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The fast fashion industry has always been associated with large scale pollution and a host of other issues. Finding alternate means to lengthen the lifecycle of clothes by turning towards sustainable fashion, has become an absolute necessity in current times and this can be achieved with thrifting--a new concept of buying second-hand clothing.

Following incidents like the Rana Plaza garment factory fire in Bangladesh and similar accidents in India, the fast fashion industry has been receiving much flak about its irresponsible safety practices and labour exploitation. [i] For years, environmentalists have been keenly working on the issues of pollution, resource depletion, waste production, carbon footprint, and labour rights in the apparel industry. The shorter garment production cycles coupled with cheap, short-lived materials have created a linear system that is incredibly wasteful. There is no doubt that the fast fashion industry is inherently unsustainable.

What is sustainable fashion?

In light of such negative externalities surrounding the fashion industry, sustainable fashion has emerged as the antidote to harmful fast fashion practices. Kate Fletcher, author and design activist, defines sustainable fashion as "fashion that fosters ecological integrity and social justice". [ii] Though seemingly a straightforward definition, sustainable fashion can include many components such as environment-friendly manufacturing, use of recycled or natural raw materials, zero-waste or plastic-free packaging, circularity (a cradle-to-grave system), fair and transparent supply chain, fair wages and safe working conditions. Sustainable fashion also addresses issues of equity, diversity and inclusivity.

Critical sustainability

Having established the meaning of sustainability, the concept of critical sustainability can guide the way forward. Critical sustainability is a theoretical framework that advocates for an inclusive public movement that actively resists private profit-making interests and privileges ecological integrity. [iii] It is also a form of sociopolitical and socioeconomic engagement deploying caste, class, gender, and race analyses of sustainability. While acknowledging the traditional pillars of sustainability known as the 3P's--planet, people and profit, critical sustainability takes on an equity-based approach wherein sustainability action caters to those who need it the most.

Thrift culture and the youth

In recent years, urban youth have been drawn towards practices that demand systemic changes in society, culture, production, and consumption. Many of them are exploring ways to shop fashion sustainably. One of the easiest ways of indulging in sustainable fashion is through thrifting, i.e, purchasing second-hand apparel. Thrifting skips multiple checkpoints of sustainability as new material need not be brought in, no additional manufacturing takes place, no labour is required to make the clothes, no carbon is used up in transportation, no money is spent on marketing and so on. Thrifting simply extends the life of a preexisting garment and prevents it from ending up in a landfill. It is an excellent way of keeping the garment in the market at the least possible environmental and social cost and a decent financial profit.

The youth, in particular, seem to be fond of thrifting. A reason for this could be lower prices of second-hand apparel as compared to fresh, sustainable fashion clothes. In India, too, the sudden spike in online thrift stores over the last few years is a telling sign of the demand for second-hand fashion. These stores (most of which are Instagram-based and some website-based) sell factory reject pieces, second-hand apparel (mainly imported from East-Asian countries) and even do closet clearances. The products include all manner of clothing such as high-waisted pants, formal shirts, party dresses, lingerie and so on.

There also seems to be a shift in the way second-hand clothing is being perceived. In the Indian culture, second-hand products or hand-me-downs are understood to be need-based as it is generally assumed that anyone with the means would prefer to buy new rather than purchase second-hand clothes. However, this attitude seems to be gradually changing as more and more youngsters proudly showcase their thrifted fashion on their social media pages. Thrifting is now considered to be cool! The thrift store owners have been observing an overwhelming demand with their followers (mostly young college students or early career professionals), setting reminders to be the first on the social media page to snatch up the clothes quickly.

Make thrifting accessible

One of the drawbacks in the Indian scenario of thrift culture is the lack of physical brick-and-mortar stores. Offline physical stores are common in western countries but are practically non-existent in India. This limits access to only those who can use the internet and pay digitally. This reduces the number of people who can engage with this type of sustainable fashion. The lack of formalisation of the 'online thrift store' is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It is a blessing as it allows people to run small businesses without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops. On the other hand, it is also a drawback as it is very easy to fake supply chains and dupe consumers online.


Considering the current state of online thrifting, it is clear that the thrift culture has undoubtedly captivated the interest of the youth. Despite being limited to a small online community in India, thrift culture has maintained a growing presence over the last few years. Only time will tell whether the thrift culture among the youth is a passing trend that will soon blow over or if it is a phenomenon that is here to stay. It is perhaps in the best interest of both people and the environment in the long run if the practice of thrifting continues to flourish as it is one of the most effective ways to shop fashion sustainably.

- Prof. Anup Tripathi, Assistant Professor - Sociology
- Hanshita Rongali, FSP student