What is the future of fashion when ethics are murky?

Thrifting may be an ethical fashion statement to those who can comfortably buy new items, but it’s a means of survival for those who can’t


By Gopika Nair

Published: Tue 9 Nov 2021, 12:24 AM

Thrifting is something of a paradox these days. Before secondhand shopping started being hailed as a sustainable solution to fast fashion, it was simply an economical way to buy clothes.

Now, influencers with millions of subscribers — and, in most cases, millions in earnings — are promoting massive thrift hauls on their channels, normalising the idea that overconsumption is OK as long as it’s sourced from the right places.

In many countries, online marketplaces, such as Depop, Poshmark and ThredUp, emerged to make thrifting more accessible and create spheres dedicated to reselling vintage styles at sometimes hefty prices. Put simply, thrifting is having a moment.

As a testament to the worldwide popularity of conscious shopping, several online boutiques have popped up in the UAE, too, where secondhand clothes are sold for anywhere from Dh30 to Dh1,000, depending on the brand.

Then there are the neighbourhood thrift stores where high-street brands get a second life. But to strike gold and find the right piece, you may have to sift through massive heaps of crumpled clothes or choose from an assortment of XS to XXXL sizes.

These stores, however, fulfil the fundamental purpose of “thrift shops” — serving the needs of those who can’t shop at major fashion brands. But retail trends show that the pandemic obliterated several traditional thrift stores. The ones that mushroomed shut shop silently, while online marketplaces gained momentum and engendered a surge of platitudes that range from “feeding the underprivileged” to “fighting global warming”.

The very act of thrifting — of saying that our latest find cost less than a Happy Meal from McDonald’s — is now a trend. It could also very well be a tacit pat on the back for making an ethical choice instead of supporting the fashion brands that still exploit their workers, rely on plastic-derived materials and contribute to environmental destruction.

Further, in digital spaces, where fashion choices are constantly under scrutiny, there’s something thrilling about finding, owning and showing off a one-of-a-kind piece.

But as thrifting becomes increasingly popularised on social media, there’s also concern that stores have hiked their prices to meet the demands of upper- and middle-class shoppers. Low-income groups — the ones who need to thrift — can no longer afford these goods. Thrifting may be an ethical fashion statement to those who can comfortably buy new items, but it’s a means of survival for those who can’t.

A growing number of people across the world have criticised affluent shoppers’ practice of buying clothes secondhand for as cheap as Dh10 and reselling it online for a price close to the item’s original value, if not more.

“I have always bought secondhand clothing, was bullied for it in school, and now it’s trendy I can’t afford to buy new clothes,” a TikTok user commented on a viral video about the gentrification of thrift stores in the US.

The main argument is that resellers and the establishment of online marketplaces are the reason why prices of secondhand goods have increased. But what does the future of fashion look like if thrifting is bad and you can’t shop at mass-market retailers?

Opting for sustainable fashion brands may be a no-brainer, but ethical practices and high-quality fabrics rightfully don’t come cheap. Worst of all, we can’t always take their promises about sustainability at face value. Many brands have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 in the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, but the goals neither have a specific timeline nor clear strategies.

Perhaps these moral and financial dilemmas are the reason why there are more secondhand shoppers today than ever before.

According to ThredUp’s 2021 Resale Report, the market is projected to double in the next five years, reaching $77 billion. The habit of thrifting is also expected to accelerate in a post-Covid world and the younger generation is paving the way for it all. As the world crumbles under the threat of climate change, sustainability matters to millennials and Gen Z now more than ever.

In the report, fashion market writer Eliza Huber is quoted as saying: “For Gen Z, thrifting isn’t just a way to shop — it’s a lifestyle ...They want to be independent. They want to save the planet. They want to save money — and make money. And they want to do it all in a cute outfit that costs less than $10.”

While the intentions are good, choosing to thrift, rather than needing to, is still a privilege. But what if you just don’t want to support fast fashion for all the right reasons? How can you be a better shopper?

The problem with influencers’ thrift hauls and the rise of online marketplaces is that secondhand shopping, while quelling guilt, is now not much different than consuming fast fashion. In both cases, the items are cheap, encouraging people to shop in bulk. Who can say no to a shirt that costs Dh20? Since it’s buy one get one, might as well pick up two more.

Ethically sourced or not, the excessiveness of it all is contributing to overconsumption. At the end of the day, the unwanted thrift store items that get dumped in landfills are not only exacerbating an environmental crisis, but they’re also going to waste.

The solution might be over-simplistic, but it’s perhaps the most obvious one — buy less. Be a mindful consumer. Do your research and, if you can afford it, splurge on a locally-made brand that walks the talk. And if thrifting is the best option, don’t go overboard just because the clothes are cheap; buy what you know you’ll wear.


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