Gen Z Turns to Thrift Shops to Help Save the Planet


Owner Lediona Zharko (left) examines her stock in the shop she owns with her cousin Elona Zharko (right). (Photo by Yadira Gonzalez)

By Claire Lehane with additional reporting from Ana Bushi, Rebecca DiSaverio, Yadira Gonzalez and Vesa Zejneli.| February 4, 2022

Photos by Yadira Gonzalez. 

When they were younger, Elona Zharko and Lediona Zharko would come to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to thrift shop. The recent college graduates loved thrifting because it was fun and good for the environment. They noticed that many celebrities and fashion icons were wearing the same types of vintage clothing they were thrifting. “One day we were thrift shopping and we thought, wouldn’t it be so cool if we could have our own vintage shop?” Elona Zharko said. 

The thrift store industry is booming.​​ The United States now has more than “25,000 resale, consignment, and not-for-profit resale stores,” according to NARTS: The Association of Resale Professionals. People started reselling more of their old clothes while stuck at home during the pandemic, expanding the secondhand market. In the next five years, the secondhand market is expected to double, reaching $77 billion, according to a thredUP 2021 resale report.

Currently, “fast fashion” practices are harming Mother Earth. Every year, approximately 85% of the clothing used in the United States is discarded in landfills as solid waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As climate change continues, environment-friendly thrift shopping is regarded as a way to combat the global crisis. 

This is good news for the Zharko cousins, who now own a curated vintage store, Tired Thrift, in Greenpoint. “Secondhand shopping is the most sustainable way to shop,” Lediona Zharko said. Customers who shop at vintage and thrift stores appreciate sustainability, she said. 

Most Tired Thrift customers are 18 to 24. “Gen Z-ers, they always make a conscious effort to be ethical in any way they can,” Lediona Zharko said, “not only for the style but also for the environment.” Their store gained a following the night before it opened, when the cousins posted a video of Tired Thrift on TikTok, which is typical for Generation Z, and it went viral.

Patricia Yague, the Head of Sustainability EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) at Live Nation Entertainment said young adults understand the climate crisis. “The new generations are very knowledgeable,” Yague said. “I mean you have it in front of your eyes.” When compared to older generations, Gen Zers and Millennials are doing more to get involved with the climate issue, including volunteering and attending rallies and protests, according to the Pew Research Center

Miranda Rugova, 26, said she thrifts because she understands that her product consumption has a direct impact on the environment and other people. And she believes environmental sustainability must be viewed with an intersectional focus, because it also impacts the quality of life of those making the clothes. “There is a human cost,” Rugova said, noting the poor working conditions in parts of the fast fashion industry, “so it says a lot about us morally if we support those spaces that are suppressing people.” 

The affordability of fast fashion is one of its attractions, but thrifting provides a greener alternative for a similar price. “Fast fashion is the problem and it is never going to serve us,” she said. Thrifting helps her help the environment and get stylish clothing at the same time.  

“If we are thrifting, we are keeping items from going to landfills,” said Rugova, an ethical vegan and climate change awareness activist – and an avid thrift shopper. She got hooked on thrifting as a student because of its affordability. Buying sustainable clothing brands at retail can be expensive; the production costs of ethical clothes are usually much higher than the production costs of normal retail and fast fashion.

The Zharko cousins pose in front of the sign for their curated vintage store “Tired Thrift.”(Photo by Yadira Gonzalez)

The fast fashion industry has far-reaching effects on the environment. Textile dyeing is the world’s second largest polluter of water. “It takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans,” according to the UN Environment Program. Most of this harmful wastewater comes from fashion brands in countries with less regulation.

“One of the things we don’t talk about is where does the product go when someone doesn’t want it,” said Todd Blumenthal, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, noting that unwanted clothing is burned in landfills. The resulting gases pollute the air, hurting the climate. 

“To make fast fashion garments, companies outsource to other countries with weaker economies and basically use slave labor to manufacture their clothing,” said fashion designer Isabel Yagerman. She believes fast fashion is the ugliest part of the fashion industry, which is why she tries thrift shops.

“I love to find fun pieces that I can either upcycle or wear as is,” said Yagerman. The 21-year-old FIT student tries to use ethical materials in her designs and makes new pieces from old fabrics she finds at thrift stores. Some of her favorite shops are Beacon’s Closet on West 14th Street, Bedford Vintage in Brooklyn, and Buffalo Exchange in Midtown. She recently collaborated with the store Thrift 2 Death, which holds collaborative thrift events for small designers who upcycle pieces and sell curated vintage clothing. 

“In the times of our mothers and grandmothers, they used to mend their clothes,” said Jennifer Varela Rodriguez, a fashion researcher at a company. “If clothing didn’t fit, they would loosen the hem or alter the waistline.” She said she tries her best to repurpose clothes from thrift stores, but she doesn’t know how to sew, what she calls a “lost skill” that everybody should know. When she thrifts, Rodriguez focuses on buying only items that will last and items that she needs.

“It’s definitely unrealistic to have a hundred percent sustainable closet but at least try. Trying is the best thing you can do,” Lediona Zharko said.