‘Stoked on thrifting’: How sustainability is making its mark on the fashion industry

thrift shopping

In recent years, the image of “thrifting” has evolved as consumers seek a more eco-friendly lifestyle. However, that rise in popularity is bringing its own challenges, including potentially diverting cheaper clothing away from those who need it.

One of the drivers behind the thrifting trend is environmental. According to a 2018 report in Edge Fashion Intelligence, the fashion industry is responsible for 20 per cent of global wastewater and 24 per cent of insecticide use while contributing two per cent of the world’s GDP. Facts posted online for Canada’s Waste Reduction Week in 2019 estimate that North Americans produce 10 million tonnes of clothing waste every year.

​Emma Inns, founder of a boutique in ByWard Market called Adorit, says she remembers her first visits to textile factories in the early 2000s that opened her eyes to the environmental impact of “fast fashion.”

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She recalls visiting one community in India where denim was dyed and the residents didn’t have any clean water. The people had nowhere else to go, so “they were forced to drink that water that is slowly killing them for us to wear a pair of jeans.”

In recent years, Inns found that conditions had slowly improved, a situation she credits partly to the growing conversation about sustainable fashion. She works with designers who use eco-friendly fabrics and most of them, she says, are manufacturing zero-waste clothing.

ThredUp, an online reselling platform based in the U.S., found that 62 million women bought second-hand in 2019, compared with 56 million in 2018. ThredUp expects traditional thrifting to increase at a six per cent compound annual growth rate over the next five years. 

“Everyone is just so stoked on thrifting now,” says Chelsea Cochrane, district manager of Plato’s Closet, a consignment store that opened in Ottawa six years ago. “Because it’s cool now, we see a huge increase in teens and young adults doing it.”​

As thrifting has grown, the way people thrift has also begun to change. ​

Increasingly, resellers choose trendy pieces from thrift stores, clothing warehouses, other resellers and their own closets to be sold online. ThredUp expects resale thrifting to grow at a 39 per cent annual compound rate over the next five years. 

In November 2020, Vogue declared the future of fashion to be circular – an idea that was unheard of in an industry whose sales model has traditionally depended on constantly creating new items. The goal is to ensure everything is being used, whether it’s by upcycling or reselling. 

Ruth McKay, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, explains that the key to circularity is identifying where waste exists in the business process. 

“We are living and breathing that waste, and we need to identify it and remove it,” McKay explains. 

She says that reselling and upcycling old clothing are some ways of giving value to clothing waste. 

“We are degrading our environment in a way that is very difficult to remediate,” she warns.

As more people are willing to spend their cash on thrifted items, the more thrift stores might be able to charge. Goodwill Industries’ valuation guide in 2010 gave base prices for each piece, such as shirts and blouses being sold at four dollars. The 2020 valuation guide priced items on a range, so shirts and blouses could be priced anywhere between two dollars and $12.

And prices aren’t the only things changing. Craig Huffman, marketing manager for Goodwill for the Ontario Great Lakes Region, says the organization has begun shifting to e-commerce as online shopping continues to become more prevalent. 

“Our audiences are expanding; we are becoming a busier attraction in our stores … certainly we have to look at e-commerce.”

Goodwill picks out trendy items and posts them on its new website. Huffman says the process requires extra legwork, which is why many of the items the non-profit organization posts are usually slightly higher in price. 

Huffman says that inexpensive basics remain in the community locations, while items that can be priced higher go online. 

“​A lot of people love that hunt, love the find, to go through tens of thousands of items and take the time to do that,” Huffman explains. “Other people are busy and they really want to go in and have it curated for them.”

He says the profile of Goodwill shoppers is changing as many are becoming less price-conscious.

While innovative store models like those at Goodwill may be reaching a larger audience, some argue that these changes in thrifting are keeping clothes away from the people who depend on them.

Researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study in 2010 about family patterns in local thrift economies, which found that “lower-income families see second-hand shopping as a necessity, whereas higher-income shoppers view it as a commodity.”

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