasing them for “upcycling” rather than for wear.

      1. Hello Leah! What a wonderful article and God bless. I’m going to follow you now.
        My 2 cents regarding plus clothing. From a forever plus size….
        It is so difficult for me (us) to find something that works for us. I’m a 2x or 3x now.
        It may fit, but looks terrible on.
        It may be so much more $ than regular sized, making it expensive to me.
        This is true for me, and probably others. We get little stains from cooking, little splashes of oil. Because our bellies are in the way! Lol So these don’t end up on the racks.
        Clothes shrink often, and they’re not the correct size of the tag. So I would rather not donate.
        So ~~ if I am lucky enough to find garments that I’m happy with, I hold on to them forever. I wear the stained in the house. I also HATE clothes shopping (depressing) and more so trying things on. I much prefer to grab several, buy them and hope for the best.
        I do have a dear friend who gladly takes what I can’t use.

        What a wonderful world it would be if Lane Bryant or Torrid had deep deep discounts.
        Charlene Lewis

  8. I’m glad to see you posting, Leah! I’ve loved thrift shopping for years, and one of the hardest things about avoiding unnecessary interactions this summer has been the limited chances to find clothes for my kids for the fall. A lot of your points are especially true about children’s’ clothes. I want to be sustainable and support ethical companies in what I buy for them, too, and often the best way for me to do that is to buy “nicer” brands secondhand.

    1. I feel you. I am so thrift deprived at this point because it feels like an unnecessary risk. When people have asked me about “ethical” kids’ clothes, I always recommend secondhand. They grow so quickly and can really be hard on clothing, so it makes the most sense to buy used. I hope you’ve been able to find some clothes that work for your kids!

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