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Thrift Shopping: Is it Ethical? What to Do and Not to Do

Updated: Dec 16, 2020


BY EMILY HARPER



Fast fashion dominates the clothing industry in today’s society. If you were to walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, you would see that a majority of the stores in this shopping district sell merchandise that is rapidly produced, cheaply made, and designed for one or two uses before being discarded. While this isn’t to say that expensive translates to ethical or good business practices (it doesn’t), most fast fashion stores respond to demands for cheap clothing while still maintaining a profit margin by cutting the pay of the people who produce the clothing and using cheap materials in production. Knowing the humanitarian and environmental consequences for fast fashion, is that $4 crop top worth increasing the demand for retailers to continue to rapidly-produce clothing?


A Nonconclusive List of Fast Fashion Retailers:

  • Zara

  • H&M

  • Uni Qlo

  • Athleta

  • Gap

  • Banana Republic

  • Old Navy

  • Brandy Melville

  • Nike

  • Urban Outfitters

  • Topshop

  • Shein

  • Romwe

  • Lululemon

  • Victoria Secret


While stores that ethically source labor and create products designed to be long-lasting do exist, they are often not affordable for the average consumer - especially teenagers who may not have a steady source of income on their own. One way to shop sustainably is to buy clothing at thrift stores, which sell second-hand clothing for discounted prices. The myriad of benefits to shopping secondhand includes low prices and unique items that likely can’t be found elsewhere. Buying clothing at thrift stores prevents some clothing from going to landfills, therefore helping reduce the mass amount of clothing waste that is produced each year (measuring around 14+ tons). In addition, buying clothing from fast fashion stores results in an increased demand for the production of new clothing items by these retailers. Buying secondhand decreases the demand for more clothing, and therefore decreases the supply of clothing produced.


Although thrifting is cheap and sustainable, there are many things that consumers need to be conscious of before stepping foot into their local Village Discount. Being able to choose to thrift is a privilege. Many people rely on thrift stores due to their financial situation and don’t have the luxury of choosing where they shop. People who rely on purchasing secondhand clothing have priority over people who are choosing to shop at thrift stores. Avoiding purchasing necessities such as winter coats, boots, hats, gloves, and undergarments allows people who need these items to have access to a variety of sizes, types, etc. When selecting your purchases at a secondhand clothing store, be mindful of your consumption. Although it may seem like there is an endless stream of clothing that is donated to thrift stores, a drastic increase in demand for secondhand clothing by people who have recently become aware of sustainability and the dangers of fast fashion may, in turn, result in the increase in prices, which could be detrimental for those who rely heavily on the low priced goods that thrift stores supply.


Reselling thrifted items on sites such as Depop and Poshmark results once again in prices being raised for those who can’t afford to shop elsewhere. In conclusion, thrifting is a great alternative to shopping at fast fashion stores. But be mindful not to overconsume, and if possible you should give back to thrift stores what you have purchased by donating clothing that doesn’t fit anymore. Finally, people with enough funds to do so should opt to purchase clothing at sustainable and ethical clothing stores other than thrift stores, as while these retailers ethically produce their clothing they are usually more expensive than fast fashion stores and thrift stores and aren’t affordable for many consumers to realistically shop at. And remember, don’t judge people for shopping at thrift stores. There has always been a stigma attached to buying secondhand clothing, but this stigma often doesn’t apply to high-income individuals who choose to thrift out of luxury as opposed to necessity. Don’t judge people for things that they cannot control, such as financial situation. Remember that “hard work” doesn’t guarantee success. And always be mindful about how your actions - for example: buying a shirt at a fast-fashion retail store - have impacts.