Rule 6: Ask yourself if it “sparks joy”. This quote from Marie Kondo is prevalent amid the mass-production era, yet not many of us ended up a practising minimalist. Decluttering comes hand-in-hand with being a hoarder. Getting rid of clothes only becomes a mere excuse to buy more, whether it’s because a certain style is no longer relevant, or we grew out of our old preferences in fashion. It’s a never-ending cycle: we buy and declutter just to buy more and declutter again later. Who can relate? I sure can and I’m not alone on this boat.
Overconsumption is a huge problem, especially with assembly-line production and fast fashion. Getting new clothes is only one click away and can arrive at your doorstep in less than 24 hours—just in time for you to slip into them and not be a trend laggard. More often than not, the discussion on fashion waste gets brushed off as a “first-world problem”, and there are more important things to be discussed. In fact, its impact on not just the environment but also our socioeconomic is far beyond belief. In Malaysia itself, 608,000kg of textile waste was collected from four states in Malaysia within 22 months, reported Kloth Circularity in 2020.
That’s approximately 3.6 million pieces of clothing.
There’s a temporary solution to the problem: donating and thrifting. It’s a circular economy and a cradle-to-cradle solution—in fact, there’s a new thrift store opening nearly every other week. At first glance, it sounds like a brilliant idea. Thrifting is an environmentally friendly option, and donating prolongs the life cycle of garments. Is it a one-size-fits-all, however? Not so much. What comes with it is also a cheaper price tag that encourages people to buy more. “One person’s trash is one person’s treasure”, except it’s not always the case.
It’s like KonMari all over again—thrifting and donating became yet another new excuse to buy more. The Observatory of Economic Complexity revealed that Malaysia is the seventh largest importer and 20th in exporting used clothing globally. To top the news, SAVOO, a shopping and fundraising website, revealed that Zara—a prime example of fast fashion—is ironically the most popular brand in the current second-hand market. It’s a staggering yet predictable result, leading us to question: Is thrifting really the solution
to waste in fashion?
I THRIFTED THIS!
The shift in consumer behaviour towards fashion has changed drastically over time, wavering between fast fashion and sustainable choices. Buying secondhand fashion is a familiar concept to most Malaysian shoppers, we love bundle shops—a localised counterpart to flea markets and the Salvation Army—way before thrift shopping was gentrified in the fashion scene. At a time, bundle shopping accommodated
those who mainly needed an affordable alternative to basic clothing. Now, it caters to people who are looking for retro aesthetics and the satisfaction of scoring a one-of-a-kind piece amidst the bulk production and counterfeit market. Thrifted, vintage, and upcycled pieces became some of the biggest flexes around. Compared to buying a luxury piece, it has more individuality and personality—and it’s different.
@mikhailhanafi based on a true story, never stepping foot in taman p ever again #queertok #tiktokmalaysia ♬ HAHA – Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul
Gentrification—not only in secondhand buying habits but also neighbourhoods, is a huge contributor. “Reviving” an old neighbourhood is an inevitable rite of passage in every developing city. To appeal to younger consumers, coffee shops and curated thrift stores are just some of the businesses that tend to take over their old predecessors. Like Hackney in London, Downtown Brooklyn in New York City, and Taman Paramount in Petaling Jaya, a satellite town in Selangor—a spot where fashion-savvy Gen-Z hangs out and parade the streets with their recent thrift finds. They neighbourhood has become so synonymous with them that “Taman Paramount kids”—mostly videos of how people feel out of place wearing regular clothes in the neighbourhood—gained a startling total of 26.5 million views on TikTok. The fear of missing out is real.
Micro-trends move faster than we can even grasp, and it is unintentionally sparking a growing interest in thrift shopping. Cheaper clothes, despite being used, become a catalyst in promoting the “throwaway culture”. In some ways, it’s similar to buying fast fashion pieces just to dress to the trend, minus the green guilt. Instead of an environmentally conscious solution, thrifting has become an affordable option to stay on par with micro-trends. Thrift hauls, purchasing massive amounts of used clothing along with thrift flipping; altering thrift finds for personal use or reselling, are some of the content that snuggles under the “sustainable shopping” umbrella. While thrift shopping started with good intentions, it has now devolved into a movement that goes against its initial goals. Apart from environmental concerns, i-D also sparked a conversation on the relationship between size privilege and thrift flipping back in 2021. Buying oversized thrifted clothes for style’s sake happens at the expense of those who actually struggle to find clothes that fit them—at an affordable price.
While thrifting is not everyone’s cup of tea, donating unwanted clothes has a broader reach. Some of the biggest obstacles in clothing donation have been dreary efforts and the lack of collection stations. The increased awareness of expanding the lifecycle of clothes instead of throwing them straight to the landfill, fortunately, encourages people to take that small step in preserving Mother Nature.
There are consignment stores like Looop and 2nd Street, where clothes can be swapped with monetary rewards and charity clothing banks like Tzu Chi or Red Shield Industries under the Salvation Army. There are also recycling bins around the Klang Valley by KLOTH Cares that have collected more than 4 million kg of donated clothes from August 2018 to December 2022. These green initiatives are undeniably great
efforts and help to cut back on fashion waste, keeping them in the circulating loop.
However—and we hate to break this to our fellow green warriors—most of the donated goods are often deemed ‘unacceptable’ and they too, go to the landfill. As soon as we drop off our donated clothes, we are detached from them. The rose-tinted story we are made to believe is that we are rehoming these garments. Yet, the brutal truth is, this is a for-profit cycle. Clothing donation is more than just a charitable act—its real purpose has always been to make more room for new clothes. The effort and money spent on sorting out, quality grades, and laundering after you conveniently drop them off at the donation bin are more than what you can imagine.
Part of the donations go on the reselling rack; some are downcycled into other goods like rugs or blankets, and the majority are exported overseas, often to Uganda and Ghana. Business Insider unveiled that 7.5 million pounds of used clothes were sent to Ghana’s secondhand market on a weekly basis in 2022. In Ghanian, “Obroni wawu” is a phrase equivalent to secondhand clothing and literally translates
to “dead white men’s clothes”. “Dead White Men’s Clothes” also happens to be a multimedia research project started in 2016 by Liz Ricketts and Branson Skinner, co-founders of the OR Foundation.
White men or not, clothing donation, at this stage, is not charitable. It’s forcibly handing clothes to these nations. The term “waste colonialism” best depicts the situation. We’ve seen enough pictures of clothing landfills to shun fast fashion (or not). The irony is, however, donating and contributing to the second-hand sector creates heaps and heaps of waste that are almost identical to the one created by fast fashion. So again, is donation a quick fix?
Buying secondhand is undoubtedly one way to reduce waste. It’s better than seeing the clothes going straight to the landfill. It’s a way, but it is not the way. The basis of waste management is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Recycling may be the final step, but reducing is the first and most effective step. In fact, the self-validation and self-assurance we have in assuming that buying secondhand is good for the environment is a double-edged sword that unintentionally fuels overconsumption.
The aim of creating a circular loop is to keep the existing clothing articles within. We want fewer pieces to go straight to the bin and even lesser into the loop. Overconsuming ushers us to overproduction, and they are ultimately the root of all problems. So perhaps, instead of asking yourself if something sparks joy, you should ask: Is this a need or a want?