By Izzy Braico
Just the other day, I went thrift shopping with my friends in downtown Bloomington. We stopped at one of our favorite stores for the same reason you stop in at any thrift store: to try on silly hats, to find unique pieces and humble-brag about how it was thrifted, and to hold up hideous items to your friends and encourage them to buy them. But when I walked into the store, I was greeted first not by tacky figurines or kitchy jewelry, but by a rack of clothing all sporting SHEIN tags. The entire rack was labeled “new.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar, SHEIN is a fast-fashion brand based in China. Its trendy items are barely made to last through the ever-shortening trend cycle, and its workers are criminally underpaid. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found out that a locally owned thrift store was buying their clothes and selling them for a profit. Suddenly, consumers who are looking to shop small and buy used clothes are faced with the prospect of buying low-quality pieces that will be out of style within the month.
But ay, there’s the rub. People under the spell of fashion influencers and TikTok clothing hauls feel pressure to keep up with ever-shortening trend cycles. For young people without a lot of spending money who still want to feel trendy, this can mean buying from companies like SHEIN and wearing the clothes until they either fall apart or fall out of fashion, usually in the span of a few months. As a result, we are producing textile waste at an alarming rate. The average American produces 82 pounds of textile waste every year, adding up to around 11 million pounds yearly from the US alone.
Buying second hand clothes can help to curb this waste, but it is by no means a perfect solution. For one, many people have trouble finding clothing in their size, since the collection of clothes in a thrift store is often so random and offers a limited plus-size collection. For another, the gentrification of thrift stores has led to a general trend of increasing prices, making it so that they are not necessarily the most affordable option. For people with limited disposable income, this can mean a choice between shopping sustainably and buying clothes they actually want to wear.
This brings me to the point that we should not shame people, especially people whose financial status we don’t know, for buying fast fashion. Ethical consumption (if it is even possible under capitalism) is a privilege which not everyone can afford.
However, I firmly believe that those who can shop sustainably should. I think it’s more than appropriate to shame rich girls posting clothing hauls from brands like SHEIN or ROMWE because not only will most of those clothes be found in a landfill within the next few months, but they are also creating a sort of aspirational lifestyle which others may try to emulate, further exacerbating the problem. While the argument could be made that it’s possible to recycle textiles (Goodwill advertises this service), like all recycling, this is more fantasy than reality. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 14.7% of textiles were recycled in 2017, meaning 85% were either dumped in a landfill or burned.
In many cases, a trip to the thrift store is far less expensive than a trip to the mall, and it’s easier to find clothes that represent your unique sense of style. At the end of the day, though, the most sustainable option is not to buy clothes at all. I’m not proposing that everyone run around naked (although that could be a wild ride). Instead, I’m challenging you (and myself!) to really question whether we need that tenth pair of jeans, or another t-shirt that will probably sit in the back of our drawers. Hyper-consumption under capitalism only works because it tricks the consumer into buying without thinking– we are always itching for that next new thing. But if we slow down and really evaluate the far-reaching effects of our purchases, we can better care both for the environment and for ourselves.