Thrift Shopping Is A Political Choice. Here’s Why.

Supporting fast fashion means buying into a capitalist system based on exploitation – predominantly of women of colour. Hali Brown (@nextwearer) explains how she started the #ThriftingIsPolitical hashtag, and why the second-hand shopping movement is about opposing corporations built off unethical labour. 

Let’s start with a flashback: it’s 2018 and the clothes on my bed lie in wait. I am in the middle of doing my annual spring clear out. It’s that one time per year in which I am confronted by the clothes I own, all out in the open.

Whilst hanging everything back up, neatly colour coded, I realised that all of my most loved and high-quality clothes have been worn by somebody else. Shirts, dresses and coats had come to me through thrifting, swapping, or being handed down. Knowing in the back of my mind how fast fashion clothes tend to be poor quality and outdated within months, I started to wonder why I was continuing to participate in the tumultuous, trend-for-profit system. With that, @nextwearer was born. 

I wanted to show people that you can be interested in fashion and love style, but wear predominantly thrifted pieces. Alongside sharing my own second-hand outfits, openly discussing the politics of the fast fashion industry became a passion of mine. Seeing how my combination of good clothes and even better politics gained traction, I started the hashtag #ThriftingIsPolitical, which has become the space to openly discuss all things wrong with the fast fashion industry and the capitalist system that upholds it. 

Here’s why thrifting is political. Fast fashion operates on a neo-colonial structure, exploiting predominantly people of colour across the globe for the sake of profit. Garment workers, the majority of whom are women of colour, are paid a pittance in order to produce 52 seasons worth of clothing a year for most high-street brands. These women work unthinkable hours in poor working conditions. Most of the workers are unable to advocate for themselves or unionise, for the real fear of brutal physical and / or sexual assault. Up to 87% of factories do not pay their countries’ minimum wage. Those who protest, as 17,000 Vietnamese garment workers did in 2016, risk their livelihoods, but most importantly their lives. 

These workers stay largely invisible to the average shopper: unseen, undervalued and unheard. Companies make it very easy for us to forget that all clothes are handmade. Shops feel clean – masses of symmetrical colour-blocked clothes all lined up, whilst tunes of the latest pop songs whip through the aggressively bright, clean space. Endless options appear to us weekly, like magic. The truth is this, brands fundamentally make us feel like clothes appear through robotic production with no human cost. We do not see the blood, we do not see the tears, importantly, we do not see the people. 

The fast fashion system that continues to exploit workers contributes to the structural inequality of society worldwide. It contributes to the proliferation of wealth-hoarding by the 1%, who do not adequately pay their workers, sell new clothing on a weekly basis and then pocket the profits of someone else’s labour. They continue to sell through pandemics, forcing workers across the globe to continue production and supply with no hazard pay. By choosing to thrift instead, you choose to no longer take part in the exploitation of garment workers, predominantly people of colour, for the sake of clothing. Although there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, is your consumption of clothing really worth this? 

Thrifting is also political due to fast fashion’s environmental impact. Fast fashion is the third biggest polluter in the world. People don’t naturally associate the clothes they wear with the environment, but the mass production of textiles, the shipping and the amount of water that it takes to make a single item contribute to the quick decline of our environment. 

Climate change is already affecting countries and predominantly people of colour around the world. This due to a mix of overconsumption, mass waste, capitalism and environmental racism, perpetrated largely by the West. In the US, over 10 million tonnes of textiles are wasted every year. In the UK alone, we still manage to throw out a huge 350,000 tonnes per year. Those textiles end up being shipped to thousands of locations across Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands. The lands of other nations used as rubbish dumps for the West. Fast fashion is fundamentally and wholeheartedly linked to climate change and the decimation of our planet. The mass production of clothing has already resulted in large concentrations of cancer in children, undrinkable chemical-filled water and droughts in areas where factories and synthetic cotton farms exist. Thrifting instead of shopping fast fashion could prevent millions of items per year from going to waste, letting items be reused, re-worked and re-worn.

My hashtag #ThriftingIsPolitical is a hub where people looking to slow their fashion consumption can gain information from a variety of people with different lifestyles. From Rana Plaza to rainforests – thrifters, swappers, ethical fashion shoppers and vintage shops around the world have filled the space with masses of information, ready for anybody looking to make changes. It also shows that you can be stylish and still wear second-hand clothes. You can love fashion like I do, but it’s also important to address that fast fashion is built by corporations that create trends to make profit, to the detriment of people and the planet. 

It’s crucial to also remember that not everyone has the privilege of being able to thrift their clothes, shop ethically, or slow down their consumption of fast fashion. Whether it’s due to not having enough money or time, having growing children, the general lack of availability of plus-sizes or not having options in their area. It’s our responsibility to rally for inclusivity in thrifting and make sure prices aren’t hoisted up for poorer communities who rely on second-hand shopping. The popularity of thrifting can also mean prioritisation of profit at these shops, over the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities. Thrifting is not a perfect solution. #ThriftingIsPolitical is not to judge or shame, but to inform. The blame for fast fashion does not lie with us as individuals, but collectively we can continue to rally for change. 

This is a new moment. Thrifting is a great way to get a better understanding of your personal style and reject trend cycles used to proliferate capitalism. It’s a way to get items that don’t contribute to the exploitation of garment worker labour or the earth’s resources. 

Let’s continue to dismantle this capitalist structure that produces infinitely with finite resources. Let’s continue to advocate for a system where everybody is able to access clothing that doesn’t rely on exploitation.Let’s extend our feminism and anti-racism to garment workers across the world. 

Let’s normalise trying to thrift, swap or borrow before heading down the high street.