Thoughtful Thrifting (Part 1): Should We Be Worried That Thrifting Is Being Gentrified?

Regardless of whether you are a slow fashion enthusiast or not, you’ve probably noticed that thrifting is on the rise, in a big way. As more and more people have started to thrift and more and more online thrift shops have popped up, a new concern about the ethics of thrifting has arisen: is thrifting being gentrified? And, should this be cause for concern? These questions have been swirling around in our heads for a while now and we wanted to share our thoughts with you. To do that, we need to understand how the thrift movement began.

Whether you are someone who intentionally thrifts to be more eco-conscious and avoid fast fashion, or you thrift because it matches your *aesthetic*, it is undeniable that there is no taboo linked to thrifting – in fact, quite the opposite. But, this wasn’t always the case.

Let’s go back in time for a minute, to before the age of industrialisation and mechanisation that assisted the rise in cheaply and swiftly produced clothing a.k.a. fast fashion. Historically, people bought the clothes they could afford. Since fast fashion wasn’t an option, new clothing was often quite expensive and seen as a luxury and an investment that not everyone could afford. This is where thrifting comes in – which is literally derived from the word “thrifty”, meaning to use your money and resources carefully and not wastefully (how apt?!).

According to the Berkeley Economic Review, secondhand shops started as a waste-disposal mechanism in response to textile waste, in the late 1800s. So, thrift shops – shops that sell secondhand clothes – have their origins in selling clothing to lower-income people that couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. The Berkeley Economic Review goes on to explain that, “Despite hygiene concerns and racial stigmas which discouraged buying second-hand, these resale stores were well established by the 1920s and continued to grow with immigrant populations, whose main business involved peddling, after tailoring.” Thrifting was born out of necessity.

Now that we’ve got a brief picture of the history, let’s go back to the present. With thrifting becoming more and more popular, there has also been a rising concern that thrifting is becoming gentrified. Gentrification is typically discussed in the context of urban spaces, and is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary to be: “a process in which a poor area (as of a city) experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses and which often results in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” But, this same process can be applied to the thrifting world and is understood to be the process of wealthier people co-opting a practice that historically been the domain of lower-income people in a way that negatively affects the lower-income people.

Essentially, there are more and more people that are thrifting out of choice and not necessarily a necessity. There are many reasons why thrifting is on the rise. It is partly due to the growing awareness of the harmful effects of the fast-fashion industry, and a desire to find lower-impact shopping options. And, it is also partly to do with the fact that thrift stores allow us to find unique pieces, which appeals to Gen Z’s view of consumption as an expression of individual identity (which is a trend that a 2018 McKinsey Report noticed).

While having more people being interested in buying second hand clothing is a big win for the slow fashion movement and much better for the planet, the thrift gentrification argument applies mainly to the rise in thrift re-sellers who source garments from charity stores and second hand markets, often very cheaply, and then add a significant mark-up to them before re-selling. There a few reasons that the argument for the gentrification of thrifting has emerged:

  • As the popularity of thrifting increases, this causes a rise in prices in charity stores and markets, which starts to exclude people that thrift out of necessity.
  • The rising popularity of thrifting and thrift reselling means that there are fewer desirable clothing options for lower-income people.
  • The markups that thrift re-sellers add to second-hand clothes means that they are largely inaccessible to people with limited financial means.

These are very important and very real concerns. Being an ethical and thoughtful thrifter is really important, because it allows you to be aware of your privileges. For example, a few unethical practices in the thrift community are thrift flips (buying plus-sized items and altering them so that they are way smaller) and thrifting way beyond your size range, because this depletes the amount of plus-sized clothing in thrift stores, which is already pretty difficult to find (We’ll expand on this more in an article to come!). Basically, regardless of whether you are a thrifter or a thrift re-seller, it is always important to make sure you are aware of your privileges and the effects that those have on other people.

If we are being honest, we used to completely believe all of the above, about thrift gentrification, and were slightly skeptical of thrift re-selling businesses, because we believed that their markups were unethical. But, there are three main reasons why we have changed our mind:

  • Firstly, the reality is that we have FAR too much clothing in this world – so much so that we have a colossal clothing waste problem on our hands. So, an increased demand for thrifted clothing isn’t resulting in a greater scarcity of second-hand clothes in thrift shops or markets. In fact, it has been said that only 20% of clothing donated to thrift stores is actually sold. Also, everyone comes into a thrift store looking for something different, so we can’t be sure that more people thrifting means that there is less of any given item.
  • Secondly, the fact that more people are open to buying second hand, instead of spending their money on fast fashion, should be celebrated! Having online thrift stores and thrift re-sellers does make buying second hand more accessible, because some people don’t live in metros where they have access to charity stores and other people don’t have the time (or don’t want to spend the time) sifting through clothing in charity stores. While we are on the topic of accessibility, having curated thrift stores also makes thrifting more accessible. For example, there are curated thrift stores that cater for plus-sized people only, which is great because there is a huge lack in plus-sized clothing, so this allows plus-sized people to find interesting clothing that suits their style. Essentially there are two different kinds of thrifting experiences and they are not necessarily in competition with each other.
  • Lastly, while some re-sale markups seem extreme, there is also a reason why these markups exist. There is a whole lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating a more curated thrift shop. Re-sellers have to travel to the places they source from, spend time sourcing garments, sort, wash, sometimes alter/mend, and iron clothing. Then, they need to photograph it, manage the sales system, social media, prepare it for shipping and deal with any customer concerns.

Basically, while we fully understand why there is concern about thrifting becoming gentrified, we also think there is a bit more nuance within the conversation. While there are thrift re-sellers who have unethical sourcing practices, there are also many re-sellers that have been mischaracterised in the thrift gentrification conversation, because there are more ethical ways to go about sourcing clothing. Here are a few tips for thrift resellers who want to source more ethically and not contribute to the gentrification of the thrift scene:

  • Be aware of and recognise your privilege.
  • Be aware of the areas that you source from and stay away from low-income neighbourhoods, because if you source extensively from those areas then you may be creating a scarcity issue.
  • Pay a fair price for your sourced items. Never haggle down the price. And, if you think an item is worth a bit more than you are paying for it, then pay a bit extra.
  • Be mindful of in-demand items that you could be depleting the stock of, such as children’s clothing and plus-sized clothing.
  • Be aware of your mark-ups and be transparent about your process, so that the people that buy your garments understand the work that goes on, behind the scenes.

So, that is our hot take on the conversation of thrift gentrification. We love this conclusion that we read in an article by the Berkeley Economic Review: “both store owners and individual consumers must recognize their privilege when participating on the second-hand market in order to ensure that communities in need are being served alongside any strides made towards environmental friendliness.”

It is always important to take note of our privileges and how these may affect others – even when we are thrifting. If anything, we hope that this article reminded you of that. There are ways we can be more ethical thrifters. We are hoping to share an article with you on our reflections on thoughtful and ethical thrifting soon soon, so watch this space.

In the meantime, here are a few places you can learn more about this topic:

With love,

Masego and Stella


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