Is It Ethical to Buy Fast Fashion from the Thrift Store?

I've been an avid thrift store shopper for over a decade, and I keep coming back. It's the thrill of hunting for some hidden treasure that I know is hidden in the over-crowded clothing racks or tucked behind piles of books on the shelves. As as result of my persistence, I've found incredible finds from thrift stores for my closet and home. But I haven't just been a consumer at the stores; I've also donated many items over the years (and received a small tax deduction in return). 

Recently I received a question from a blog reader about whether it was ethical to buy fast fashion items from Gap, H&M, Forever21, etc. at the thrift store. On one hand, the reader explained how she wasn't buying the items from the retailers directly, but was rather supporting a local thrift store, many of which have a social mission. Yet she wanted to know whether it really made a difference. After all, she was still buying an item made by a fast fashion retailer, even if it wasn't through the store itself. She simply wanted to know: 

Is it ethical to buy items from fashion fashion retailers that were donated to the thrift store? 

This is such a great question, and is one that I've been thinking a lot about as I dig even deeper into supply chain issues in the fashion industry. While almost all of what I wear is from thrift stores like the Salvation Army, I have noticed an uptick in the last few years of large (fast fashion) retailers donating their "leftover" clothing that didn't sell on supersale. I imagine that the company gets a tax write-off and the thrift store gets on-trend, newer clothes to sell for higher margins (e.g., a H&M dress can sell for $8 instead of a vintage one for $2). It would seem like a win-win, right? 

My answer to the reader's question is "yes and no." It's simply not a black and white question. It's ethical to buy these donated clothes in the sense that we are actually using them instead of adding them to the landfill, deconstructing them into industrial rags, or shrink-wrapping them to send to Africa (see here for more information about what happens to the clothes we donate to the thrift store). But then again, by voting with our dollar at the thrift store to buy these newer garments from fast fashion retailers, we are still signaling that those are the types of clothes that we value and want to be produced—and at even lower and lower prices. This is essentially an extension of what is called the "race to the bottom" in the fashion industry: produce more at lower costs and faster turnaround times. 

To be clear, I'm not against buying from fast fashion retailers completely. As a budget fashionista, I simply cannot afford the majority of sustainably-made clothing even though I know that the quality and production and ethics behind it are totally worth it. Some fashion companies like H&M, Gap, Nike, Levi's, and others also have invested considerably in alternative fabrics, better sourcing, and economic development/ community efforts in the countries in which their products are made. And it's okay to reward these companies accordingly! 

My overall policy for my personal and ethical style is to buy less, buy smarter, and buy better.

An added bonus is to learn how to sew and mend your own clothing. I adopted this policy after working at anti-trafficking nonprofits for several years and realizing the connections between my personal purchasing decisions and issues such as conflict minerals and child labor and even slavery. In a several-year process of essentially weaning myself off of the consumption trap, I've come to realize that I simply don't need so much stuff. So when I do buy something, I want it to be a smart purchase that will last a long time and that I truly love. 

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Do you think it's ethical to buy cheap, fast fashion at the thrift store? Share your thoughts in the comments below.