Why I Buy Secondhand

Taking a second look at the ethics of where we shop.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis express the benefits of buying second hand in their hit song, Thrift Shop. They pick up on the popularity of thrifting in a post-recession market, and they do so with humor and surprising insight. Thrifting is fun. It’s a great way to clothe yourself without spending very much money. And in a society that increasingly prizes individuality, you’re sure to look like no one else (except Grandpa) when you spend your cash on an inevitably odd assortment of donated items at your local thrift.

But thrifting is also the moral choice in a “fast fashion” consumer culture that strips the earth of resources and people of their dignity to meet our insatiable demand for more. It’s time that we take responsibility for our purchasing power. It’s time that we’re made aware of how our weekend hauls at the mall impact and exploit workers at the foundation of the retail chain.

Thrifting is also the moral choice in a “fast fashion” consumer culture that strips the earth of resources and people of their dignity to meet our insatiable demand for more.

US News and World Report recently published an article clearly hashing out the ethical implications of the “fast fashion” market. In the piece, Lisa Chau reveals that the contemporary consumer, more often than not, relies on the convenience of cheaply produced, throw-away goods made available by large, international retail companies. This culture propagates not only increased materialism at a risk to factory workers, but increased physical waste, piling up at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, very few Americans, and even more unsettlingly, very few Christians, have stopped to consider that buying clothes at low quality and low cost exploits millions of people who break their backs to make the garments we discard without a second thought. God so loved the world that he sent Christ to redeem us. That means that every human being on the planet matters, and should matter most to those of us who live to emulate Christ’s obedience and grace.

Retailers have begun, at the urging of an ethics-minded consumer movement, to post statements about factory conditions on their websites. But we must continue to be wary, because when a company explains that it follows the laws of the country of manufacture, that says nothing if the national standards are low. U.S. retail brands actively choose to open factories in nearly unregulated markets in order to maximize profits. Even charity-minded businesses are less than explicit about their production practices.

The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed over 700 people is appalling—though it is unfortunately not unique. A Bangladesh garment factory blaze killed 112 people last fall. Dozens of women have reportedly been raped in a Jordan-based factory that supplies clothing to major retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and Macy’s with no charges brought to their rapists. And in January 2012, as reported by The Telegraph, 150 Chinese workers threatened to commit suicide from the roof of a factory that produced Apple products; in 2010, 14 workers did kill themselves.

We may be worlds away, but we are implicated in these atrocities when we fail to consider that our demands as consumers fuel poor regulation.

Christians in particular can no longer, in good conscience, tolerate the heartless justification by many first-world consumers, Christians among them, that any work is good work, that American companies are really doing a good thing by providing jobs in poor regions around the world. It is not moral to take the easiest path. American and other first-world consumers have the power to demand fair working conditions for factory workers employed by international corporations. We are the target market and our say matters. If we truly believe that we’re entitled to fair wages, safe work conditions and reasonable work weeks, then we cannot in good conscience expect millions of people to work at high risk for little pay by supporting the companies who employ them. This would reveal a startling prejudice. By our actions, we would imply that the lives of millions of human beings are less important than our own right to frivolously spend.

By our actions, we would imply that the lives of millions of human beings are less important than our own right to frivolously spend.


Our discussion on human rights has barely scratched the surface. But there are other reasons to pull out of the fast fashion market. At the end of the consumption assembly line, we pollute increasingly limited public spaces by discarding past-season or low quality items in landfills by the truckload.  Meanwhile, cotton growers rely on pesticides and toxic processing to produce raw materials quickly and at low cost, putting both farmland and human lives—from farmer to swaddling, suburban infant—at risk.

Buying secondhand avoids not all, but most of the problems associated with our current consumption culture. Yes, of course fast fashion items will find their way to the thrift store racks, where we seek to make ethical purchases. But by pulling out of the fast fashion market directly, we boycott poor work conditions in acknowledgement of human life, rights and dignity. By buying secondhand, we also reduce demand for new products, thereby reducing waste and pollution. We halt the uncontrolled greed within ourselves by shopping with intention. We respond to Christ’s call to care for the downtrodden. We learn discipline.

Of course, in a world free of unethical companies and poor labor practices, the thrift store is no longer a solution. If indulgent consumers stop donating, the secondhand model fails. Ideally, we will turn from mindless consumption; companies will produce high quality garments with respect for their employees and the earth, and consumers will only purchase as they have need. But in the meantime, we have the moral imperative to pull out of the fast fashion market to the extent that we can. We, too, have a responsibility to future generations to un-clutter the world by reusing and recycling donated goods.

Determine, “therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, [to] clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” instead of deceit, greed and strife (Colossians 3:12).

Not to mention, of course, you’ll make Macklemore proud.

Top Comments

Kyle Hendy

1

Kyle Hendy commented…

This is a great article, and it raises many good points and gets us thinking about how our spending habits affect people on the other side of the world. But it's important to think carefully though all the repercussions of pulling out of the market and purchasing only second hand. We can think it would be a good thing if these factories that mistreat people in Bangladesh or India were to close, but is that actually the case? I agree that we have to do something to address the issues of abuse and poor conditions, but for many of these people, even making a dollar a day or less, this job might be a life-line. This might be all they have. There simply ARE no other jobs available, so it's a dollar a day or starve. Rather than spending that money at a second hand, (though i'm sure it is run by a really great charity), I would suggest looking into purchasing from the growing number of fair trade clothing companies that have set up shop in the same 3rd world neighborhoods as the big box store factories, employing people from the same demographic, but paying them fairly and going above and beyond by addressing social needs such as education and hygiene. If, instead of just decreasing profits until the factories close and send hundreds of thousands of people back to the streets, wouldn't it be cool to push growth in companies that ARE taking care of their employees? What if people quit working in poor conditions because they had opportunities to work in better ones? Second hand is cool and you can save a lot of money, but what if you could spend more and provide education for a Bangladeshi employee's child? There's a lot more to it than this, of course, but it's worth looking in to. Check out Transfair and the numerous other fair trade collectives and organizations. There's a lot out there.

15 Comments

Kyle Hendy

1

Kyle Hendy commented…

This is a great article, and it raises many good points and gets us thinking about how our spending habits affect people on the other side of the world. But it's important to think carefully though all the repercussions of pulling out of the market and purchasing only second hand. We can think it would be a good thing if these factories that mistreat people in Bangladesh or India were to close, but is that actually the case? I agree that we have to do something to address the issues of abuse and poor conditions, but for many of these people, even making a dollar a day or less, this job might be a life-line. This might be all they have. There simply ARE no other jobs available, so it's a dollar a day or starve. Rather than spending that money at a second hand, (though i'm sure it is run by a really great charity), I would suggest looking into purchasing from the growing number of fair trade clothing companies that have set up shop in the same 3rd world neighborhoods as the big box store factories, employing people from the same demographic, but paying them fairly and going above and beyond by addressing social needs such as education and hygiene. If, instead of just decreasing profits until the factories close and send hundreds of thousands of people back to the streets, wouldn't it be cool to push growth in companies that ARE taking care of their employees? What if people quit working in poor conditions because they had opportunities to work in better ones? Second hand is cool and you can save a lot of money, but what if you could spend more and provide education for a Bangladeshi employee's child? There's a lot more to it than this, of course, but it's worth looking in to. Check out Transfair and the numerous other fair trade collectives and organizations. There's a lot out there.

J J

19

J J commented…

There are numerous problems with this article.

1. Foxconn China suicides. The suicide rates at Foxconn are LOWER than the national average in China. Take a look on Vimeo and you will find interviews with workers. These workers consistently state that almost all of the suicides were due to failed romances. This isn't a clothing issue, this is a Chinese cultural issue and refraining from buying products there has no impact on the deeper rooted cultural issues.

2. Pulling out of 'fast...' is not going to impact much at all. Those factory workers will then still be looking for work when it really was just their corrupt boss who skimped on resources for the building. Those people will then have a chance to starve or work. You don't address this, which is unfortunate.

3. Buying second hand is not practical. Unless you live in a city littered with great thrift stores, it's just not feasible. I bought 10 black shirts years ago from Target that were... Made in Bangladesh. The last one finally wore out. If I had to go to a thrift store every time I needed one of those black shirts, I would have spent far more time and money on gas to find shirts that were not even of the same quality.

Often Fair Trade labels feel like it is just Westerners trying to buy things to feel better about themselves rather than actually having an impact. The solution is always 'out there' and 'people should make changes' but who is out there actually doing something about it? Not many

Bede Laracy

2

Bede Laracy commented…

This is a good topic to develop, and it is a multi-layered problem. I agree that Christians ought to be thinking about their neighbour when making purchases.
My issue with the particular argument in this article is that the clothing itself is either ethically produced or it isn't. If it isn't ethically produced, then it makes little difference whether you are the original purchaser or purchasing second hand.
The consideration of the manufacturing process and people involved needs to occur at the original purchase. Only when people themselves on mass are prepared to pay for good quality ethically produced goods will any industry approaches start to change.
We can't expect the producers to change - we have to be the change.

Nina Starusev

1

Nina Starusev commented…

you can buy second hands stuff here:

www.goods4all.com

Joseph Dear

26

Joseph Dear commented…

Many of the problems go much deeper than just whether we buy the clothing or now.

Heartless or not, it's still true that people take the jobs in factories because it still better than the alternative. That's why in China, for example, they have to pass and enforce strict laws to keep people OUT of cities where the factory jobs are.

In these countries, laws to protect consumers are inadequate, the governments are corrupt, and the bulk of people are woefully poor. Not buying clothes made there isn't going to change that. That isn't to say we shouldn't support fair trade, buy from companies that treat their workers better when applicable, write letters and all that. But there is more to all of this than just buy or not. Until the people in those countries are in a position to where working in those sweatshops aren't the best they can ever hope for in life, this blight on the world will remain.

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