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Jessi Arrington: How Can Thrifting Clothes Help The Environment — And Your Style?

Dec 7, 2018
Originally published on December 7, 2018 7:49 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Circular.

About Jessi Arrington's TED Talk

Fast fashion is wreaking havoc on the environment. That's why Jessi Arrington makes a point of (almost) never buying anything new. She explains how she builds a sustainable wardrobe that looks great.

About Jessi Arrington

Jessi Arrington is a graphic designer and co-founder of WORKSHOP, a Brooklyn-based design firm.

She has given lectures at NYU and taught design at Touro College. She buys almost all of her clothes secondhand.

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On the show today, ideas about growth and consumption, and how we can rethink both to create a more circular system, even when it comes to what we're wearing.


RAZ: Can you describe your style? Like, what might you wear on a typical day?

JESSI ARRINGTON: Well, I don't like to go out the door unless I can look in the mirror and it makes me chuckle just a little bit.

RAZ: This is Jessi Arrington. She's a graphic designer.

ARRINGTON: So, you know, something unexpected. Like, pattern clashing is one thing I like to do. So maybe I'll put a stripe with a plaid or, you know, a floral with a polka dot, or something like that. That's always fun. And then I think that color has a big impact on not only how you're feeling but how people respond to you. So, like, as a way to stand out, it's just really fun to wear really bright colors. I hope that my epitaph one day is, she was not afraid of color. (Laughter).

RAZ: So tell me about your clothes-shopping habits. Like, where do you get your stuff?

ARRINGTON: Well, you know, I like to go to a lot of thrift stores, secondhand stores or clothing resale shops. Those are really the primary places where I find things.

RAZ: So you're not going to, like, fast-fashion stores?

ARRINGTON: No. I mean, I haven't set foot in one of those in a very long time. And really, I'd say about 90 percent of my wardrobe is strictly, you know, in some form or fashion, secondhand - has been worn by somebody else or owned by somebody else before it came to my closet.

RAZ: And Jessi took this idea to the extreme when she went to a week-long TED conference and packed nothing in her suitcase except for seven pairs of underwear. Jessi Arrington picks up her story from the TED stage.


ARRINGTON: Exactly one week's worth of undies is all I put in my suitcase. I was betting that I'd be able to find everything else I could possibly want to wear once I got here to Palm Springs. And since you don't know me as the woman walking around TED in her underwear...


ARRINGTON: ...That means I found a few things. And I'd really love to show you my week's-worth of outfits right now. Does that sound good?


ARRINGTON: So as I do this, I'm also going to tell you a few of the life lessons that, believe it or not, I have picked up in these adventures wearing nothing new. So let's start with Sunday. I call this shiny tiger. You do not have to...

RAZ: Can you describe some of the outfits that you wore? So...


RAZ: ...Let's start with shiny tiger. This was, (laughter)...

ARRINGTON: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...On Sunday. Do you remember what that looked like?

ARRINGTON: Yeah. I think it was, like, a gold sequined skirt. And there was just, like, this tiger-print blouse. If you can pull off tiger stripes with a gold sequin, and then, like, a pop of red, I don't know. It's just fun.


ARRINGTON: Monday. Color is powerful. It is almost physiologically impossible to be in a bad mood when you're wearing bright red pants.


ARRINGTON: I'm wearing red pants, some cowboy boots over the top of the red pants and this smock-like thing that I found in the thrift store. I love when you can find something that's been hand sewn.


ARRINGTON: Tuesday - fitting in is way overrated.

I think maybe it was, like, a big, swing, tent dress that I found. And again, that was one of those pieces that - somebody created something really special. I think it was four different kinds of fabric all patchworked together in this big, swing, tent dress. And then...

RAZ: Wow.

ARRINGTON: I wore sort of, like, a red sash as a bandana kind of thing on my head. And that was the one when I went back and watched the talk recently, I was like, ugh (ph). I wish I still had that one. That is special. I hope somebody good has that one.


RAZ: All right. So after the - after TED ended that week, what'd you do? You gathered up your clothes and - what'd you do with them?

ARRINGTON: Well, actually, I'll tell you a secret. I gathered up my clothes. And I went on a road trip to Austin for South by Southwest. So I actually did get a couple of more wears out of everything. But before I left Austin and flew back to New York, everything got donated to a thrift store there. So maybe I helped migrate a few pieces from the Palm Springs desert to the Austin thrift shops.

RAZ: You know, before this interview, I was just kind of reading a little bit about the fashion industry and clothing. And I kind of knew this, but I didn't realize this. But clothes manufacturing, like, textile dyeing, is the second biggest polluter of clean water in the world. This is after agriculture.

And apparently, a lot of this has to do with just the mass proliferation of fast fashion, like super cheap clothing. Like, you can just go into one of these - we know the stores - and just buy something really cheap, wear it once or twice and then just throw it away. And that's - and lots of people do this.

ARRINGTON: Well - and we're trained to do this. It's almost been told to us that it's our patriotic duty. I remember living in New York after 9/11. It was like, go downtown and shop.

RAZ: Go shop.

ARRINGTON: Go shop. And yeah, OK. I guess I can see that. But I think we need to rethink, you know, not just our consumerism but our economies in general. And how can we base them less on consumption, consumption, consumption and at all cost and - without being thoughtful?

RAZ: Well, we were talking with David Katz about, you know, the similar problem with plastic, which isn't necessarily cleaning up plastic waste, which is a huge problem. Right? But it's that we're just making so much of it every day without realizing that we don't actually need to make so much because there's so much that we could just recycle.

And that seems to be the problem with clothing - that it's made so quickly now. And the supply chains and the production systems are so efficient. And the cost of labor is so low because of how they're manufactured. People in - certainly, in the developed world, can just buy lots of clothes. Apparently, people now buy 60 percent more clothing than they did in the year 2000.

ARRINGTON: Well, we have so much invested in it. Think about how, you know, we've been told that how we look is who we are. And we're constantly having to, you know, stay in line with trends and things like that. Another thing that's great about reusing clothing is that you get to play with those trends. And you get to mix them up. And, you know, there's nothing new under the sun.

RAZ: Yeah.

ARRINGTON: If it's a trend right now, it has happened at some point since the industrial revolution. And you can probably find it out there in a way that it already existed, a way that's more original, a way that tells a bigger, deeper story than buying it off a rack with 50 others.

RAZ: Yeah. You know, I found myself for the last - I don't know - 25 years just wearing a sweatshirt and, like, a headband...

ARRINGTON: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...And sweatpants. And now all of a sudden, it's the coolest thing. All I need is, like, some neon sunglasses. And I just blend right in, you know?

ARRINGTON: (Laughter). You look like one of the really trendy kids now, yeah.

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah.

ARRINGTON: (Laughter) I think a lot of style comes from within. It doesn't have to be new. And it doesn't have to be expensive. And it doesn't have to have damaged the planet or hurt somebody. You know, this fast fashion movement is so new that we're still - I think it's 2011 that it really hit its height. And we're still dealing with what that means. And I think the public is still becoming educated about that. And I have seen pushback from people, from consumers wanting to be more conscious.


ARRINGTON: I think that - maybe not everybody. What if just 50 percent did it? What if 50 percent of us said, we're just going to, you know, work with what's already here? You know, in some ways, maybe the planet and scarcity will force us to that perspective.


RAZ: That's Jessi Arrington. She's a graphic designer. You can see her full talk at


THE KINKS: (Singing) But the world keeps going round. The world keeps going round. You just can't stop it. The world keeps going round.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on building a circular world this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Daryth Gayles. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.