The Ethics of Thrifting: Sustainable (Gentrified) Fashion


The Ethics of Thrifting: Sustainable (Gentrified) Fashion

Thrifting has become a popular form of shopping in recent years. As teenagers and young adults have become more environmentally conscious, the search for sustainable clothing has been in the limelight. Therefore, shoppers have been turning to secondhand stores to purchase their clothes. The popularity of thrifting has created some issues, though. “Haulers”, or upper- and middle-class shoppers who purchase immense quantities of thrifted clothes, have contributed to the gentrification of thrift stores. According to Jezebel, thrift store gentrification “describes the phenomenon of affluent shoppers who voluntarily buy merchandise from secondhand clothing stores.” Oftentimes, these haulers resell this clothing at high prices on resell apps such as Depop and Poshmark. The gentrification of thrifting, however, has a longer history than we can imagine—beginning with the origin of secondhand shopping in the United States.

The growth of organizations like Goodwill and Salvation Army across the United States created an association between secondhand clothing and poverty. These organizations opened stores in low-income areas and emphasized the idea of charity so middle-class consumers would donate their old clothes to their stores. Middle-class Americans soon saw themselves as saviors for the lower-income communities to which they donated clothing. Soon, there developed a surplus of clothing in thrift stores. Now, the relationship between poverty and thrift shopping is ingrained in American culture today.

Thrift haul videos on Youtube and TikTok have gained popularity and encouraged many teenagers to participate in thrifting themselves. The popularity of thrifting is in alignment with the cycle of fast fashion in which trends come and go incredibly quickly. Thrifting has become a way for teenagers and young adults to keep up with fast-paced trends without buying into the issues of the fast fashion industry. Some say that thrifting practices have gotten out of hand, with resellers on apps like Depop and Poshmark reselling thrifting items for prices far beyond their thrifted price.

These excessive shoppers and resellers are often the target of criticism. They are blamed for a rise in prices at local thrift stores, as they are buying items in bulk and reselling them for disproportionate prices. This affects the value of these clothes overall. Because of this, thrift store prices are raised and become inaccessible for the low-income areas that they are supposed to serve. Low-income shoppers are also left with fewer, less “trendy” options. Interestingly, there is only some evidence that this is a nationwide trend. There has been a slight increase in Goodwill valuation guides from 2010 to 2020, but this is not an indicator of the actual clothing prices in each store.

As previously mentioned, resellers have done some slightly more unethical practices on reselling apps like Depop and Poshmark. For example, according to Vox, resellers label children’s clothing as vintage crop tops and sell them for overpriced amounts. This is controversial as children’s clothing is largely inaccessible for many families. Children grow quickly and families need to buy new clothes for them often. This money can add up, so buying secondhand children’s clothing can be crucial. However, when resellers and excessive thrifters purchase these clothes, it takes away the accessibility of these clothes from families. 

Resellers argue that they should not be the focus of thrifting criticism. This criticism distracts from other issues in the fashion industry, such as the cycle of fast fashion. Nevertheless, resellers are often well-to-do white teens who contribute to the gentrification of thrifting.

There is a tendency to blame individuals when it comes to ethical issues. Yet, it is important to think about how the concept of thrifting fits into the issues of capitalism overall. Thrift shopping seems like an alternative to fast fashion, but instead, it works in unison with the fashion industry. As more clothes are being produced in the cycle of fast fashion, there is more waste, as it is very unlikely that all the clothes donated to thrift stores will be purchased. Thus, clothes at Goodwill that are not sold within five weeks of donation are shipped to international resale markets and create a surplus of clothes worldwide.

The gentrification of thrifting is a more nuanced issue than presented in the media. Thrift and secondhand clothing stores have historically been linked to poverty. Upper- and middle-class shoppers and haulers have influenced the gentrification of fast fashion. The gentrification of thrifting is not an issue removed from the overall problems of the fashion industry but rather contributes to them.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Goodwill

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