Consignment chaos: overconsumption within secondhand fashion is not sustainable

Illustration by Sydney Smith

My closet is honestly one of my greatest pride and joys. I spent the second half of high school and my time in college curating the sickest outfits possible, particularly with hauls from thrift, consignment and vintage stores. 

For almost as long as I’ve been into fashion, I’ve also been aware of the consequences that the fast fashion industry has on the environment and the inhumane working conditions that many fast fashion companies place their employees in. It’s felt obvious to me for a while that the overconsumption of new clothes that takes place in the industry – consider the $400 Shein hauls that proliferate on TikTok –  that I can’t ethically support companies like H&M, Romwe and Forever 21. 

What took far longer for me to realize was that my constant buying clothes and then reselling them at secondhand stores was also a problem, even though I wasn’t directly purchasing clothes from fast fashion retailers. Although buying clothes secondhand is certainly a step towards more sustainable consumption, purchasing clothes from thrift stores or secondhand sites doesn’t guarantee that you’re having a positive impact on the environment. 

Fast fashion, a term that describes the rapid production and consumption of inexpensive clothing, has burgeoned into a global phenomenon with far-reaching negative impacts. This model, driven by the constant demand for the latest trends, has serious environmental repercussions. 

According to Fashion Journal, “Fashion is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions (more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined) and uses 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.” Beyond the environmental toll, fast fashion also raises ethical concerns, often relying on labor practices that exploit workers in developing countries where regulations may be lax and working conditions can be dire. 

The industry’s relentless pace and low cost often comes at the expense of human rights, revealing a dark side to the convenience and affordability it offers consumers. Remake reported that “Today, over 100 billion garments are produced annually worldwide … plac[ing] fast fashion in critical opposition with the planet’s natural capacity to support life on earth.” 

The rise in popularity of secondhand fashion, largely thought of as a sustainable alternative to the fast fashion industry, has paradoxically begun to show signs of unsustainability due to a culture of overconsumption. While purchasing pre-worn items reduces demand for new productions and thus has a lower environmental footprint, the sheer volume of consumption and the rapid turnover of garments being bought and sold mimic the fast fashion cycle, just in a different form. This trend, fueled by online marketplaces and thrift store hauls, can lead to excessive buying habits, where the value and lifespan of each garment are diminished in the pursuit of the next bargain or rare find. 

Consequently, the environmental benefits of buying secondhand are undercut by the increased carbon footprint associated with shipping these items and the potential for these goods to end up in landfills when they are no longer wanted, questioning the sustainability of the practice when taken to excess.

In a Varsity article, Jennifer Cartwright addressed the deceptively “sustainable” nature of secondhand fashion. 

“Reselling culture means items of clothing often spend longer in parcels than they do on our bodies,” wrote Cartwright. “Second-hand platforms such as Depop and Vinted, see users repeatedly buy something, wear it once, and sell it again, at minimal economic loss. If the item can’t be sold again, its next destination may be a charity shop. But charity shops often don’t have the capacity to accept every single donation, especially if the quality is low. If this is the case, at best the item will become lost in a wardrobe, at worst, it will end up back on the route to landfill.”

To counter overconsumption in the realm of secondhand clothing, consumers should adopt mindful shopping practices that emphasize quality over quantity, as well as the longevity of garments over fleeting trends. This approach includes investing in timeless pieces that offer versatility and durability, reducing the need for frequent replacements. Embracing a circular fashion mindset by repairing, upcycling or swapping clothes with others can also extend the life cycle of garments and keep them out of landfills. 

Fashion Journal offered readers advice, telling them that “Investing in quality pieces that will last is the best way to lessen impact on the environment. Engaging in excessive, wasteful consumption is not a criticism that can level exclusively at people who shop directly from stores, but one we must all consider when shopping secondhand too.”

Educating oneself about the environmental and ethical implications of fashion consumption, and setting personal limits on the number of items purchased, regardless of their secondhand status, also plays a crucial role in promoting a more sustainable fashion ecosystem. Ultimately, the shift towards conscious consumption practices in the secondhand market is a powerful step individuals can take to mitigate their environmental impact and challenge the culture of overconsumption that is so prevalent in the fashion industry.

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