The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Fast fashion harms the environment, even in thrift stores

5 min read
A brick sidewalk in front of a thrift store in Downtown Fredericksburg.

Low-quality fast fashion pieces end up in thrift stores, but they are not made to be reused. | Sarah Sklar, The Weekly Ringer


Associate Editor

With the increase in fast fashion and microtrends—trends that rise and fall out of style quickly—over the past few years, clothing consumption is constant, leaving the pieces that fall out of fashion sitting in people’s closets. Before too long, this clothing often ends up in thrift stores, leaving a once-reliable, inexpensive source of clothing filled with cheap, low-quality fast fashion. Instead of continuing this cycle by purchasing fast fashion, we should buy high-quality, long-lasting pieces and rewear the clothing we already have.

In addition to the negative environmental effects of fast fashion brands, by catering these pieces towards microtrends, the clothing these brands make is low quality and meant to be worn only a couple of times. By the time the pieces make it to the thrift store, instead of shoppers finding timeless pieces that will last a long time, they find poorly made articles that are already falling apart. 

“Whenever I go to a thrift store and see clothing articles from Shein, Romwe or any of the main fast fashion brands, I am personally met with disappointment because I know the quality of those pieces,” said Maggie Corcoran, a junior psychology major. “It’s all there due to overconsumption, which is a big issue when it comes to the environment.” 

Because these pieces have to be produced fast enough to keep up with the turnover of microtrends, they are low quality. According to NPR, “That means manufacturing in low-wage countries like China, but it also means using cheap, synthetic materials and rudimentary manufacturing processes.”

This poses a huge threat to the environment, for using synthetic materials such as polyester is detrimental to the planet’s wellbeing. According to Greenpeace, “If we take into account the fossil fuels used in its production, CO2 emissions for polyester clothing are nearly three times higher than for cotton!” Furthermore, in addition to its emissions, the waste that the fast fashion industry leaves behind is non-biodegradable, which makes it even more of a pollutant. 

“The practice of donating clothes or reselling them isn’t all bad,” said Corcoran. “It does prolong the use of the product, but a lot of the clothing is made of cheap materials that are bad for the environment when you wash them, leaking micro plastics into the water.”

According to Greenpeace, “One piece of clothing can release 700,000 fibers in a single wash.” These fibers wash down the drain and end up in nearby bodies of water. In addition to the issue of these pollutants remaining in the water, the fibers are even more detrimental when fish consume them only to be caught and fed to human beings, thus affecting our health. 

Fast fashion may also pose a threat to your health because of the materials used to make the clothes. At the University of Toronto, “Scientists found that a jacket for toddlers, purchased from Chinese retailer Shein, contained almost 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children,” according to CBC News. 

Thrift stores are consistently stocked with donations, so keeping poorly-made articles on the racks only takes away space that could be used for higher-quality donations that shoppers look for at thrift stores. 

Because of their notoriety as low-quality pieces, shoppers who go to thrift stores in search of pieces that will last them a long time know which brands to avoid, which only adds to the quantity of fast fashion on the racks.

“Personally I do notice a lot of fast fashion in thrift stores and it’s showing up more and more. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily because the trends are quick to change, or people choose not to buy them,” said Marcelo Ruggiero, a senior international business major. “When I see a piece of clothing that is name-brand or I can tell is fast fashion, I just move right along, and I don’t think I’m the only one who does that.”

In addition to thrifting becoming more mainstream and attracting shoppers of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, it is important to recognize that many people rely on thrifting and second-hand shops as their main source of clothing. Many articles of clothing that fast fashion brands sell do not have this in mind, however, thus limiting the space on the racks for useful pieces. 

Is this to say that you should just throw away your fast fashion clothing? No. 

The key to being more environmentally friendly is rewearing your clothing, since buying more clothing is only giving into the fashion industry by keeping the demand high. With fast fashion pieces being of poor quality, however, this isn’t realistic in the long run. After trying to extend the life of your clothing as much as you can, finding clothing that is durable and made of higher quality materials is the most sustainable way to participate in the fashion industry. For some people, this may mean shopping for sustainable clothing brands such as Patagonia, Girlfriend Collective and Reformation if you have the financial means, and others may find the best options at a local thrift store—if you can dig through the fast fashion. 

Additionally, not all thrift stores are full of pieces made from quality materials, but the issue with fast fashion is the sheer amount of items that are appearing in these stores. 

“In recent years I have noticed quite a lot of fast fashion in thrift stores. Sometimes it feels like it’s taking away from the authenticity or ‘vintage’ aspect of thrifting, which can change the experience of it,” said Tyler Clift, a senior psychology major. “However, people shopping at thrift stores out of necessity rather than for a hobby/style choice may like being able to find more ‘trendy’ items in an accessible way if they do not have access to online shopping.”

Furthermore, clothing recyclers are another alternative to donating fast fashion articles. These allow clothing to be reused and not end up in the landfill or take up room in thrift stores. 

“A lot of donations to thrift shops end up in landfills already and that is a big problem when it comes to fast fashion, the sheer amount of waste,” said Corcoran. “If you are looking to better your shopping practices and can afford to shop elsewhere, do that.”

So, instead of giving into the wasteful and harmful cycle of microtrends and fast fashion, think about the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Limit your overall consumption of clothing, and pay attention to the quality of your clothing for the sake of long-term use as well as the health of the planet. And finally, stop buying into microtrends that will inevitably end up in the thrift store or landfills, consequently offering low quality pieces to those who are looking for practical, useful and necessary articles of clothing.