Gen Z-ers on TikTok declared a war on thrift shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that middle- and upper-class people shopping at thrift stores contribute to gentrification and limit opportunities for lower-income individuals to buy affordable clothes.
This argument is completely misguided. I know from personal experience.
I have thrift shopped for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a lower-income family, thrift shopping helped me save money and taught me budgeting skills.
As a former undergraduate student and now as a graduate student, I have continued the habit, with about 95% of my wardrobe coming from thrift shops.
It’s not because I want to deny anyone else the opportunity to buy affordable clothing. I don’t judge anyone who shops at the thrift shop or at yard sales—whether out of need, frugality, or taste in fashion. I shop at thrift stores to save money.
Environmental Protection Agency statistics and my own personal thrift shopping experiences say otherwise. An ample supply of bargain-priced goods is available for everyone.
Despite the huge secondhand sales market, many previously owned clothes are tossed into the trash.
Americans purchased approximately 17 million tons of textiles—home goods and clothing—in 2018, not including thrifted items, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
At the same time, Americans added 11.3 million tons of textiles to landfills and combusted another 3.2 million tons. By comparison, Americans recycled only 2.5 million tons of textiles.
The options for these used, unwanted textiles are minimal: combust them, send them overseas to a developing nation, recycle them and use them for new products, send them to a landfill, or send them to a thrift store.
If not done properly, combusting the materials can release harmful chemicals. Facilities conducting combustions must capture those chemicals and dispose of them without polluting. If done by individuals, it’s likely that combustion will release those chemicals directly into the air.
Sending items as charity to developing nations floods their textile markets. That can have negative consequences on jobs, causing further poverty.
Recycling textiles into new products sounds great in theory. However, few textile recycling programs exist. The textile recycling industry could be expanded to fill the gap.
Some items may be in such poor condition that nothing can be done with them aside from sending them to a landfill.
That creates another problem. Items of natural composition go through processes of dying and chemical treatment making the items potentially hazardous to health as they decompose. Many textiles are made of petroleum derivatives, which are plastics made from crude oil that decompose slowly.
In some circumstances, the decomposition of petroleum or altered clothing can take up to 500 years, meaning the clothes sit in landfills without decomposing for centuries.
Thus, we are left with sending items to thrift stores.
When entering a thrift store, you are greeted by carts of newly sorted items waiting to join the already full racks and shelves. Glance into a thrift store donation center and/or warehouse and one will see 4-foot cardboard cubes often stacked floor-to-ceiling.
There is no shortage of merchandise even though only a small portion of used textiles are donated. This will certainly continue as Americans buy the latest fads.
Companies make the goods to keep up with those demands. Those products are often hastily made of low-quality materials, creating cheap goods that wear out quickly that are not conducive to reuse.
For so long as these trends continue, plenty of secondhand clothing options will serve all types of buyers—those of lower income, the frugal, and the fashion conscious. Your savings account—and the environment—may benefit.
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