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Olivia Wilde Gets Candid About Secondhand Shopping and Americans’ “Flimsy” Grasp on the Lifespan of Our Clothes

Emily Farra

This Earth Month, there are ostensibly hundreds of ways you can lessen your footprint and work toward a more sustainable wardrobe. You can choose to only shop with ethically minded designers, for instance, or research a brand’s social impact, or purchase items that benefit environmental causes. Regardless, it really just comes down to making certain choices and thinking a bit harder about the items you’re choosing to buy. If you’re concerned about the billions of unwanted garments being burned or landfilled every second, for instance, you could stop shopping altogether—but how feasible is that?

A more realistic approach would be to focus on buying vintage, secondhand, or upcycled clothes, which makes use of what already exists. That’s what piqued Olivia Wilde’s interest in ThredUp, a site that accepts used clothes to sell on its site. Anything they can’t sell gets responsibly recycled (something a lot of bigger organizations can’t say). “Over the past few years as I learned more about the fashion industry, I was getting depressed about everything we aren’t told when we purchase clothes,” she said on a recent call. “The inability to recycle blended materials, the constant pouring of items into landfills . . . that’s how I found ThredUp. I didn’t know about them before, but I was seeking out companies [that] are trying to combat this problem.”

In addition to selling and buying clothes on ThredUp, Wilde and her Conscious Commerce cofounder Barbara Burchfield collaborated with the site on a 3,000-piece collection of secondhand T-shirts and sweatshirts. After ThredUp gathered the items, the duo came up with colorful designs and “slogans” to screen-print them with. One reads “Thank You for Shopping Secondhand,” a riff on the verbiage you find on plastic bags in bodegas, and others have rainbow-striped “Choose Used” graphics or statistics about fashion’s impact: “It takes 700 gallons of water to produce one new T-shirt”; “32 billion new garments are produced for the U.S. market each year”; et cetera. ThredUp’s website shares another mind-boggling fact: If everyone in the U.S. bought one used item instead of new in 2019, it would save nearly 6 billion pounds of carbon emissions generated by the production of new garments. That’s the equivalent of taking more than half a million cars off the road for a full year.

Olivia Wilde in a ThredUp x Conscious Commerce T-shirt.
Photo: Courtesy of ThredUp

Making that interesting for the consumer is where Wilde and Burchfield come in. “Babs and I have been talking about vintage clothing for quite some time, and how we can deepen a consumer’s relationship with clothes and value them for a longer period of time,” Wilde says. “If we can roll back the thinking on fast fashion and the desire for newness, then we can really make an impact on the enormous problem of landfills. It’s just a basic change in thinking.”

Wilde and Burchfield have deep experience in this space, having worked with H&M on sustainability initiatives and participating in the CFDA’s Lexus Fashion Initiative. But Wilde is also a lifelong vintage fan: “I’ve been buying vintage since I was 11—a big part of my youth was scouring secondhand shops, and I’d get really excited if I found a band T-shirt or a pair of jeans from the ’60s that magically fit,” she says. “Obviously, there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm for vintage in fashion, too—that’s been at the core of the industry for decades, to find value in something that had a life before you. But this is at odds with the general thinking that newness is valuable. So that’s why I was interested in this project—I wanted to be a part of the conversation about valuing items that have been pre-owned.”

Inspiring shoppers to find value in secondhand clothing is one part of the equation, but understanding how to get rid of your own clothes that you aren’t wearing—i.e., the stuff that becomes secondhand to someone else—is another thing entirely. “The phenomenon of Marie Kondo and the idea of clearing out your closet is such a healthy thing, and it’s hopefully encouraging people to think more deeply about the items that bring them joy,” Wilde says. “But I’ve been wondering about what happens to all of these clothes people are getting rid of. After being involved in the humanitarian space for 15 years and learning a lot about the developing world, [I realized] that wherever people think their clothes are going when they donate them to certain organizations isn’t always the case. We dump clothing in a box and think, Oh great, this is going to schoolchildren in the developing world. It’s not always like that—those programs cause a lot of disruption for local programs. That experience definitely informed my knowledge of the environmental space and fast fashion—it’s all connected. [With ThredUp], people have an opportunity to clean out their closets and put it toward something that’s actually productive.”

Barbara Burchfield in a ThredUp x Conscious Commerce T-shirt.
Photo: Courtesy of ThredUp

In addition to her work with humanitarian and activist groups, Wilde was candid about how being in Hollywood—and receiving an influx of gifts and clothing—gave her another perspective on waste. “I was never someone who had a packed closet, but I was certainly introduced to that when I started working in this business,” she says. “Boxes and boxes of clothing would arrive, and it’s not stuff you’ve picked out carefully, it’s stuff people thought you might want, which is so lovely and generous . . . but yes, I was suddenly overwhelmed by stuff,” she continues. “I figured out a system of purging and was responsible about where it all ended up. Of course, I have friends and my sister who get first dibs on everything, but I still wanted to have a personal relationship with where everything was going, whether I’m selling it on ThredUp or the RealReal or donating it to specific organizations, like the Henry Street Settlement in New York. You don’t want to just throw that stuff away.”

Her final pitch for conscious shopping? “We need to be responsible for the next stage of an item’s life,” she says. “It’s something we, as Americans, have a really flimsy grasp on—what happens to things when we’re done with them. It blows my mind how conveniently we ignore the lifespan of an object. We’re just like, I’m done with this, now it’s gone! I want every consumer to commit to a process with their clothing, like, Okay, this thing has come into my life and I’m choosing it because I value it, and I acknowledge that it isn’t just going to disintegrate when I’m done with it.” Pick up one of her new tees on ThredUp.com—and pick up a Clean Out kit, should you feel inspired to follow her lead.

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