The first thing I ever thrift shopped for was a University of Michigan sweatshirt. For just six dollars, I got the opportunity to wear the block M on my sleeve for the first time — and as I would find out about a year later, it wasn’t the last. Getting to rep my dream school wasn’t the only reason I showed off that sweatshirt for months. I thought that, because I thrifted it, I was single-handedly saving the planet, the next best thing to personally picking every piece of plastic out of the ocean and closing the hole in the ozone layer myself.
But what was I actually doing? In terms of the bigger picture of saving the planet, the answer is honestly “nothing.” The idea of “shopping ethically” is everywhere in the world of fashion, where it’s marketed as the alternative to fast fashion. Defined by Investopedia as designs that “move quickly from the catwalk to stores to meet new trends,” fast fashion comprises the majority of the retail market. Despite the evidence that fast fashion, made from microfibers that don’t decay, is harming our planet in more ways than one, it was worth $35 billion in 2015. This figure can seem absurd at first glance, but it makes sense given how many iconic stores are classified as fast fashion, and how many of them are adorned by college students. There are the obvious ones like Fashion Nova, H&M and Forever 21, as well as Romwe, Shein and Urban Outfitters, the latter of which has operated a location on the first floor of the historic The State Theatre for years.
Though it seems like fast fashion is here to stay, sustainable brands such as well-established Patagonia, Levi’s and newcomers like The Reformation and Everlane have risen in popularity as people make the decision to shop ethically. These brands have become as popular as they are because — to a former Shein customer, for example — they’re refreshing in their approach to garment-making. More often than not, many of these sustainable brands are based in the United States and are transparent about the processes behind their clothes. As more and more people indicate that they would be willing to pay more for sustainable fashion, they’ve become forces in the fashion industry in their own right, not just an alternative but a first choice.
A first choice among thin consumers with money, that is.
One of the major criticisms of sustainable fashion is how it lacks inclusivity. From the Good Trade’s list of sustainable brands, only three carry sizes above a 2XL, equivalent to a 20/22. Most carry up to XL, capping their styles at a size 14. Think about that. In an era where the average American woman is between a size 16 and 18, many sustainable brands act like those sizes don’t even exist.
Even if a customer is lucky enough to fit into limited size ranges, they still face the obstacle of just how expensive these brands are. Though they’re pricey for good reason, not everyone can afford to spend $74 on a blouse. Growing up low-income, I was always taught to “make money stretch.” The $98.00 spent on a pair of skinny jeans from Levi’s, I was told, could be taken to H&M instead, where I could buy five pairs of the same jeans. For many other low-income folks using the same logic, shopping from sustainable brands just doesn’t make sense. For us, the immense relative cost simply outweighs the environmental benefits.
“If you can’t afford it, why not thrift?” is something I’ve heard and unfortunately said myself. From the moment I bought my sweatshirt, I began playing into the assumption that thrifting is somehow the perfect way to shop ethically and sustainably. But the concern of accessibility with buying from sustainable brands applies to thrifting, too. Contrary to popular belief, thrifting isn’t so affordable anymore. Giants like Goodwill and Salvation Army have raised prices in response to the rising interest in their stores stoked by thrift haul videos like these. Money isn’t the only issue in terms of affordability — low-income folks can’t afford the time required to comb through racks of clothes to find something that fits. For people working multiple jobs or long hours at just one, thrifting is nearly impossible. This is especially true if they’re plus-sized, where an already limited stock of plus-sized clothing is often bought by thin people riding the trend of the oversized t-shirt.
So what are we supposed to do? If both of our sustainable options are bad and fast fashion is worse, where are we supposed to buy clothes?
Truth be told, there’s no answer to this question. There’s no “one size fits all” solution to the issue of fast fashion because of how diverse we are as consumers and as people. I think it’s easy to dismiss all of this by saying there is no ethical form of consumption in late-stage capitalism, so obviously people should just buy what they want, but that isn’t quite right either. It’s true that it’s impossible to live in a consumer society without causing harm in some way, but that means our goal should be to reduce this harm to the best of our individual abilities.
Though I wasn’t doing much by buying just one sweatshirt, I was doing what I could. I had the time and money to thrift, so I did, and I wore that sweatshirt for almost two years. When I no longer loved it the same way I had when I first saw it back in November of 2018, I sold it in Depop and gave it to another girl who loves the University as much as I did then.
So the next time you go to buy a new pair of jeans for a Friday night or a suit jacket for an interview, I want you to think about your options. I can’t tell you which is best, but I can ask you to think about this: Who loses from what you gain?
Jordan Hunter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.