At first look, the ongoing surge in apparel thrifting and online resale appears to be a resounding win for the environment. With fewer barely-worn garments ending up in landfills, a lower overall carbon footprint and reduced water and fertilizer consumption, how could it not be? Of course, while all of those benefits are certainly a boon, there is a caveat. Instead of abating fast fashion, secondhand marketplaces have gotten in on the trade.
A tiny symptom of fast fashion is causing a huge problem
Thanks to the rush toward cost-saving synthetics prompted by the fast fashion industry, 62 percent of textiles are now man-made. This has resulted in a surge of microfibers, which by many accounts are the most common type of microplastics being released into our water systems. Worse yet, the synthetic material that sheds its fibers at the highest rate is also the most popular — with polyester losing fibers at a rate six times that of nylon. Synthetic textiles are responsible for 35 percent of the microplastics that end up in the earth’s oceans — and most of them likely got there from the wash cycle. A report funded by the Ocean Wise Conservation Association estimates that American and Canadian households alone contribute 3.5 quadrillion microfibers to oceans and freshwater systems annually. Broken down, they approximate that to an average of 533 million microfibers per year from each household.
Fast fashion shoppers are motivated by savings and convenience. Nearly three-quarters surveyed in one report agreed that the items were a good deal while a little over half said they were motivated by how quick and easy it is to buy from fast fashion retailers. Another 20 percent admitted to feeling as though they had to keep up with the latest trends on social media. Aja Barber, a stylist, consultant and author, has been quoted by Yahoo News as saying, “Right now, the fashion industry pumps out 150 billion garments a year, [but] the human population is only 7.9 billion. And 50 percent of our planet cannot afford to participate in this system.”
Many consumers are still not completely unaware of the effects their shopping habits have on the environment. Half of fast fashion buyers recognize that the industry is bad for the planet, while a whopping 74 percent concede that their purchases are part of the problem. The pressure to be on-trend and post a new outfit each and every day clashes with the self-professed values of younger generations — leaving Gen Z and millennial fashionistas to grapple with the industry’s disposable nature.
Turns out, secondhand doesn’t necessarily solve the sustainability problem
They’ve done so by creating a circular economy of sorts. One that involves both thrifting and fast fashion. More than 60 percent of Gen Z and millennial shoppers check secondhand retailers, whether online marketplaces or brick and mortar thrift shops, before buying a new item of clothing, compared to 41 percent of all shoppers. Driven largely by younger buyers, the market for used apparel is expected to expand 127 percent by 2026. At the same time, those huge Shein hauls have to go somewhere and one popular place is the donation box.
Many longtime thrifters are complaining that the glut of fast fashion items ending up in secondhand stores is making it hard if not impossible to locate the quality items they are used to finding. Instead of name brands and quality items made from natural fibers, the racks have been overtaken by items from H&M and Zara, among other fast fashion brands. And while a possible second life via the thrift shop is preferable to chucking the clothing in the trash, the more often that the items are washed the more microfibers they will release into waterways.
Rethinking how society views fashion
Like the transportation and food industries, the fashion industry operates on principles of unsustainability — as in encouraging overconsumption and making it harder and more expensive to do the right thing — while consumers take the ethical fall. Caught between their values on one side and social expectations on the other, many Gen Z and millennial fashionistas have done their best to navigate a system that makes it impossible for them to have both.
Nevertheless, if they are going to truly live up to their ideals, young consumers will need to reimagine how to be on-trend while spending more on individual items. Secondhand marketplaces can enable this, but not if they are continually flooded with garments made from synthetic materials. It is up to the fashion industry to change the way it does business. By focusing on natural fibers and resale marketplaces, the industry can do its part to stop the flow of microplastics into our oceans.
Image credit: Fallon Michael via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.