Is Thrift Shopping Good for the Environment?

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Buying new things is highly satisfying for many people. However, they don’t necessarily need to focus on fresh-from-the-factory items to get the same pleasure. Thrift shopping can have the same effect without requiring more production. But is thrift shopping good for the environment? It is in many cases, but not always. 

Clothing Is a Top Spending Category

When people have money to spend, what do they buy? A 2023 study examined consumer trends of the previous year. It showed clothing was the second most popular category for splurging among 16-to 24-year-olds and those aged 35 to 44. Only technology products beat apparel for sales. 

That makes sense because the things people wear help them express their personalities. Consumers also need to purchase clothing for specific reasons, such as work trips or weddings. They may feel the need to splurge in those cases, such as to impress high-level supervisors they rarely see.

Shopping at a thrift store could let people support causes deemed particularly meaningful. Many charities operate these locations. Then, at least some of the money generated from sales goes toward the relevant organizations and supports its service users. 

Many people also love that they can typically buy more clothing at thrift stores than if purchasing the garments new. Most people have heard stories of others finding designer dresses for $20 at thrift stores or coming across similarly discounted items. Perhaps someone needs to refresh their wardrobe and has set a strict spending limit. In that case, they can almost certainly buy more at a thrift store than at a retailer that only sells new clothes. 

Thrift Stores Could Encourage Unnecessary Spending

Buying more for less at a thrift store could also have an environmental downside. Is thrift shopping good for the environment if it makes people buy things they don’t need? Arguably no, because it encourages consumption. 

Imagine a scenario where you go into a local thrift store to look for a pair of casual pants. You find some but also can’t pass up three other garments — even though you already own similar pieces. What could happen is that you hardly wear those other purchased things or even forget you bought them. 

A more sustainable option is to dig deeper into the closet to find the rarely worn items. Then, experiment with new, creative ways to make outfits. There’s a good chance you’ll come up with combinations that meet needs without requiring thrift store visits. 

Not All Thrift Store Donations Get Sold

When people become more familiar with what’s in their closet, they may visit a thrift store to donate. That’s an actionable way to make thrift shopping good for the environment. They’re getting rid of what they don’t need or want, opening up opportunities for someone else to love the items.  However, it doesn’t always happen that way. 

For example, approximately 50% of donations to Goodwill get sold as retail items. Others get wholesale discounts at Goodwill’s outlets or go to salvage dealers. In the latter case, articles get categorized, with some determined appropriate for recycling. Then, even the donated things thrift store shoppers don’t buy could end up helping the planet by getting new purposes.

People should ideally find out how their chosen thrift stores handle the items that don’t sell. Then, they can prioritize shopping at or donating to those that take sustainability seriously at every step. When bringing things to the thrift store, people should never assume the workers will accept things with severe stains or damaged areas. 

Is Thrift Shopping Good for the Environment When Buying Online?

The environmental impact of an online thrift store depends on factors such as how far the goods must travel to reach the purchaser and whether the retailer uses recycled packaging. Using the internet to shop thrift stores is almost certainly not as good for the environment as buying the items locally. 

However, even when people have several thrift stores within a reasonable driving distance, that’s not the case everywhere. Physical thrift stores are hard to find in India, for example. Many people have other complicating factors that make it difficult or impossible for them to go to thrift stores in their areas. 

They may live in rural areas that are dozens of miles from a grocery store, with specialty retailers like thrift stores requiring even more travel time. Alternatively, some people don’t drive and need thrift stores along public transportation routes or safely accessible by bike.

If these specifics or similar ones apply, buying from online thrift stores usually still makes more environmental sense instead of purchasing new items. When people find things they love at thrift stores and use them regularly, that’s a practical way to extend products’ usefulness. Those goods might have otherwise ended up discarded, which definitely isn’t as good for the environment. 

Some people have gotten creative about bringing thrift store items to interested consumers. Consider the Utah couple who started Thrift Jam. They repurposed a school bus to bring garments to the people. The pair primarily buy items from rack houses. Those are the last destinations textiles go to before landfills. Some of the couple’s products are upcycled pieces, too. They sold an estimated 12,000 items in their first operating year. 

Thrift Bundles Combine Secondhand Clothes With Personal Stylists

Many people love browsing thrift store racks, hunting for the perfect finds. But not all have the time or energy for that. Alternatively, some don’t have thrift stores nearby and worry about purchasing something that won’t fit. 

Enter an emerging trend called thrift bundles. The #thriftbundles hashtag on TikTok has more than 11 million views, proving users are interested in it. How does it work? Individuals shop for thrift store goods, then sell them online in several ways. 

The first involves putting several garments together, offering them as a package to people who have the appropriate measurements. Alternatively, people may sell a few items that combine nicely as a single outfit, then advertise those for set fees. Some thrift bundles feature garments characterized by a certain style — such as beachy or bohemian. In other cases, buyers ask the sellers to become their personal shoppers, listing certain requirements for the desired thrift store items. 

Is thrift shopping good for the environment when people do it this way? That depends. The best way to get the answer is to ask potential sellers about their sustainability practices. Consumers might find sellers who’ll donate a portion of their profits to an environmental organization or only deal with buyers who live in the same state to minimize how far the goods travel. 

Thrift Shopping Can Be Good for the Environment

Is thrift shopping good for the environment? It often is, as long as people take the time to do it as responsibly as possible. They also must not see thrift stores as the ultimate solutions. Getting goods at a thrift store is better for the planet than buying them new. But it’s even better not to make those purchases. 

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.