Tina Koeppe grew up thrifting. When she was younger, she would spend weekends going to thrift stores with her mother, hunting for unique trinkets and garments but mostly looking for quality items to fit into her family’s tight budget. Now in her 40s and with a daughter of her own, Koeppe has carried the thriftiness of her youth into adulthood. Most of the furniture and décor in her home came from thrift stores. All of her clothes, except for her socks and underwear, were purchased secondhand.
But lately, “there’s just less and less desirable items,” Koeppe said in an interview. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, she began to notice that her local thrift stores in Lincoln, Nebraska, were filling up with items from Shein, LuLaRoe, Fashion Nova and other fast-fashion brands, whose garments tend to be relatively inexpensive, often adapting designs from small shops and high-end labels.
At the time, she assumed it was because people were cleaning out their closets while stuck at home.
“I’d go into thrift stores thinking I could find a few things for my wardrobe or for my family, and it would just be absolute, you know, garbage on the racks,” Koeppe said. “Like stained fast-fashion clothes that nobody wants.” But even now, she has still been finding fast-fashion items, sometimes with tags still on them, hanging on the racks.
The rise of fast fashion has changed the way younger women shop for clothes, according to Megan McSherry, 25, a sustainable fashion educator. It is “nearly impossible,” she said, to scroll on social media without running into so-called haul videos showing hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars’ worth of garments from Zara or Shein.
“Those hauls just encourage overconsumption,” McSherry said. “And there’s no way that all of those items are going to be constantly worn.”
Because of the rise of thrifting, what isn’t worn ends up getting donated, McSherry said. Although it’s a better option than sending clothes straight to a landfill, she said, thoughtless donating can direct lower-quality items to people who really need them, while also driving up thrift stores’ operating costs.
“If you donate trash to a thrift store, it doesn’t just disappear,” Adam Minter, the author of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,” said in an interview. He added that smaller stores in particular could easily become overwhelmed by incoming garments, making it “much harder to do the business of running a thrift store.”
He said his research had shown that thrift stores have no shortage of donations, especially in recent years. But an increase in donations has led to increased business costs. Stores need more employees and more time to sort through the clothes. Inventory and space issues mean more clothes need to get either sold into the export market for a lower cost or disposed of, which has a financial cost, he said. That means that what does get sold on the store’s floor — which is usually 20% of donations — is priced higher to make up the cost of running the store.
But more choices do not necessarily mean higher quality. Last year, the online consignment store ThredUp received more clothing than any other year since its founding in 2009, with many of those items coming from fast-fashion retailers, the company said. Compared with 2020, there was a 186% increase in the number of items listed from Shein and a 75% increase in pieces from PrettyLittleThing, a ThredUp spokeswoman said in an email.
“There’s all these clothes out there, but it’s just that they may not be as durable as you would like,” Minter said. Because of fast fashion, more than 60% of fabric fibers are now synthetics, derived from fossil fuels.
This is alarming for the generations of women who have been thrifting for decades as a way of filling their closets affordably with garments made of high-quality materials.
“I’d say that the golden age of thrifting is over,” Megan Miller, 65, said in an interview. “The ability to find high-quality, well-made things is definitely on the wane.”
She said the predominance of fast-fashion items in stores where she lives in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, on the banks of the Colorado River, has become hard to ignore. Encountering so many fast-fashion items while browsing frustrated her, she said, because probably “they were made by somebody making pennies on the dollar in terrible conditions” to feed the “rapid turnover of seasons or trends.”
Despite the less desirable options, Miller still ventures out to thrift.
“There is something ingrained in me about not paying outrageous prices for something that I know that I could — if I’m just patient — find at the thrift store for a fraction of the price,” Miller said.
Angela Petraline, 52, owner of Dorothea’s Closet Vintage, an online boutique operated out of Des Moines, Iowa, has been thrifting since the 1980s. “It would take minutes to find something cool,” she said of the old days. “Now I’m lucky to find anything cool at all.”
“You used to be able to find high-quality vintage items: silk, cashmere,” she said. “That’s rarer now.” Petraline said that although she rarely found items in thrift stores for herself anymore, she had begun visiting them to find garments for her teenage son. During summers they went to nearby towns to avoid the cheaply made clothing clogging their local stores.
“But even then, it becomes almost all fast fashion,” she said. “Which is incredibly depressing: You drive 60 miles and you’re like, ‘Well, why did I do this?’”
For Koeppe, the glut of fast fashion recently became more inconvenient. Early this year, she began hunting for work clothes in preparation for her reentry into the workforce. (In May, she received her master’s degree in instructional design and technology.)
She said that even though it was considerably more difficult to find the items that she needed this year than it had been when she last had to look for work clothes, she wasn’t interested in the other affordable options in her area, like Target or Old Navy. Unimpressed by pieces from big-box stores that are made out synthetic fibers and sometimes begin to fray after a couple of washes, she craved the linen, wool and cashmere that she used to find.
“I like my clothes to last, and I understand how clothes are made,” Koeppe said. “I want clothes that will still look good after I’ve worn them multiple times.”
“It shouldn’t be harder to find good stuff,” she added.