An Argument for Consignment Stores


One of the most eye-opening and alarming facts I learned from watching “The True Cost” was about thrift stores. I already knew that some of the clothing that gets donated ends up somewhere other than on the racks, but I had no idea how much. Do you? Well, around 80% of donated clothing ends up going to textile recyclers because thrift stores receive FAR more clothing than they could ever house and sell. And although 55% of that 80% is recycled into industrial materials like insulation and pillow stuffing, 45% is exported to developing countries. The film pointed out that when this influx of clothing arrives – relatively new, sometimes trendy, and definitely affordable – it can cause local clothing makers to lose business. Or be driven out of business entirely. And the sheer amount that shows up is more than most communities can handle, so much of it ends up in landfills.

I will never stop shopping thrift stores. All of my local thrift stores support charities and many provide job training and paid work for people in need. The work they’re doing and the need they fill are both important. But I’m beginning to think that consigning castoffs may be better for the world than donating them. We think of donation as the easy absolution for overconsumption: I don’t want it, but someone else will! And they’ll be able to buy it at a thrift store. But we donate SO MUCH. There’s no way the stores can keep up. So donating may be better than chucking something in the trash can, but it doesn’t guarantee that your used items will find a new life in someone else’s closet.

Consignment stores vet all of the clothes that come through their doors, checking for damage, recent manufacture, and trendiness. They’re doing this to ensure they’ll turn a profit, to ensure that what they’re buying from you will sell. And although a percentage is bound to end up not-selling and getting donated or trashed, the vetting process means that consigning gives your old stuff a better chance of being bought and worn again. Plus, ya know, you make a little money back from the stuff you’re giving up.

My main point is that taking the trouble to consign your culled clothes may be a more sustainable move in the long run, but the secondary points are to buy less in the first place and avoid buying cheap crap that you’ll have no shot at consigning later down the line. Easier said than done, perhaps, but worthy goals to bear in mind.

Image courtesy Rebecca Schley

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9 Responses to “An Argument for Consignment Stores”

  1. Suzanne Carillo

    I shop thrift and consignment 90% of the time.

    Watching the True Cost made me nauseous. As a style blogger I feel culpable encouraging overconsumption, even if it is thrifted.

    When did we go from a society that uses things to one that uses things up?


  2. dragon_clarinet

    I work in a charity thrift store 1 day a week–it almost completely funds our local food pantry. And it’s true–we only keep, at best, 1/8 of what gets donated. But for the most part, this low rate of retention is because we get so many donations of torn, stained, unwashed, covered with pet hair, etc., clothes. Because people cannot bear to send them to the local landfill, we send them on to Goodwill, where again, someone sorts them and probably cannot believe they were ever donated in the first place. I haven’t seen True Cost. But it strikes me that the concept of true cost is rampant throughout our entire culture, no matter the object or the exchange. There’s a true cost to our devices, to our time online, to food transportation, to all transportation–certainly for gold and diamonds….And it also seems to me, that of all things that could end up in a landfill, clothing (and books) are fairly degradable. Yes, there are dyes, and plastics, but not nearly to the degree found in many other categories of the disposed–plastic toys, lawn furniture, outdoor grills, large appliances–the list goes on and on.

    I live as simply as I’m able, more simply than most. But–no brownie points, no laurels await. We’re all in it together. Meanwhile I’m concerned that you might think your way out of your livelihood! If this is what happens, I hope it’s in the best, most progressive sense…..Because I’ve lately rediscovered your blog, and truly appreciate it.

  3. Jennifer

    As someone who thrifts 80-90% of my wardrobe, I say please don’t stop donating to thrift stores, at least your gently used and still in-style items. These are the things that get sold and given new life. I do understand that people are donating things that probably don’t have life left in them–big stains, bleached, majorly faded, big rips or holes, etc. Did that documentary or you Sal have any suggestions for what to do with clothing that is unwearable? I’m not sure about the quality of the regular sizes, but about 80% of the plus-size stuff in my local Goodwill is either unwearable or about 10 years out-of-date. I don’t have much choice anyway — the only thrift store in my town is Goodwill and when they came in, they put the only consignment store out of business.

  4. crtfly

    The items I donate to thrift stores are either brand new or are clean and in good condition. I would not dream of donating damaged, stained, faded clothing to a thrift store.

    In addition to the documentary, “The True Cost”, I would like to recommend the books, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” and

    “Cheap : The High Cost of Discount Culture”.

    As other posters have mentioned, we all need to stop buying so much stuff.

  5. Jessica M.

    I too thrift 80-90% of my wardrobe. As a result, things I’m done with are rarely consignable 🙂 I agree with Jennifer… I wish there was a way to direct threadbare, stained, pilled etc. items directly to textile recycling (er, I know this is lazy, but without spending the money and time to actually mail them somewhere…)…I will often donate them simply because I know “recycling” is one of the steps in the thrift store sorting process, but it’s not a totally satisfactory solution.

  6. janejetson

    I like thrifting but rarely find anything that great. I also used to over-buy because why not when its so cheap? I like shopping consignment shops because the clothing is in excellent condition and usually no more than 2 years old. For what it’s worth, most of my stuff, which looks exactly like the stuff in the shop, has been rejected by the same stores.

    I like Freecycle because the clothes and shoes usually go to people who actually want them. Freecyclers are also helpful and honest. For instance, just today, someone listed used mens jeans in good to poor condition – would be good for someone who works out doors.

    If your clothes are old, stained, ripped or you suspect will be part of the huge percent not sold, donate to a textile recycler. A closed loop recycler will turn them into cleaning rags for instance.

  7. Page H

    I read this today and then was sorting through my son’s baby clothes as he transitions to the next size. He wears almost exclusively hand-me-downs that have been through 3 kiddos (my best friend’s and her sister’s) and hopefully will go to one more. Made me wonder why we don’t do this more with grownup clothes. Time for a clothing swap in the new year! Thank you, Sally for making me think before I buy.

  8. Mia

    I have to admit, reading this made my stomach hurt. I know that donating to thrift stores isn’t a perfect solution, but oof, trying to be a conscientious human being is difficult. I’ve never really shopped consignment–I don’t know that there are any consignment stores in town, even–but next time I’m in the vicinity of one I’ll have to give it a try.