Thrifting. Five years ago, we would not be talking about this at all. But, as gen z have become more interested in saving the planet, thrifting has become a phenomenon. But what is it, and is second hand buying as good for the environment as we think? Or does it have some surprising downsides? Read on to find out more about the movement and the effect it has had on the fashion industry.

What is thrifting?

Thrifting is buying second hand from a number of places, such as charity shops, vintage stores, and online sellers like Depop and Thredup. The aim is to reduce waste by selling and purchasing clothes and giving the opportunity for them to be rehomed and reused. In the UK, the most common and affordable way to buy second hand is via charity shops. Not only is this great for the environment, but it helps out worthy causes like medical research, disadvantaged children and the elderly.

Why thrift?

Thrifting is the easiest and cheapest way to be sustainable. The fashion industry has become one of the largest contributors to global warming, contributing a whopping 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and ranking it second in water usage among all global industries. By thrifting, we minimise this waste, and slow down the demand for fast fashion brands such as H&M and boohoo. Don’t be fooled by new “eco-friendly” brands and initiatives created by these companies, as they are likely still a large part of the fast fashion eco-system and are doing what is coined as “green washing”. Thrifting also gives us an opportunity to support local businesses, with vintage stores becoming more and more common in every city across the UK, as well as small online sellers on sites like Depop or Vinted.

Do we have to thrift everything? Are there other ways to be sustainable without thrifting?

Of course, thrifting isn’t the only thing we can do to be sustainable with fashion. If you have the money, it’s always worth checking out sustainable clothing brands like reformation, or shopping locally. Both sustainable and local brands will only have a limited stock, as well as a slower turnaround on new products coming in. Other options include swapping clothes with friends, or going to an organised clothes swap (the University of Winchester has done this in recent years), or just aiming to buy less in general. Thrifting is great, but if you are still applying the same shopping ethic you would to fast fashion to thrifting, the sustainability aspect becomes more questionable.

The issues with thrifting and callout culture

The issue with thrifting does not come from the movement in itself. Rather, the effect of the rise in popularity of thrifting has changed a lot about the industry- sometimes negatively. Going to a charity shop or vintage store 10 or 15 years ago was a very different experience. These places were for those with less money, who wanted to afford nice clothes, but could only do so by buying second hand. Clothes would cost them less than £5 a piece, and they could feel more secure among others, who could afford the first hand fast fashion that everyone walked around in. Thrifting wasn’t talked about because thrifting wasn’t cool- but that was a good thing. Now, prices soar, there’s a vintage section in every Oxfam, and the people who once went to these stores to get the clothes they normally couldn’t afford now leave empty handed. Depop has come under fire in recent years, with many middle class 20 somethings bulk buying from charity shops and reselling their finds for three or four times the original price. If you want to learn more about this, check out Jordan Theresa’s video on the gentrification of Depop here: The problem with popularising thrifting is this- when thrifting trends, it becomes less accessible and less sustainable.

Moreover, if we ever even mention to someone else (particularly on the internet) that we thrift our clothes, things can get sticky there too. Last year, Ashley from the YouTube channel bestdressed has been called out for multiple ads she has done for brands such as amazon and nasty gal- despite promoting thrifting and sustainable fashion choices in many of her other videos. She was demonised for owning or promoting anything that wasn’t eco-friendly, and eventually took the offending videos down. This happened, even though she had never stated that she only thrifted, and that her audience were mainly women in university who still have to look for many of their clothes in fast fashion stores, because they can’t find the right sizes for a good price on sustainable brands’ sites or in charity shops. This is a worrying trend, because it places blame on the consumer rather than the industry itself. It’s not fair to make an individual guilty for what is a much larger problem- that sustainability isn’t yet for all. Particularly, it is rare to see plus size sustainable brands. It should be ok for someone to buy the tops they want from their local charity shop, and to go to Zara for some jeans if they can’t find them elsewhere. Even I, a size 6-8, find it hard to get skirts or trousers that I can wear from second hand stores. Thrifting isn’t one-size fits all, but it does try to be.

So… how can we fix this?

Thrifting and buying second hand is a good thing, overall. We just need to be more aware as shoppers and call out those who thrift excessively or make it less accessible for those who need it. Because those are the core values of thrifting- accessibility and sustainability. We should buy what we need, not what we want, and we should try our best to be consistent with this approach in all aspects of our lives. Thrifting still contributes to water waste, so we have to understand that although it is a better option, it isn’t the best. Nevertheless, it is important to try our best when shopping. And right now, thrifting is the most sustainable, cheap option out there. No matter its downfalls, the positives most definitely outweigh the negatives.