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The Tradeoffs of Shopping: Ethics vs. Sustainability

Updated: Jan 14

By Kiera Fetter


When trying to build a wardrobe, consumers often want something versatile and a reflection of their personality. However, actually acquiring the pieces of clothes to craft such a wardrobe is more difficult than one might think. With the rise of fast fashion, thrifting, and reselling, the modern shopper must now think about the tradeoffs between quantity and quality as well as between ethics and sustainability.

The act of thrifting has been on the rise over recent years with many looking to uncover the perfect piece in a field of clothes at an extremely cheap price. In addition, this form of shopping is seen as one of the most sustainable, as consumers are essentially buying quality, secondhand clothing that was most often reused, remade, and donated. However, is thrifting the most ethical choice?


Those who can afford to buy quality clothing are not only contributing to an inefficient market, but they may also be engaging in a subtle act of gentrification. By going to these stores and buying thrifted clothes, this excess demand from higher-income populations leads to fewer products available to low-income people who rely on cheaper clothing. This becomes a much larger issue when reselling comes in. With the rise of platforms such as Depop and Poshmark, thrifters can take their finds and upcharge them on these sites. What would be a few dollars in the store is now exponentially higher and, although still sustainable, it has made buying these previously cheaper clothes inaccessible to those who cannot afford them. As a result, those who are low-income have no other choice but to turn to fast fashion.


Fast fashion refers to the creation and marketing of quickly and cheaply made clothes to keep up with trends, and it is one of the least sustainable and ethical sources for shopping. One of the most popular stores for finding these cheap but low-quality clothes is Shein, where it is possible to buy something marketed as a wedding dress for as low as $12.50. However, sweatshops in the United States operate in a similar fashion to those abroad, forcing workers, often undocumented immigrants, to work 12-hour days while earning only a few cents for the clothing they create, which will end up selling for a few dollars. Over the last 40 years, wages for sweatshops located in Los Angeles have not risen and the workers are being paid around 2 to 3 cents per piece of clothing. Fast fashion companies have dramatically increased prices for previously cheap clothing.


Not only does fast fashion wrestle with ethics, but it has detrimental negative externalities. There are the previously mentioned poor working conditions. In addition, another externality is the effect on the environment. By overproducing clothing that will eventually be sold at an even more discounted price and eventually thrown out to produce more as well as using outdated practices that create a mass of pollution and waste. Furthermore, the cost of creating and shipping only increases the carbon footprint. Although this is cheap and accessible, it is neither ethical nor sustainable.


Thrifting and fast fashion are increasingly becoming more common, but awareness of

these issues needs to catch up. People have been less inclined to shop through fast fashion websites, but in return, the acts of thrifting and up-charging only increase the need among lower-income populations to purchase through fast fashion. By shopping with thrift stores, one has a higher chance of attaining quality, sustainable clothes in bulk, but they may be taking away vital resources from low-income people. Through fast fashion, it is effortless to attain quantity, but they risk giving up the quality of their clothes while encouraging the use of sweatshops and over-production of materials. There are confusing and difficult trade-offs when shopping, but the population should be well-informed about their purchasing habits and where their clothing is coming from in order to guide their future purchasing decisions.

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