By Ava Borskey
BATON ROUGE, LA — When she’s not busy studying Arabic or biology for her international studies major, Emily Clarke might be found shopping for clothes at a thrift store.
For Clarke, the incentive to thrift, rather than buy from traditional retailers, is two-fold: finding unique, affordable clothing and reducing her environmental footprint.
“As I grew up, I just learned more about human impact on the environment, climate change . . . and how my daily actions contribute to that,” Clarke said. “I’m very environmentally conscious about the impact of fast fashion and consumerism, so I really try to buy used clothes.”
When it comes to waste harmful to the environment, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is disposable plastic products, like water bottles and chip bags.
But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, of the 11.3 million tons of textiles that ended up in landfills in 2018, approximately 9 million tons were from clothing and footwear.
One of the biggest impacts individuals have on the environment is fashion waste, said Chuanlan Liu, a Louisiana State University textiles, apparel design and merchandising professor.
“Fast fashion [is clothing] that you wear one or two times, and you wash, and then it’s in really bad shape, so you dump it,” Liu said. “In that case, people form a really unhealthy habit.”
As more clothing is discarded, it clutters municipal solid waste landfills, which already have damaging effects on the environment. The EPA estimates that MSW landfills are the third largest source of human methane emissions in the U.S. Methane, a greenhouse gas, traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.
From the production end, the fashion industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions and almost 20% of wastewater.
One way to reduce fashion waste is to keep clothes in circulation longer through a thrift store or other resale market. The popularity of this option is on the rise, especially for young people like Clarke and her friends.
“Thrifting has become almost a fad, where a lot of people in our generation do it,” Clarke said. “We all think it’s super fun to go out and kind of search and see what your luck is. And I think that’s had a huge impact, just that people’s mindsets have changed to include secondhand shopping as something that is acceptable in society, instead of something that is looked down upon.”
Liu said that nowadays, consumers don’t care solely about brands or trends.
“Young people tend to try to spend less but pursue more creative expression,” Liu said.
“They are creating their own looks. They are creating their own style, and that leaves the resale market a huge market.”
Brian Sleeth oversees one of Baton Rouge’s big box thrift stores, The Purple Cow, which helps fund the Christian Outreach Center, a homeless intervention ministry in Baton Rouge.
The Purple Cow started in 2004 with a 15,000-square-foot building, and has since expanded to include two other locations in the Baton Rouge area. While the store resells anything from furniture and home décor to books, Sleeth said one of the biggest-selling categories is women’s clothing.
“We do get people who will donate brand new items, price tag still on it,” Sleeth said. “We sell it for a fraction of that.”
Sleeth said the motivations to thrift are numerous — there are economic reasons, environmental reasons and simply the thrill of the find.
“We call it, kind of, like a win, win, win,” he said. “It’s great all the way around. You save money, it lessens the impact on the environment and you’re also helping out the people who need it the most in our city.”
Influencers on YouTube and TikTok have capitalized on the hot concept of sustainability by producing videos showcasing thrift hauls, or huge volumes of clothing bought from thrift stores.
“I feel like if you’re going to buy a lot of stuff—if you’re just a shopaholic who has to always be buying things—buying things secondhand is the best way to be a shopaholic,” Clarke said. “And even then, I do think thrifting has its limits.”
While Sleeth said The Purple Cow may receive massive amounts of donations, typically there is only one of everything, unlike a department store that offers multiple garments per size.
Large clothing brands have taken notice of the increasing popularity of sustainable fashion by offering resale options for customers.
Liu said that the growing popularity of the resale market could lead consumers to consider decision-making factors that go beyond one-time ownership.
“Before you buy a used car, you always want to see that you buy some brand which can keep the value for a longer time, not depreciate very quickly,” Liu said. “The same thing applies with the resale market booming so greatly. People will truly consider a brand, consider the style, but also consider the quality a lot.”
And just as that single piece of clothing will receive a new life with each ownership, the brands will receive new ideas.
“From a consumer side, it will also kick back to the company, and the company will also want to pursue high quality,” Liu said.
Higher quality, longer-lasting clothing is an essential piece of the movement toward a slower, circular fashion model.
“Overall, it will reduce the amount of fashion waste that is generated,” Liu said.
For veteran thrifters like Clarke, thinking about this circular nature of resources and goods puts the importance of individual efforts into perspective.
“As individuals, we also should live out the lifestyle of sustainability, because it does make a difference,” Clarke said. “When you look at something and how you use it and where it came from and where it’s going, I think that’s really important to, kind of, remind you constantly of, like, the reality of the world we live in.”