Why Thrift Stores Suck, an all text post, kiddos

This is the preface for my (tardy) February Goal post on "The MOST Eco-conscious Ways to Give Away Your Unwanted Clothes".  As I started to dig into the issue, I realized I could either do a few short posts or one giant post which would be barely readable online.   

As I started looking into the used clothing industry, I found that the majority of news sources cited Overdressed, a book which I both have and like. An excerpt of its chapter on used clothing, "The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes" is here.  I've cited other sources throughout and provided a list of related links at the end so you can read them in your leisure time, if so inclined.

When people give their unwanted clothing to thrift stores as a donation, they often assume it's going directly to people in need of free clothing.  Maybe they think it goes to those in the community who just have very little money and live at or below the poverty line. Or they think it goes to people who are enrolled in the charities' programs, already receiving some type of assistance.  People do seem to realize that some of it gets sold to raise money for the charity since the thrift shops that sell the clothes are right there - often where you drop off your donations.  And a lot of people assume the thrift store houses their clothing until its sold.

While certain programs or smaller thrift stores might give clothing directly to the people they serve (like Dress for Success) or not turnover stock that often (small church basement thrift shops), the majority of the thrift stores that people donate to have too much donated clothing to be absorbed by the local community - both those in need and casual shoppers.  While some thrift stores might offer clothing through their services (and it's true that thrift stores make clothing more affordable to all), there are too many donated clothes to either give away or even sell.  

These larger thrift stores receive volumes of donations, too much for them to possibly sell, much less give away.  They often sort through the best items to sell in their stores and then sort the rest into what's suitable for rags and what's suitable to re-sell in bundles to other people who re-sell used clothing, most likely overseas.

"According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we are throwing away 68 pounds of textiles per person per year and donating such a staggering volume of clothes that a majority of our donations to charity have to be sold to textile recyclers who then sell more than half of our used clothes overseas, largely to Africa." {source}

Larger thrift stores also move stock off their floors after it's been there a certain amount of time and it gets turned into rags or sold overseas so they can make room for incoming donations.  Knowing this, I feel like I should be scanning the racks at thrift stores on the regular if I'm trying to find specific pieces.  They have such a short shelf life in the thrift store and if I feel like shopping used is helping the environment, then is that not my responsibility to scoop up what I can if it fits with my "want" list instead of letting it go the way of rags?  Or possibly uses more fuel/energy to get it overseas?  What's the right answer here?

What about those used clothing donation bins that aren't associated with any specific charity (or a vague charity)?  Often they function as a used clothing processor - pulling the better pieces for resale to vintage buyers and bundling the rejects to sell, usually abroad.  People seem to get testy about finding out their used clothing is not going to benefit a charity -- but in reality, getting these clothes to where they have the most value is probably the best thing we can do for our environment and I can't begrudge someone making a living out of that.  (People get angry because they think there really is a poor person waiting for their clothes or that the charity will be able to sell it to thrift store shoppers vs just farming it out to resellers for money.  Yes, some of the bins purposely try to look like charities and that is wrong...but the clothes ultimately end up in similar places.)  Someone is likely profiting off our donated rejects anyway, once they pass through the thrift stores hands.  If people want to make it impossible for others to profit off our discards and to prevent our clothing rejects from displacing local businesses overseas, the solution is to have less clothing to donate, which means thrift stores will have a usable amount to sell.  

Is shipping our rejected used clothing overseas the right answer?  It seemed like a good solution but signs point to no.  Not only are those markets becoming more picky, they're also becoming over-saturated and  some say they are displacing traditional textile creation in those areas because the overload of our cheaper already-made rejects makes it easier for people to clothe themselves for cheap - and spending the money on more expensive, locally-made more labor intensive clothing is no longer a priority.  (Sounds like the USA, doesn't it?  So our sweatshop clothing mentality not only displaced our own local apparel industry but now possibly other counties' local apparel industry, too.)

So - why do thrift stores suck?  Because people have the impression, because of them, that someone needy is awaiting their used clothing.  (Even if it has rips, stains, missing hardware.)  They reinforce the very selfish idea that even if you don't want something, someone out there surely wants what you have rejected.  It's simply not true in the way people think it is.  And soon it might not be true at all.  But if we keep pretending that once you dump something in the clothing donation bin or drop it off at the desk of your local charity thrift store that someone will use it, we won't have to actively face what our consumption does to us and others.  And the less we see of that, the more free we feel to buy new things, not maintain the things we have and to feel good about "closet purges" seasonally and "giving" to others.

Of course, I'm exaggerating when I say that thrift stores outright suck.  Thrift stores give these articles of clothing an opportunity to be used again (as long as they're seen within the short time they're on the shelves).  That's a true service.  But I do think our assumptions about the market for our used clothing donated to thrift stores is detrimental.  I appreciate when thrift stores are transparent about what happens to clothing they take in.  For example, in NYC our local non-profit Housing Works partnered with the city to help take in any used clothing and textiles (sheets, towels, etc).  They are clear about their processing chain, here:

What happens to clothes and other items deposited into the re-fashioNYC donation bins?
Your donations will be picked up and transported to Housing Works’ warehouse in Queens for sorting. Some donations will be sold in Housing Works’ shops throughout NYC or at one of their regular “all-you-can-stuff” warehouse sales. Some leftovers from these sales will be shipped to another nonprofit thrift shop in Haiti, while others will be made available to different nonprofit thrift shops for sale in their stores. The rest will be sold to a used textile merchant for recycling or export to overseas markets. In all cases, the profits generated from the sale of your donations will benefit low-income and homeless New Yorkers living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Granted, they don't get into what re-routing what they can't sell (or what volume that might be) might mean for others but there is no illusion that they are taking in and selling everyone's grubby towels or missing zipper jeans, at least.

Given all of this, how do you think thrift stores fit into your consumption and your options for rehoming unwanted clothing?

There will be another post on best options for getting rid of your closet rejects that discusses more options but this was just the thrift store industrial complex primer, so I don't need to discuss all of that when I use thrift stores as an option in that future post.

Related Links:

1) Slate:  The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes (The Salvation Army Probably Can't Use Your Clothes) - E. Cline

2) NPR:  Ethical Fashion - Is the Tragedy in Bangladesh a Final Straw? - E. Cline interview on Fresh Air

3) NYTimes:  Attention, Shoppers - Avis Cardella review of Overdressed by E. Cline

4) CNN: Is Your Old T-shirt Hurting African Economies?  - R. Curnow, T. Kermeliotis

5) The Business of Fashion:  Op Ed/The Trouble with Second Hand Clothes - Tansy Hoskins

6) Wikipedia overview - Global trade of second hand clothing


  1. Great write up. I love reading stuff like this, because it is stuff that nobody really thinks about but when you dig into it there is so much it just boggles. Not so much information but so much clothes! Have you ever seen the pictures of the huge bales of clothing that get shipped overseas? This is the type of topic I'd like to get into if I ever were to go on a for a PhD. I currently have a large moving box upstairs that I throw all our rag quality clothing into (which is a lot, because we all wear secondhand to begin with, so by the time the boys have worn the hell out of their stuff it is threadbare and torn, etc.), and I've been meaning to research local textile recycling places I can take it as opposed to just dumping it at the thrift store. Another thing I've considered is actually volunteering at my favorite thrift store just to see more of what goes on in the back room. Thanks for reminding me I'm interested in this topic.

    1. I think our textile recycling is actually Housing Works now and they sort through everything, which is fine. At least it means we have a place to bring things that need to be rags. At one point I don't think there was anything - although now I wonder if the rag stuff was just the back-end of the large thrift store donations anyway. It really is mind-boggling how much stuff there is. Today I had an errand to do in midtown and walked by a giant giant H&M and all I could think was, "Where is all that stuff gonna GO?"

      One thing I didn't include here (because it was so long already, and also because I'm talking about fabrics later in the year) is that mixed-textile fabric is harder to recycle while it sounds like cotton is something easier to recycle. So, I suppose that's something to think about as well. Not that there's a shortage of that!

      I think it'd be really interested to volunteer at your favorite thrift store - I would certainly want to hear about it!


  3. I agree with all of this, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that very successful non-profits like Goodwill pay disabled employees much less than minimum wage to work in their thrift stores. Goodwill disgustingly features stories from disabled employees online, with highly personal details and USING THEIR REAL NAMES. A friend of mine found social media accounts for some of these employees, and they all publicly described hating their jobs and not having enough money. ugh.

    1. I had always thought that was supposed to be a progressive program. Man. That is a bummer, especially given that they market it as a progressive, positive program. Ugh, indeed.

    2. The idea behind the program is that people with disabilities are slower at performing tasks than abled people, so they are timed while performing certain tasks, and that time is compared to an arbitrary number, and the percentage of that number that their time is determines their rate of pay. Goodwill also gets an enormous subsidy for employing disabled people, so they are rewarded for exploiting their disabled workforce. I've noticed that everyone who has said this is so "empowering" would not work for sub-minimum wage themselves, and that the CEO of Goodwill also does not have his performance timed and compared to other times. It is true that they might lose their SSDI if they are paid enough to live on, but that is a problem with SSDI and not a good reason to pay anyone so little for their work. The argument that this helps disabled people with the "dignity of work" is the worst - I'm pretty sure most of us work for the money as well as the dignity!

    3. I didn't know this about Goodwill. I've had very few experiences with it and every time it has been with surly, gum-chewing teens on the business end of things.

  4. This is really interesting. I've recently become very interesting in minimal consumerism and am trying to ditch my old shopping habits in favor of fewer, more ethical and more eco purchases. Learning more about the darker side of the fashion industry, including thrift stores (as you mention here), is enough to make me move very quickly away from my old regular trips to the mall.

  5. Ah! Where to start?
    (Sometimes, I think that my (now documented- thanks healthcare!) anxiety problems came from asking myself "Where do all the things come from? Where do they go? And then, suddenly, I was crushed by the enormity of the process much like when a feeble, human brain tries to comprehend the vastness of the universe. Then the snowball of overwhelm-ation began its crippling roll. Cool, industrialized society. Good one.)

    I mean, first I have to #humblebrag about thrift stores aren't total bull shit because, Becky, LOOK at my outfit. Black, merino wool sweater from Oscar de la Renta, GAP jersey dress from the brand's 90s heyday, and Coach Italian-made leather oxfords. $25 head-to-toe. But, because I have a theory that if I wouldn't have bought it the first time around, I won't buy it the second/third/forth time around, the finding of these items was no small feat. What I've noticed in the past 20 years (whoa.) of shopping mostly thrift it that, these days, you have to wade through a lot of what seems like straight-up garbage. I use "seems" because, thanks to your research and the research of others, we can confirm that much of what we paw through will become straight-up garbage. And I always wondered how Saver's kept their selection so fresh...

    Last year, when that Thriftstore song hit it real big, I read a tumblr entry written by an impassioned 20-something who was so distraught that this golden hit would make thrift shopping so cool that poor people would have no clothing options available to them. Considering how down with -isms this author was, it really makes me pause to consider how opaquely the thrift and second hand industry operates. I never really thought that my old, donated clothes were given to the teeming masses gratis but, my formative thriftsperiences were with a select few south Jersey hospital charity shops that would move unlovable extras into a special room and then open it up once a month for a spectacular $2-a-bag sale. You know all that shit was gone by 11am, kiddo. (also, the indignity experienced when finding one of my donations in that room was enough for me to stick it in my bag and just take it back. Hmph!)

    Yes, that thrifts would run out of clothing is weird and troubling on both sides of the issue. I'd love to learn more about how textile recycling works. Alongside throwing out food, tossing clothing/textiles (even scraps from quilting!), feels like the most sinful of all transgressions. That stat about the 68lbs of clothing per person really floored me! Why is plastic and metal reclamation a common concept while the textile version seems less than vague? Is my bucket of rags a dying breed? Likewise, how do we turn around the big ship of rampant consumerism? How did I turn around my own little dingy years back? Answer: absolute distaste for what I was being offered in stores melded with a characteristic stubbornness. Can marketing firms save the world by breeding a massive state of dissatisfaction with current modes of consumption? Will people ever say, "Why should I have 2 when I can just have 1?" And what does this mean for my job as a maker of things? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh

  6. I feel I've been reading a lot about this topic lately. I honestly think if people are being disillusioned by the organizations selling their discarded clothing, that's a little unfair. I mean donating is donating, I'm completely fine with thrift stores reselling my clothing and earning money for whatever services they provide, I'm happy they will be getting value out of it that I just wouldn't and I donate to places I want to support so this doesn't really bother me. I do like that you bring up small charity shops, it's something I forgot about and need to donate more to. But I think really if you want your clothes to go to someone in need then thrift stores probably not the way to get rid of your clothing.

    Also re: Goodwill I saw the comment above and I've read about it too. Man, I just think a lot of this press has to also be taken with a critical eye. I've worked with Goodwill NY/NJ several times and have visited their sorting center/main offices in Queens, I've seen the bales they ship overseas as well as the bales they send to be recycled to make insulation and carpets and rags... but they do so much more than employ people w/ disabilities at their stores including job training, providing housing, after school care for children in need, job service via temp agency, and they partner with several trade schools to provide training for people in need and that's just off the top of my head, I think there is even way more. And everyone I met is passionate about doing this kind of work and everyone from the workers I've hung out with to the director's care about their clients and the services they provide. I know for at least Goodwill the local Goodwills operate pretty independently from one another, so something true about one may not be true about another and I think the press doesn't really dissect that.

    I do think that thrift stores and charity shops can be detrimental to our over consuming culture though...they definitely give an easy solution to people who are buying much too much creating a revolving door in their closet which I think ultimately is reinforcing a habit of overbuying. And I definitely have mixed feelings about shipping lots of clothes overseas. I mean on the one-hand it's huge business for the countries at this point and on the other, yes it could be displacing local clothing and I don't think there's an easy answer for any of this. I think we all have to do the best we can and know what is happening to our clothing discards on a local level and become more informed.

    Also sorry...totally this comment jumps all over the place. But I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and discussion on this. I look forward to reading your upcoming post closet rejects, but for me even given all of this thrift stores will still be a mainstay for both shopping and donating.

  7. Thank you for writing this! The further I got along in reading Overdressed, I went through so many feelings about the whole thing. Really coming to the conclusion like the author, that the best solution may be for all of us to learn to make clothing again!

    I think a lot of people have been very naive about what really goes on at thrift stores, and as I did research for my Made in the USA posts, I saw all these backstories to what thrift stores really are. And I think the main issue is yes, thrift stores NOW give people the sense that their stuff is disposable. I don't think it was always like that. It goes hand in hand with our disposable fashion consumption. So blame this whole thing on Forever 21, Target, H&M, Kohl's, Walmart and the likes. Is it not their cheap Made in China/Bangladesh stuff we're skipping on the racks at the thrift store?

    Not to mention, anyone that has thrift shopped for several years now will notice the dramatic price increases. The big thrift store chains have had to compensate their growth and expansion across the US with increasing prices drastically. Savers (not sure if you have them) was a big guilty party when I live in Las Vegas. They'd price things SO terribly. And Goodwill buys Target deadstock at a deep discount - which really is a whole other story. Because I think you can find things cheaper in the Target sale than what they're reselling them for at Goodwill. GAHH it's a wormhole comment. But I love this conversation you've created! Thank you.

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