Ah, thrift shops. Back when I was a teen, it’s where all the cool kids shopped. But maybe because back then they were forbidden to me, as an adult I’ve become a thrift shop convert, addict, disciple even. Yes, if there’s a religion that I most identify with, it would be the faith of thrift.

Many people love to point out that eco-friendly fashion, or sustainable fashion, or ethical fashion could never be as cheap or easy to access as fast fashion. To them, I say: thrift shops. They are the ultimate when it comes to carving out your own style inexpensively. And they are the ultimate treasure hunt. Sure, they are filled more and more these days with shoddy fast fashion cast offs, but it is also not uncommon to hit on amazing vintage and designer gems.

But like many things in life, thrift shops have an often overlooked dark side. This is something that I’ve only been aware of in the last year or so, and it’s something that for awhile, I wanted to ignore…

The Bad News

I’ve definitely been there. The seasons change, and it’s time to bring the shorts out of storage and pack away that winter parka. So you take the opportunity to empty your closet, sorting clothes into piles marked mend, keep, store and donate. And at the end of it all, there are always some pieces that either don’t fit or are ‘so last season’.

Sound like the KonMari method? I honestly couldn’t tell you, I’ve never read the book. But living along the Canadian-US border, where seasons come in fours and are dramatically different, the opportunity for a big clean and organize spurt happens at least twice a year.

And that donate pile? Well, if it doesn’t go to one of those seemingly ubiquitous clothing donation boxes so often found at the back of big box store parking lots, then it can go straight to the donation section of your local thrift shop. And don’t worry — the big, bold signs announcing the local charity that you’re ostensibly helping out with your donation is right above you.

Textiles, Commodities, Desirability

But what really happens to your donation? Well, if you have any desirable pieces in your cast offs, they will indeed be sold in your local thrift shop to folks like me. Designer, vintage, and even some trendy or classically styled fast fashion bits will be picked up for a couple bucks each. And depending on who you donated to, part of that money will be given to help local folks get jobs. Some of that cash will help Big Brothers & Sisters, diabetes charities, or Oxfam. Money will support local ministries, or ones overseas.

But what about that white, stained camisole you donated? What about those ugly cords you’ve had since junior high? That’s where things get iffy.

According to the documentary film, “The True Cost”, only about 10% of thrift shop donations in the developed world ever get sold. So what happens to that other 90% — representing over 200 million pounds a year in the USA alone? Some clothes get sold by the pound to local merchants, and then are shredded, remade and sold as rags. Some get imported to India, where they are also shredded into ‘yarn’, to be remade into blankets and sold back to us westerners.

But beyond exposing our grave western excess, these are best case scenarios. 45% of what’s not sold in thrift shop are still sold as clothes rather than textiles to be recycled. Some vintage and high end garments make it to Japan, where they are treasured as collectibles. But cheap, fast fashions are baled and sold to merchants in countries such as Ghana and Haiti. There, clothes are sold in markets, hampering the development of local textile economies.

The Good News

So what’s the problem with this model? Isn’t recycling textiles for new uses a good thing, especially when we fill landfills with them to the tune of 10.5 million tons per year in the USA alone?

Donating clothing may seem like a better bet than throwing clothing in the trash. But it comes with a host of problems all its own. Sure, it gives the warm fuzzies of a supposed clean conscience, and so we mostly don’t think about the impact of our decision to choose fast, cheap clothing and discard pieces a season later when they haven’t made us happy.

You’ve heard it before: choosing our clothing carefully and being conscious of what we buy in the first place is a great way out of the cheap clothes-trash pile loop. But that’s not the only place we, as consumers, should be cautious. What I’ve learned from my research on thrift shops is that being aware of a garment’s end of life is as important as when you first choose to buy it.

What to do When You’re So Over It

We can’t always avoid getting rid of clothing. Life moves along, and sometimes we gain weight or lose weight, grow or shrink. Parents are especially aware of this fact. The good news is that you have tons of choices when it comes to moving garments along.

For high end garments and children’s clothes, there are so many consignment options. And many big cities will have resale chains or shops that buy up your unwanted, trendy pieces or vintage finds. Check locally, and if there are no options around you, there are tons of online resources: thredUP specializes in children’s clothes, as well as brand name adult clothes. depop is an amazing resource to buy and sell trendy pieces to an active user base. And you can’t beat Vaunte, Vestiaire Collective, or the Real Real for selling designer goods (and shopping from enviable closets). And of course if all else fails, the old standbys of eBay and Etsy are always there.

But what about those pieces that you just know no one is going to want? That’s where swapping comes in. Remember that old saying about trash and treasure? Swapping with pals is always an option, but new online swap sites such as Yerdle are emerging every day. Or if you have sewing or know someone who is a new fashion designer, you could upcycle your piece into something new and fabulous! And for really, really far gone textiles? There’s always upcycling into craft supplies, or cutting into rags for garage or around-the-house eco cleaning supplies.

Another options is mending. DIY garment care such as button replacement or stain removal is always an option, but so is visiting a local tailor, cobbler or leather smith. I know I love my clothes way too much to just chunk ’em over something that could be easily remedied. Plus, that comes with the bonus of supporting small, local businesses!

The other good news is that shopping at thrift shops is a whole different ball game. If you are careful to choose a thrift shop that donates all or some of its profits to a cause that you personally support, thrift shopping can be a joy. Not only is it an amazing treasure hunt, but it’s a great way to recycle clothing and become an ethical shopper without sacrificing personal style or budget.

Do you love thrift shopping as much as I do? What do you think you’ll do next time you do a big closet clean out? And what should I investigate next for my “The Truth About…” series? Let me know in the comments below!