The Switch

How Vintage Clothing and Sustainable Fashion Can Save the Planet

Buying secondhand clothing can yield one-of-a-kind pieces, plus take some strain off Mother Earth. Here’s how to make vintage shopping easier.
Posted on
January 7, 2022
How Vintage Clothing and Sustainable Fashion Can Save the Planet

Interested in helping the planet and bulking up your wallet?

"Buy nothing new" might be the mantra you’re looking for. It’s a challenge (and mindfulness exercise) I started quite a few years ago, and to be honest, I’m still prone to relapses.

But if you’re like me and have a history of buying things—especially clothing—on a whim, this easy-to-follow guideline will simplify your quest to lower your carbon emissions.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you need to be as hardcore as I've been and source secondhand lightbulbs. And the point here isn’t to feel guilty about what you’ve bought in the past—not even that “Game of Thrones” costume you wore just once for Halloween.

How many items of clothing does the average American own?

Since the average American buys 68 pieces of clothing a year, reducing your carbon footprint via secondhand shopping is a pretty effective idea. Personally, I’m sitting on a gold mine of vintage and designer pieces, some that I found new with tags. I’ve scored Prada boots for 10 bucks, and an Hermès coin purse for $2.

The rise of online thrifting

If spending hours sifting through racks at the thrift store isn't your idea of a good time, that doesn't mean secondhand shopping isn't for you. More and more businesses are offering online shopping experiences with entirely preloved merchandise. One example? ThredUP. They’re leading the charge as the largest online thrift shop in the world.

The ThredUP experience mirrors what you’d find from large online retailers, only it’s more sustainable, i.e. causing way fewer greenhouse gases (see more on that below). It’s an easy-to-navigate site of nicely laid-out categories by brand, type and price, all awaiting your discerning eye.

A rack of vintage hawaiian shirts in a secondhand boutique store

Why shopping secondhand is hugely impactful

Because of the vast quantities produced, as well as the effects of some production techniques, clothing and other textiles have a detrimental impact on the environment.

In short, the less new items you buy, the better off the planet is. So one trick to satisfy your need to shop (whether it’s an actual need or, you know, the retail therapy type) is to thrift your way to new outfits.

That $5 shirt you picked up just for fun cost a lot more than you probably bargained for.

Old textile waste and ragged shirts in a factory

How much pollution is caused by the fashion industry?

Our clothing and textiles are the cause of 10 percent of the world’s annual global carbon emissions and are on track to use a quarter of the entire global carbon budget by 2050.

The sector also ranks as the world’s second-largest polluter. (That’s not to mention numerous reports of unsafe work conditions and unfair pay.)

Plus, many textile crops, like cotton, soak up a lot of water.

How much water does it take to make one shirt?

Making one single T-shirt, for example, uses a whopping 700 gallons—and that’s often in parts of the world that are short of H2O to begin with. Also, synthetic textiles like polyester (which often don’t even feel nice to wear) are actually made from petroleum.

How many pounds of clothing ends up in landfills?

Then there’s the fact that nowadays, a lot of clothing is designed to be cheap and ultra-trendy, ready to be tossed aside when the next fashion train rolls in. And here’s a shocker: 26 billion pounds of clothing and textiles wind up in landfills each year.

Want to opt out of all this mess? That’s where thrifting comes in. And the beauty of sites like ThredUP is you can do it from the couch with a glass of wine in hand. (I can’t even think of a better Wednesday night.)

A girl buying vintage clothing online with mobile device

How to buy vintage clothing online

There are so many places online to find the perfect preloved item, including Depop, Etsy and a trove of independent sellers using platforms like Instagram. (That’s in addition to the secondhand and vintage shops you might have in your neighborhood.)

Virtual thrifting, like on ThredUP, takes a lot of the legwork out of the hunt since they’ve categorized items by size, brand and color. Oh, you want a size 12 green plaid blazer? Type it in.

Like real-live vintage stores, they’re choosy about what they accept, so you know the quality is there. If you don’t have time to shop, or just love a surprise, you can order a handpicked Goody Box that’s customized with items catered to you.

And, bonus for the fans of “one thing in, one thing out”: there’s always a spot for your good-quality items to find a new home. Just say the word and ThredUP will ship you a big polka-dot bag to fill and send back at no cost.

The team will inspect, take photos and list what makes the cut. In return, you’ll get some cash or a shopping credit.

How vintage stores are making fashion more sustainable

You already know you’ll look chic and never have to worry about showing up wearing the same outfit as someone else (a real day-ruiner, IMO) by wearing secondhand.

But according to ThredUP, if everyone bought one item of clothing in a year used instead of new, we’d save almost 6 billion pounds of carbon emissions. That’s the equivalent of taking around half a million cars off the road. We’d also save 449 million pounds of waste from landfills, or the weight of 1 million polar bears (who are facing extinction from climate change, so if anything, do it for the bears).

If you need more incentive than that, ThredUP has also been known to partner with like-minded, ethical retailers like Cayana to turn your clothing donations into shopping credits.

I’m sure we can all agree that there are more than enough clothes on the planet already, so it’s time to share the wealth. Whether that means shopping on ThredUP, scouring your local vintage store or hosting a clothing exchange is up to you. Starting is the hardest part, but as you’ve just learned, it’s actually pretty easy.

Oh, P.S., sustainability looks great on you.

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Amy Valm
Written By
Amy Valm

Amy Valm is a writer and editor who probably makes the same jokes as your dad. She has been a pretty big fan of the planet since the '80s.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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