How to Dress Greener: 5 Reasons to Shop at Thrift Stores

Today's post is written by our summer volunteer, Alice Chang. Alice is a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College, majoring in Economics-Government. Though she grew up in Shanghai and learned Chinese as her first language, she moved to Seattle at the age of 10 and considers herself a full Seattle-lite: canvas bag-toting, bus-riding, coffee-drinking and all. Her interests include eating ethnic food, promoting environmental justice and watching Suits.

The summer before I left for college, I cleaned out my entire closet deciding what to take with me. I divided my shirts, pants and dresses into categories and the "donate" and "trash" piles became huge. My massive collection of unwanted clothing indicated an integral problem: my unsustainable shopping habit was money-draining, space-consuming, wasteful and as I would later learn, takes a toll on the environment. After the painful culling process and in the face of a leaner college budget, I decided to start shopping smarter -- both economically and environmentally. I started to thrift.

Currently, the average American purchases about ten pounds of recycled clothing per year. Countless blogs have dedicated posts on the art of thrifting.  Here are five reasons why you should consider thrifting your clothes:

1 ) Less energy, fewer chemicals.

It takes energy to transport the cotton from farms to the textile manufacturing factory, to retailers and ultimately to consumers. Within the manufacturing process, a lot of energy consumption occurs during the washing, de-sizing, bleaching, rinsing, dyeing, printing and finishing processes. Once the consumer no longer wants clothes, energy is required to dispose of them, too. So, by buying secondhand, you divert clothes from landfills and save energy by getting more mileage from that piece of clothing.  A 2007 study found that recycling or reusing cotton clothing uses a tiny fraction (2.6 percent to be exact) of the energy required to manufacture the garment from virgin materials. In addition, cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. Extensive pesticide usage leads to soil acidification and agricultural run-off, which causes hypoxia in nearby surface waters and subsequently disrupts ecosystems. Decreasing your demand for new cotton will decrease the use of chemical pesticides to grow the cotton, which is a win-win for you and the environment.

2 ) Reduce your water footprint.

Water is involved in almost every stage of clothing production. It takes water (in addition to energy and pesticides) to grow the cotton: one kilo of cotton takes up to 20,000 liters of water. The intensive pesticide usage associated with cotton can find its way into run-off and contaminate ground and surface water. Wet processing of cotton consumes 150 liters per kilogram, and 180 liters per kilogram when printed. It also takes water to produce the electricity used to power all these processes of manufacturing, producing packaging and transportation. On average, a cotton T-shirt requires 2,500 liters of water to produce. A pair of jeans takes over 8,000 liters of water. Taking these figures into consideration, how much water is found in the shirts and jeans that you own? It's probably a lot. Calculate your total water footprint here.

3 ) More thoughtful consumption.

I used to find myself thoughtlessly purchasing the latest trends -- just because they were cheap -- only to wear that piece of clothing just once or twice before it was forgotten at the back of my closet. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, Americans throw away about 68 pounds of clothing per person every year, making up about 4 percent of municipal solid waste. For me, more thought goes into buying something at a thrift shop. Will I actually wear this? Will it go out of style? And do I truly need it? Before buying, make sure you check for tears, stains and other damage.

4 ) Save money!

The average American woman spends between $1,000 to $2,000 each year on clothing, but only wears about twenty percent of what's in her closet. Though thrifting generally takes more time and consideration, you save a ton of money, as long as you watch out for bargain overloading and don't buy unnecessary pieces.

5 ) Donating your gently used clothes to thrift stores gives back to the community.

For instance, national thrift stores like Goodwill provide career support for the disabled. Here's a national directory of charity-driven thrift stores to get you started, and a list of thrift shops around the U.S. to check out. Other than thrift shops, you can also check out consignment stores, flea markets and vintage shops -- there are lots of ways to green your wardrobe!  

Now an avid thrifter, I've learned how to do so efficiently and effectively, frequenting my local Seattle Goodwill and Value Village. If certain pieces need tailoring or have potential, I love using them as DIY materials to create something fun and unique with my sewing machine, a pair of fabric scissors and a free afternoon.