If you’ve been to a thrift store, you know the endorphin rush that comes from finding a gem among racks of used clothing.
Though thrift stores have long been stigmatized for their associations with poverty and, frankly, valid concerns about cleanliness, the siren song of finding a vintage Dior piece at Walmart prices has been increasingly difficult for shoppers to resist, making it no surprise that bargain hunters are always hunting through the racks for their next find.
Between vintage resellers, Gen Z and Millennial hipsters, and environmentally conscious fashionistas, thrift stores have turned from something to scoff at to a budget-friendly way to be fashionable while supporting a moral cause.
Sustainability and fighting labor exploitation in the fast fashion industry are often touted as benefits of thrift store shopping. But in the rush to stay on top of trends while still alleviating consumer guilt, hordes of thrift store shoppers seem to have forgotten one tiny detail.
What about the people for whom thrift stores were made in the first place?
Philantrophic Capitalism: The Origins of the Thrift Store
The thrifting trend may be a recent development, but its subject, the thrift store, isn’t.
Thrift stores have been around since 1894, emerging out of the tail end of the Victorian era. While newer thrift stores of the later 20th and 21st century present themselves as if they were charities, early secondhand stores were anything but.
People who opened these shops came into the business with an attitude that treated secondhand selling as a chance for people on the lower end of the income spectrum to better their lives with essentials, and the occasional small luxury (relatively speaking), that they wouldn’t be able to afford had these items been brand new.
It sounds a little cruel to our modern sensibilities. Why not just be a charity if the target audience is living at or below the poverty line? If thrift stores were designed to sell to the poor, aren’t they just exploiting these people?
But for people who lived at the time, charity could sometimes feel demeaning. This isn’t to say all poor people didn’t want help. Even the poor of today are more than happy to get a helping hand. But really, people would rather not be in that situation in the first place. Being a passive receiver, someone who isn’t buying or exchanging favors or gifts in kind is a humiliating experience for some because of the shame attached to being seen as a ‘leech’, a burden to society.
You can say that donators to charities give out of the goodness of their own hearts, but the way people speak about the disenfranchised betrays a position of dominance over the people who have no choice but to receive. Just think about the phrase: “Beggars can’t be choosers.” which tells poor people that they don’t really have a choice in what they can and can’t get because they’re already in the inferior position of receiving.
As weird as this sounds, early thrift stores were able to provide much-needed economic assistance without exposing their clientele to the shame and stigma of being a receiver of charity.
But were these sentiments actually reflective of how other people saw them at the time? We have reason to believe that they did, considering that the taboo around thrifting has existed alongside the creation of the thrift store.
On May 3rd, 1884, the Saturday Evening Post, an American magazine that ran from 1897 – 1963, published a short story titled “The Blue Silk”. Louisa, the story’s young protagonist, wants to accept an invitation to a ball but her father refuses, insisting that he won’t pay for her “ball frippery”. As a last-ditch attempt, she buys a pale blue gown at a “resale shop,” an old name for thrift stores, despite her friends telling her, perhaps with dramatic sighs, that only “second-hand gentility would resort to such means.”
Talk about looking down your nose at someone.
Instead of being proven right in a story that could have as easily been about de-stigmatizing thrift stores, Louisa becomes the subject of public ridicule because the other party attendants recognized the dress which was, to add a cherry on top of the shame cupcake, infected with smallpox that made Louisa lose “along with her social reputation, her fine looks.”
Unlike Louisa though, the young thrift store enthusiasts of today haven’t just stopped taking back alleys to hide their secondhand habits, they’re proudly flaunting their thrifty finds online and even reselling thrifted clothes.
The Rise of the Thrifting Trend
The trend of scouring thrift stores for bargain finds rose to popularity sometime in the late 2010s, following the heels of vintage and retro fashion trends.
Gen Z fashion lovers created Tumblr mood boards, curated Pinterest pins, and raided their parents’ closets for outfits. When that wasn’t enough Gen Z took to the streets in search of a then unknown, at least to them, solution to their fashion woes: thrift stores.
The thrift store’s popularity would continue to skyrocket with the rise of the Instagram influencer. Unlike the celebrities of yesteryear, Instagram influencers could market anything to anyone, even the most obscure trends that only appeal to a small subset of teens and young adults. Among the biggest vintage thrift shoppers of Instagram is @celestialyouth.
With only 445,000 followers, Alex doesn’t seem that big of a deal. That is, until you realize many vintage fashion pins can be traced back to him. Plus, that’s without counting his other business only Instagram account, @shopcelestialyouth, which has another 8,000 followers. Even if you’ve never followed him or heard of his Instagram handle @celestialyouth, you’ve likely seen at least one of his photos if you’re into vintage or retro clothing.
The popularity of his photos likely led the young creator to realize that he could make money off of his Instagram fame. As photos of his outfits became spaced out with Pinterest retro fashion images, Alex started putting clothes in his personal collection and clothes he recently thrifted up for sale on Depop where he currently has 42,000 followers.
Pop over to Depop’s website and you’ll find that they describe themselves as a “fashion marketplace app where the next generation comes to discover unique items.” In short, it’s a thrift store for Gen Z available 24/7 from any device. Only Depop’s clothes are old, it’s roughly 20 million users are largely young Gen Z.
The way the app works allows these users to sell to other users, facilitating the movement of secondhand goods directly to buyers without a physical thrift store involved. Unless that physical thrift store is a seller’s supplier, of course.
Its stable and dedicated user base led to Depop being sold to Etsy for an eye-watering $1.6 Billion. Why wouldn’t their users love it when the app lets them rake in as much as $300,000 a year?
There’s also another factor to the site’s popularity: the coronavirus pandemic.
Teens and young adults looking to make extra money to support themselves and assist their families with day to day expenses have turned to Depop as a means for entrepreneurship.
Chelsea Aves, a college student from Fremont, California shared her thoughts on thrifting with The Verge. When asked about how it all started, Aves said it was originally a “Marie Kondo decluttering binge” that she started out of boredom during the lockdowns. But once the money started coming in and she was able to make purchases independently from her parents, Aves was hooked. The $500 to $1,500 she made a week was able to support her nursing education, community college tuition and books included.
Investors, entrepreneurs, and the rest of the fashion industry are starting to notice that there’s money to be made in modernizing the thrift store.
But as everyone rushes to promote the thrift store as the next big thing in sustainability and a fix-all to the environmental impact of fast fashion, the concerns of those who actually need thrift stores to survive get drowned out.
The Surprisingly Complicated Ethics of Thrift Shops
The growing popularity of thrift stores has led to price gouging among thrift shops who now want a cut of that sweet trend revenue.
Though thrifting used to be the world of the economically disenfranchised, it’s slowly being repurposed to appeal to Gen Z and Millennial teens and young adults on the hunt for their next vintage steal.
Along with repurposing came higher prices. Thrift store companies, particularly the secondhand giant Goodwill, found that trend-chasing youths were more willing to pay to secure a bright pair of 80s Versace pants.
Goodwill Industries makes almost a third of all the revenue in the secondhand market in the United States. The company is registered as a non-profit so the changes in its pricing can clearly be seen in Goodwill’s reports to the IRS, a requirement that allows their donors to deduct the value of their donated clothing in their taxes.
An article originally published in El Vaquero found that in 2010, all of Goodwill’s clothing was valued at a flat rate of $4.00 for shirts, $6.00 for jeans, and $6.00 for shoes. Fast forward to 2020 and the valuation guide has nearly tripled for all of these categories. Women’s shirts were now $2.00 to $ 12.00, jeans were $4.00 to $21.00, and tennis shoes ran from $4.00 to $9.00.
That isn’t where it ends. Pricing can be higher depending on the style of the garment, which is just neutral-speak for “if it looks nice, it will have a higher price.” Differences were also found between clothes in the men’s and women’s sections of the thrift store.
Somebody tell Macklemore he might need to bring a few extra dollars the next time he stops by at the thrift shop.
This phenomenon is part of what is usually called gentrification. Gentrification originally referred to changes in poor urban areas that priced locals out of basic goods and services as well as local real estate properties. In the thrift store sense, it refers to the competing audience of teens and young adults who are often middle class and up and thus able to pay more, driving thrift stores to raise their prices to make bigger profits off of this new group of thrift store shoppers.
Gentrification for thrift stores can be both good or bad. Though it obviously makes it harder for the underserved and underprivileged to shop from thrift stores, it also means there’s more business to be made in the industry. Local, smaller thrift stores may stand to make more money and economic opportunities in thrifting may mean more thrift stores that hire employees in the area.
That being said, there’s still some debate as to whether Gen Z and Millennials have ruined thrift stores for poor people. Before somebody gets mad about how this is another article blaming young people for the ills of the world, I’ll come clean with you.
If there is a problem, I’m part of it. The only reason age is even discussed here is because it’s mostly us who are driving the growth of the secondhand market. Thrift stores still carry much of the same stigma it did in years past for older shoppers.
But the risk of doing harm where it shouldn’t be done makes it worth considering how we can be more mindful about how we shop. At least, to the best of our ability.
How Can We Be Better Thrifters?
Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, thrift hauls aren’t as ethical as we’d like to believe they are. It’s still the same love of overconsumption at play, except with secondhand clothing rather than fresh threads from fast fashion stores like H&M and Zara.
Though thrifting supports the charities that run thrift stores, we still have to stay aware of our own motives for thrifting. Do we actually need this not-so-new blazer or is it better off going home with someone who’s looking for a decent set of business attire for their first job interview in months?
Often, thrift hauls aren’t even about personal need, but are done for the purpose of reselling. That same blazer that was $4 at the thrift store can easily be resold for $50 on Depop, depending on how big of a margin a reseller is hunting for.
But it’s a free market and a free country. At the end of the day, it’s your choice if you want to think about whether your consumption is ethical or not. If not, feel free to take that fur coat to check out.
I’d link you to a list of charities that help keep clothes on people’s backs. But as we’ve seen with charities mentioned in this article, there’s still some ambiguity as to whether that’s the best practice for disposing of used but still good clothes.
So, why not keep your ear to the ground and your eyes peeled for opportunities to help in your local community? By assisting people in need directly, you can be sure that your clothes are going to people who actually need them.