Thrifting: the cure to fast fashion

13 Aug 2019

By Yuki Ling


On the runway today, on the retail racks tomorrow.

This is fast fashion, the rapid production of clothing by mass-market fashion retailers, who sell affordable clothing to consumers, in line with the latest fashion trends on the runway.

Instead of waiting for new seasonal collections, customers of these fashion retailers, such as H&M and Zara, can browse new clothes every week. But the result is a glaring surplus of clothes that end up in landfills, as the supply of clothing often exceeds the demand.

The opposite of fast fashion is thrifting, where shoppers buy second-hand items from vintage or thrift stores that collect donated clothes.

As someone who grew up wearing my sister’s hand-me-downs, I used to resent having to make do with ill-fitting and old clothes.

It was only recently when I stumbled upon thrifting videos on YouTube that I realised second-hand clothes have their merits too, and that we should change our perceptions of them.

For one, thrifting is very eco-friendly, as it gives unwanted clothes a second life. Extending their lifespan can, in turn, help to curb demand for new clothes, which require new resources to make.

More are seeing the benefits of this sustainable fashion trend today. ThredUP, a fashion resale website based in the United States, found that 56 million women in the US thrifted in 2018, a marked increase from 44 million in 2017. In Singapore, the Salvation Army that runs five thrift stores said, in a 2016 article for The New Paper, that they see more customers today ー including students and housewives ー than when the first store was opened 20 years ago.

In fact, experts say thrifting has gained traction since the global recession in 2008 when people became more financially conscious. Over the past ten years, thrifting has grown to become an environmentally-conscious, novel and affordable trend among the young and old.

As thrifting gains in popularity, I believe it can be a long-term solution to fast fashion.

Reducing landfill waste

Statistics from Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) revealed that textile and leather waste generated here in 2016, including used clothing, linen and bags, had increased by 60 per cent from 2008, to a whopping 219,800 tonnes.

Meanwhile, the textile recycling rate has fallen from 10 per cent in 2003 to six per cent in 2018, when only 14,000 tonnes of waste was recycled. In contrast, the recycling rate for wood remain constant between 50 to 60 per cent, with some 180,000 tonnes recycled in 2018, which shows that our nation has the capacity to carry out the act.

In land-scarce Singapore, it is estimated that our only man-made landfill, Pulau Semakau, may run out of space by 2035. Similar to how Singapore deals with plastic waste, textile waste might, in the future, be exported to Malaysia, Indonesia and China, extending the negative impact of fast fashion here to neighbouring countries.

Beyond Singapore, wastage is apparent on a global scale. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the amount of textile waste generated by Americans yearly can fill 6,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, testament again to the alarming impact of fast fashion.

In order to get fashion trends off the runway and into clothing stores at high speeds and low costs, mass-market retailers tend to ignore the environmental impact of clothing production. For example, a single textile mill, which turns fabric into clothes, uses an estimated 200 tonnes of fresh water per tonne of dyed fabric. That is equivalent to 2,700 litres of fresh water for just one cotton shirt.

Apart from creating a constant surplus of out-of-trend clothing, fast fashion employs textile dyeing ー the second largest polluter of clean water globally.

Additives, such as Azo dyes, used in the dyeing process pose danger to human health, marine life, and the environment, according to Greenpeace.

Common clothing fabrics like polyester and non-organic cotton are also damaging to the environment. About 220 million tonnes of greenhouse gases are released yearly from the global consumption of non-organic cotton, according to Swedish Linen, an eco-friendly textile company.

As thrifting is the reusing of clothes, it can reduce the demand for new clothing and in turn, minimise the environmental damage caused by continuous production.

Another man’s treasure

In this age of social media, people’s perspectives on thrifting have fortunately been renewed.

The mindset that used clothing are dirty or out-of-trend has been challenged as thrifting vloggers ー people who upload videos such as tips on thrift shopping and thrift hauls ー flood social media and gain popularity.

One thrifting vlogger that I follow online is from the US. Known as Ashley, or “bestdressed” on social media, she has over 50 videos of her trawling through rows of tightly-packed clothing at American thrift stores like Goodwill and showing her thrift hauls.

Her thrifted pieces are often unique vintage clothing and can cost a few hundred dollars at high-end vintage stores.

Yet, one drawback to thrifting is the time and effort required to find suitable pieces. As most pieces come in limited quantities and sizes depending on donations, finding the right fit might be a challenge.

That said, as more thrift stores emerge, one might find themselves with more options. Singapore has seen the rise of online resale shops in recent years, such as The KINT Story and Refash, adding to brick and mortar options like the Salvation Army and New2U Thrift Store that accept old clothes from the public.

Pocket-friendly alternative

Another reason for thrifting is that it helps to lessen the burden on the wallet. According to thrifting expert Carolyn Schneider, thrift shops typically sell their clothing at prices that are 50 to 80 per cent lower than retail stores.

The KINT Story, which officially launched online six months ago, prices their clothing according to the condition of the item and its brand. Prices go from as low as $10 for a top to $59 for a vintage sports jacket. Refash, which was established in 2016, has a wider price range from under $25 to above $200.

Being able to choose from a wide price range helps, especially for university students like me who struggle to have a regular income in between managing school commitments and having a social life. With the bulk of my allowance going to food and entertainment, there is little left for fashion ー this usually leaves me with few clothing options, such as rummaging through the $10 sales racks at Cotton On.

Thrifting, which can cut my shopping expenditure by more than half, is a huge relief on my wallet.

Though thrifting is an available and affordable solution to fast fashion, mass-market retailers need to work harder to make fashion production more sustainable in the long run. In the meantime, consumers should start the habit of thrifting and actively choose to not patronise these retail stores that drive the trend of fast fashion.