By Nikki Palella
Visiting home for the weekend called for a classic mother-daughter ritual. The two of us giddily loaded up our car with what my mother deemed “old junk” and drove down the winding road to our favorite secondhand store. We had been donating to Sparrow’s Nest for decades. Its mission is one worth supporting, as all proceeds go to helping women transition out of domestic violence situations. Noticing the locked door and absence of employees upon our arrival, we approached a small sign on the wall to investigate. It read: “Not taking donations, we are at capacity.” With that, my mom and I agreed to donate to Goodwill instead. To our surprise, we observed a completely different response from others. One by one, each person approached the sign, read it, and proceeded to empty out their car to sprawl their things against the brick building. When all was said and done, their old clothing, furniture, and toys were stacked like pancakes waiting for the gusty winds to blow them over. The sign clearly stated the store was at capacity. Anything more would have put additional stress on operations and the elderly women who run the shop. What we had witnessed was the construction of a miniature landfill right before our eyes.
This exact behavior is startlingly similar to the conduct of the thrifting industry at the local and global scale, harming both the physical environment and people’s livelihoods almost without notice. As Western society continues to heavily rely on the thrifting industry, we are undoubtedly hurting our neighbors across the world. Our unwanted clothing threads its way across cities and continents, creating an invisible web that most of us will never see.
Being told no when donating your belongings is an odd feeling. It’s natural to think we are being good Samaritans, that we are certainly helping someone by letting go of things we don’t need anymore. Perhaps we convince ourselves we are heroes for parting with the excess in our lives because without us, people in need would be hopeless. But this narrative just isn’t true. The trouble lies in the lifestyle that supports this type of thinking, which is based on glorification of overconsumption, short-lived use, and eventual disposal. The lifestyle in question is synonymous with Western culture, as it pertains to a particular sense of Americanness.
The history of the thrifting industry in the United States can be traced all the way back to the Salvation Army. Originating in London under the name “Christian Mission,” the organization was renamed and first appeared in Pennsylvania in 1880. It proved to be a charitable force during the years of the Great Depression, providing food for those in need. Protestant social activists summoned their philanthropy through the establishment of donation centers. Here, unwanted clothing heaped in from all walks of American life. Endorsed by the Salvation Army, thrifting was seen as a “civic-minded campaign” used to assimilate the inflow of immigrants into “American cleanliness and habits of dress.” In response to rampant anti-Semitism and xenophobia, buying secondhand clothes was a way for the “other” in society to blend in as they began their new lives after the war. In hiding their outward expressions of cultural and ethnic identity all while calling it charity, this ultimately reinforced and validated pervasive xenophobia. In her piece “From Goodwill to Grunge,” Jennifer La Zotte sums up the goal of thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales to be both “profitable and influential” during those times. With Salvation Army restoration efforts starting in 1897, Goodwill set up shop in 1902, and the rest is history.
As we chug along into the 21st century, it’s clear that societal perceptions of thrifting have shifted. Gone are the days of looking down upon the avid thrift shopper. What was once judged as a “dirty” habit is now a matter of social prestige among our youth. Considered a new wave of fashion, teenagers compete online over who can find the best threaded gems. The overall trendiness and aestheticization of buying secondhand is increasingly alluring as people of all social classes wish to be viewed as eco-friendly and fashion forward.
Enthusiasm for sustainable clothing sources has blossomed during the past few years as the horrors of the fast fashion industry have been exposed. Cheap sites like Shein, Zara, and Romwe offer us an irresistibly easy way to have clothes delivered to our doorstep within days — a convenience that comes at a steep social and environmental cost. Household brands commonplace in many American wardrobes are often not a reliable alternative. Rip Curl, Urban Outfitters, GUESS, Victoria’s Secret, and GAP all fall on the naughty list, aligning with destructive fast fashion practices. Social and environmental plight manifest themselves in horrendous forms of worker exploitation and pollution — the aftermath of fast clothing manufacturing. Inhumane conditions and health risks are imposed on the garment industry while the environment is suffering from the effects of water contamination via microplastics and the release of harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Given the fast fashion industry’s status as the second-largest polluter in the world, it’s high time we found a better source for the garments we wear.
As we begin to shy away from the fast fashion industry, the obvious solution appears to be thrifting. At first glance, this mode of clothes shopping seems perfect to combat our issues with waste. Instead of starting from square one of the manufacturing process, we can reuse whatever domestic textiles already exist to cut down on an abundance of physical waste and pollution. However, like any other industry, thrifting has very problematic ways of functioning. In fact, our prolonged ignorance of the very systems that support our discarded clothing is responsible for perpetuating the suffering of innocent people across the globe. The damage inflicted has both social and economic dimensions that are worth examining.
Troubling economic implications of the thrifting industry are apparent on the global scale. Next time you’re debating whether or not to donate one of your old favorite shirts, consider that less than 10 percent of clothing donations are actually sold in stores. The remaining 90 percent are vended off to recyclers, who make a living off this low-profile trade-off. If you had asked me, I had hoped to see my old winter jacket on the back of someone who truly needed it to stay warm. Instead, most of what we offer becomes a load of cash in the back of some stranger’s pocket. Just last year, the secondhand apparel market generated $33.03 billion worldwide.
A majority of the donated clothing is either disposed of in a landfill or sent off to a textile recycling warehouse. At these warehouses, textile salvagers sort the clothes into two categories: industrial or vintage use. Those that fall into the vintage category serve as a bonus that makes vendors a little extra cash, as they’re always in demand from the fashion-forward elites willing to pay the upcharge. Clothes sorted into industrial use are henceforth used as rags. After the vintage and industrial materials are sorted out and separated, the rest of the clothes are compressed into 100 to 1,000 pound bales. Stacked to the top of the warehouse ceiling, they are prepped for international travel, about to become someone else’s problem. The single largest source of secondhand clothing is Western countries, particularly the United States and Britain. Their unwanted fabrics are almost always shipped out to countries in the Global South, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and South America. This exchange is inherently problematic because it perpetuates the power dynamic that positions Western countries at the top, passing their junk down to their “younger sibling” countries. It conjures up colonial sentiment where whiter, wealthier countries feel entitled to boss around their previous subjects, giving them only the scraps.
Let’s hone in on Sub-Saharan Africa. There is no doubt that this region has suffered considerably at the hands of the thrifting industry. The West has freely dumped its unwanted garments here for years, slowly creating textile landfills in localized African towns. It may seem that shipping this stock over is both the eco-friendly and charitable thing to do — in a way, it looks like Western countries are attempting to recycle.
However, even the progressive, liberal, sustainable ethos behind thrifting can be wrongheaded without a better appreciation of the complexity of global economic forces. Upon closer examination, we find that this “charity” is hurting local textile industries in African countries and shifting a Western waste problem to places that might not have the financial or technological means to manage it. In fact, by 2019, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda finalized a complete ban on textile imports on the basis that they were hindering local textile industries from thriving. Africans from these countries believe that receiving discarded clothing “undermines their dignity and the development of the nascent textile industries in their nations,” as they were becoming dependent on Western countries despite major domestic cotton production. The result is the theft of jobs that could be filled by local community members. It’s estimated that African exports could generate $3 billion annually, were it not for interference from the thrifting industry. If we explore the concept of circular fashion, we can deduce that cotton grown in the Global South is sent to the Global North to produce fabrics that are sent back to the South as secondhand garments. This perpetuation of colonial capitalism is not efficient in either the manufacturing process or in methods of disposal.
It is in the best interest of African countries to continue to ban imports not only for economic reasons, but for the protection of their environment. Consequences of anthropogenic climate change disproportionately affect the Global South. These stark inequalities compounded with the mismanagement of Western waste leads to additional complications. For example, the accumulation of “trash mountains” is causing numerous ecological and health hazards stemming from garments African people never wanted in the first place. These trash mountains are not so out of sight, out of mind for our neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere. As a matter of fact, trash mountains are so pervasive that many of them can be seen from residential areas in African countries. They are known to contribute to groundwater contamination through various processes of leaching. After rainfall, synthetics in the fibers that contain harmful chemicals percolate through the soil into the groundwater. This is dangerous because the aquifer is a freshwater source that people depend on for drinking water and household use. The trash mountains poison this shared source, posing a massive health risk to those who live within the drainage basin. This chemical slush can also sit on the surface and evaporate, transporting toxins into the atmosphere. Acid rain is the result, which damages natural ecosystems through the alteration of soil and water acidity. Once we acknowledge our global presence, it is impossible to ignore that Western fabrics are not only snuffing economic independence in Sub-Saharan Africa, but they continue to compromise the health of humans and wildlife species native to the landscape.
While this all may seem so distant from us, the thrifting industry has even sparked human rights outcries in our own backyards. The harmful reality is this: We are giving an absurd amount of unchecked power to the thrifting industry and its most staple businesses. It is no secret that for years, Goodwill companies have happily employed people with physical and mental disabilities, yet fail to pay them a living wage. The Labor Department discovered that “Goodwill (has been paying) workers in Pennsylvania as little as 22 cents an hour.” Goodwill is a “charitable nonprofit organization” that seems to use its nonprofit affiliation to excuse clear human rights violations. Employees with disabilities put in as much time and effort as anyone else. They are doing the same tasks, and they do their job well. Nevertheless, Goodwill’s Senior Director of Government Affairs Laura Walling didn’t seem to appreciate their work. When asked about the Special Minimum Wage Certificate, which validates someone’s disability under federal law and allows them to be paid a living wage, Walling stated that Goodwill’s goal is to “transition people with disabilities employed under the Special Minimum Wage Certificate into competitive, integrated employment while ensuring individual choices are honored.” It seems the actual people with disabilities weren’t allowed to have any say in this choice that directly affects their lives. This is just a glimpse of social injustice within this industry, and from what we can see, it’s not as heroic as we have been led to believe.
To make any headway in providing environmental and economic justice with respect to the thrifting industry, Western countries must face our habits of overconsumption head on. America became a consumer society in the 1920s, when cars and other household products became affordable for a larger portion of the population. It is now a century later, and we haven’t slowed down. The average American throws away 68 pounds of clothing each year, constantly refilling our closets. Americans cannot continue to consume in the same manner we did when we were ignorant of the social and environmental costs of our antiquated modes of purchasing.
It’s not all our fault, though. Some influences can feel colossal. By now we’ve caught on to the fact that most companies (from electronics to garment producers) have immersed many of us into a trap called “planned obsolescence.” By producing lower-quality products that aren’t built to last and encouraging a societal desire for the latest and greatest, companies ensure that consumers will keep coming back to buy more. “Fashion, more than any other industry in the world, embraces obsolescence as a primary goal.”
As individuals, we have to personally assess if we are OK with this. Do we approve of a world where companies have the final say over the health of our shared planet? It’s time for us to finally call out corporations for catering solely to their business models, while neglecting those they claim to serve. The consumer society is powerful; we hold the potential to put corporate giants out of business. But let’s not forget about the social forces at play. Social media and high fashion trends convince the public that they need to constantly buy new garments when they should be investing time into refurbishing them. Upcycling outdated styles into pieces of wearable art is something we’re all capable of supporting. We already own the fabric, why not get a little creative with it? It might just save people’s livelihoods — oh, and the planet.
As far as what to do with clothing that we really can’t stand to keep, I would advise all to continue to donate to small, locally owned thrift stores. If you think there aren’t any in your area, you might just not have noticed them! A quick web search can uncover where these shops are and what their mission is. It’s up to us to think critically and responsibly about where we allocate our goods. If you can see your donated shirt on the rack, chances are that business aligns itself with ethical use of their donations. It is comforting and rewarding to know that they avoid selling to vendors who care not for people or the environment.
Secondhand clothing and the thrifting industry, while well-intentioned and helpful to a small portion of society, cause real pain. The crimes of these businesses have economic and social consequences in both the United States and abroad. The Global South does not exist as a sitting landfill site for Westerners to fill, just like the back of Sparrow’s Nest was no invitation for a giant junk pile. It is necessary that we attack the root of our environmental waste issues by coming face to face with our habits of overconsumption and holding companies accountable. If we don’t, we may end up buried in our own trash — and it will have been a long time coming.
About the Author …
Nikki Palella is a junior from Long Grove, Ill. She is majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability with minors in Geography & Geographic Information Science and Natural Resource Conservation. On graduation, she hopes to do nonprofit or governmental work to address the climate crisis.
This article was written for ESE 360, the introductory course in the Certificate in Environmental Writing, in Spring 2021.