Thrifting has turned trendy, but what does that mean for the community it originally served?
For trendy upper-middle class college students living in and around New York City, thrift shopping has become a regular weekend activity. Lined up on downtown street corners, it’s evident that, for them, thrifting is a game of sorts: a hunt for designer pieces at bargain prices. Hours later, they triumphantly exit with tote bags filled to the brim with vintage band tees, scuffed high heels, and worn leather jackets to add to their extensive wardrobe. Long associated with the working class, buying cheap, second-hand clothing is now a pastime of the everyday youthful urbanite in pursuit of an individual sense of style, with the money and time to spare to curate it.
Historically, thrift stores were outlets for lower-class individuals who could not afford shopping at name-brand stores, including immigrants and minorities. Owning second-hand clothing wasn’t considered fashionable; in fact, it carried a massive stigma with it, and was considered something to be ashamed of. However, with social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, the entire concept of thrifting has become reinvented. Influencers post massive thrift try-on hauls sporting “Y2K vintage” looks, or vlog their experience digging through racks at their neighborhood Goodwill to find hidden fashion treasures.
In addition to your everyday Goodwills and classic Salvation Army shops, vintage stores have also cropped up in major cities, offering a more curated experience for shoppers. Luxury or otherwise high-quality items are put on display for lower prices than they would normally sell for. New York City is home to many of these popular vintage stores such as L-Train Vintage and Crossroads Trading Co., as well as plenty of chain consignment boutiques like Buffalo Exchange and Beacon’s Closet.
Many have praised the popularization of thrifting for its sustainable nature, as it’s in direct opposition to overconsumption, and deters purchasing from the fast-fashion brands that contribute to excess clothing waste and are infamous for their poor labor conditions. Instead of purchasing massive hauls from Forever 21 and H&M each season, the practice of thrifting inspires a slow, more purposeful kind of art when it comes to shopping for clothing. According to the 2020 Resale Report published by ThredUp and GlobalData, the secondhand apparel industry is expected to be valued at $64 billion by the year 2024, a current projection based on its wild popularity. It’s evident that society’s relationship to thrifting has shifted.
However, as the public’s desire for second-hand goods has skyrocketed, there’s been an unanticipated negative effect: Thrift stores have upped their prices significantly to meet the growing demands. The industry has become gentrified as it begins to service a more elite crowd, detracting from the original purpose of servicing lower-income consumers. It brings back the financial strain that once sent people to these stores in the first place.
Distastefully, those who previously judged and sneered at their lower-income peers for shopping second-hand are now the ones participating in that very practice, though it’s not out of necessity, it’s for playing dress-up.
Once again, something originally owned by the working class (and not to mention highly stigmatized at the time) has been overtaken by the wealthy due to its popularization and it being deemed trendy, all while ignoring the social and political implications of adopting the practice. Vox went so far as to call the current thrift scene “stylistic and economic appropriation.” Disappointing, but certainly not surprising.
Further, Depop and Poshmark sellers that specialize in curating thrifted items have risen in popularity. These sellers, many of whom are teenage girls, will purchase from Goodwill or Salvation Army in bulk, and then resell their “curated finds” on these second-hand resale sites for significantly higher prices. By doing so, they are turning a profit off of clothing that a lower-income individual could have benefited from. This practice has turned many heads and been the source of much angry online discourse. One user, @vnbrkl tweeted: “rich white girls will criticize poor people from buying at shein instead of ethical companies or thrifting and then go to second hand shops themselves to buy all the affordable stuff and sell it on depop for 10x the price so they can call themselves small business owners.”
As this tweet mentions, ironically enough, the popularization of thrifting has flipped a long-term dynamic on its head: Lower-class consumers now turn to fast-fashion websites such as Shein for their clothing, as thrifting is now the less affordable option! The idea of thrifting increasing our sustainability doesn’t hold up entirely when we see millions of people turning towards supporting fast fashion out of necessity. Worst of all, wealthier consumers have adopted a sort of moral high ground when it comes to shopping fast fashion, shading less privileged individuals when they themselves have (perhaps unknowingly) contributed to the uptick in the popularity of these kinds sites and stores.
Placing blame in this sort of predicament is difficult. It’s very easy to jump down the throats of wealthy young people who come from generational wealth and can most certainly afford to shop at more established and expensive name-brand stores, who choose to thrift as an individualistic activity in the name of self-expression. However, we can hold the secondhand clothing corporations equally responsible as the buyers — they are the ones driving up the prices in response to the demand.
An article from Jezebel put it best, stating, “... the psychic burden laid upon shoppers and [second-hand online] sellers to operate ethically under a flawed system can be overwhelming… In the case of thrifting… there is simply no consumption that can be anti-capitalist.”
At the end of the day, it is the larger institutions of the second-hand world, working in response to the high demands of the trendy young shoppers, who are making thrifting inaccessible and unaffordable — the opposite of its intended mission. In tandem with upper-class consumers, the corporations who run second-hand shops have created a complex dynamic within the realm of the fashion world that consumers are now forced to reckon with.
The bottom line is this: We must call attention to the privilege that wealthier individuals are exerting by operating within the second-hand clothing sphere, a niche that was originally designed for those who required it. Lower-class individuals end up cornered, then blamed and villainized for their contribution to the environmentally destructive fast fashion cycle. The damage of this gentrification cannot be understated.
It’s likely that the upper-class NYU students that currently raid the racks of their local Goodwills every weekend may leave those very same aisles desolate in a few years’ time, abandoning the vintage trend and returning to the glamor and prestige of high-end brands. For now, we as consumers can try our best to be conscious about our participation (From where are we buying our clothes, and why? What communities are we affecting?). And, if in the financial position to do so, we can go to actual curated vintage stores with higher prices ranges instead of hoarding valuable pieces from your local Goodwill or Salvation army. Despite the fact that we will never be perfectly ethical shoppers within our capitalist and consumerist landscape, mindfulness and consideration is key when it comes to our clothing purchases.