The Bay Area has always been a center for counter-culture movements, thriving art scenes and thrifting. A study conducted by Joybird that considered the number of thrift stores and flea markets per capita found that the Bay Area ranked #6 in best thrift scenes in the United States.
For me, thrifting has been something that I do because I discovered that I can find really unique pieces of clothing for a fraction of the cost of clothes in retail stores. And while I had previously thought that thrifting is uncommon, the reality is that shopping second hand is becoming extremely popular.
Thrifting, which is the process of shopping at thrift, second-hand and vintage shops, has found its place in the mainstream in recent years. According to research and data collected by thredUP, an online second-hand store, 56 million women purchased from thrift stores in 2018, and numbers have only been rising. The second-hand apparel market is expected to double in the next three years from $24 billion to $51 billion.
There are several factors that have contributed to this expanding market. Growing attention to better environmentalism and sustainability practices, the affordability of the practice, the popularization of thrifting as a trend on social media and a person’s own desire to be unique are all factors that have played a role in thrifting’s rising popularity. As shoppers become more aware of the impact of fast fashion on the planet and recognize that they can spend less and get the same — or sometimes better — clothes at thrift stores, more people are turning to second-hand shops as their form of shopping.
However, one main focus of thrift stores is something that makes them not only a central form of shopping for many low income families, but for many, a necessity: affordable clothes.
With the increasing number of shoppers at thrift stores, a question is raised: Does thrifting, and thrift culture, hurt families and individuals who need these outlets to survive, especially if the ones shopping can afford to shop at retail stores?
There is also another question that has become increasingly relevant: Is reselling thrifted clothes on online shopping platforms ethical?
These questions stick with me because I can’t help but wonder if my ability to take the time and thrift is hurtful to communities who depend on second-hand stores. To help myself grapple with these questions, I interviewed two students who have similar and contrasting opinions to mine.
According to Lila Gamle, a Sonoma Academy student and shopper passionate about sustainability and avoiding fast fashion, thrifters should proceed with caution when buying from second-hand shops.
“I am in a privileged position where I get to choose where I shop,” she said. “What this means is that I can take into consideration the impact of my purchase on the environment and avoid fast fashion, whereas other people might not be able to afford to NOT shop fast fashion.”
Gamle argued that thrift shopping is, in itself, a process that she wishes more people did. She believes that moral thrifting — taking into account that there are those who need thrift shops in order to purchase clothes — is the right way to thrift.
“It’s important to never abuse thrift stores and the services they provide,” she said. “Buying out all the clothes just to resell is a problem; buying clothes because you want to shop ethically is not.”
However, because thrift stores have noticed the rising number of shoppers, they’ve begun raising their prices, making it harder for the people whom these stores were made for to actually afford them. Goodwill, a major thrift store chain, has been shifting their target demographics to more affluent, hip, teenagers and has even begun setting up boutiques in large cities in an attempt to draw in higher paying customers.
Does this mean that thrift stores will become inaccessible for lower income families?
Stella Fong, a student at Bellevue High School, argues that the idea that thrift stores could become inaccessible is misleading. She argues that it is irresponsible to blame teenagers and sustainable shoppers for the increase in prices.
“Clothes in thrift stores will never run out,” she said. “Only about one third of clothes in thrift stores worldwide are sold, and the rest are sent to the landfill, so the idea that clothes will run out is wrong.”
Fong believes that corporate greed is to blame for the raise in prices, and that there are many positives to thrifting.
“The popularity of thrifting is being raised because of high demand,” she said. “And think about it. As thrifting becomes more normalized, it will no longer be seen as embarrassing.”
“Teens think it’s cool, which means that people who rely on thrifting, which for a long time has been looked down upon socially, will no longer feel embarrassed,” she added. “At the end of the day, thrifting is more ethical and sustainable than fast fashion because the clothes aren’t being sent to the landfill.”
Fong argued that while teens are being blamed for the increase in thrifting, there is no moral consumption of goods in our world. She and Gamle agreed on this: there is no such thing as ethical consumerism under capitalism. I have to agree as well.
The two also agreed that people should get into thrifting as long as they are doing it for the right reasons. If people only thrift because they want to exploit affordable clothes as a way to scam people online with reselling, they ruin thrifting for everyone. However, if people thrift for sustainability and affordability reasons and are cautious not to take advantage of the resources people need to survive, then that is justified reasoning for thrifting.
There have been many concerns about the rise of thrifting and thrift culture, with the main two being taking resources away from lower income individuals, and the other being the romanticization of poverty, commonly known as “poverty porn.” Poverty porn, or the romanticization of a poverty aesthetic, has been increasingly intertwined with teenage pop culture as a way to be less basic and more quirky. I personally have seen a rise of teenagers who use thrifting as a way to differentiate themselves from the typical idea of what teenagers look like. I would be lying if I said I don’t feel cool thrifting. I feel cool because I know that I am not supporting big corporations, but rather I am supporting small businesses. The reasons people thrift are endless, but the intentions should not be to romanticize poverty. That’s not cool.
By and large, thrifting culture has reshaped the way that consumers purchase their clothes. What was once seen as an embarrassing activity has become normalized. In the Bay Area, thrifting is widely accepted, and even preferred by younger generations. For me, thrifting is my preferred form of shopping because of the cost and because of the style of clothes. By shopping with the acknowledgement that there are individuals who rely on thrift stores to survive, I see thrifting as the better alternative to buying new, fast fashion items.
Contact Andy Diaz at adiaz21 ‘at’ csus.org.