(Photo above by Prudence Early via Unsplash)
In my first semester of college, I took an empiricism class with a focus on thrifting. You may be thinking, “What does thrifting have to do with empiricism?” Trust me, I was thinking that too before I went to the first lecture. To my surprise, the professor explained that we would be looking at thrifting from a sociological perspective, treating it as a case study of a specific social practice that people across the world engage in.
Thrifting is the act of buying clothes second hand. Recently popularized by famous YouTube personalities like Emma Chamberlain and bestdressed, it usually conjures to mind an image of a young high school- or college-aged student visiting a traditional thrift store, like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, to find unique pieces of clothing for low prices. But, thrifting can actually be incredibly varied and serve many different types of people.
In the United States second hand shops originated when philanthropic citizens wanted to provide clothing and goods to people who could not afford them. In 1902, Reverend Edgar J. Helms used his congregation to collect used goods from the richer inhabitants of Boston and redistribute them to those in need. This operation later became Goodwill Industries (which has become the Goodwill of today), with brick and mortar stores opening across the country by the middle of the 20th century. At the same time, Salvation Army stores were also opening up around America. Nobody shopped at these stores unless they absolutely needed to because secondhand items were seen as dirty and impure.
Now, though some people of previous generations may still hold onto this stigma of wearing secondhand clothing, thrifting is popular among young people. But with its increasing popularity comes a new problem: when upper-middle class young adults shop in secondhand stores for fun, are they taking away resources that lower-income people actually need? Is it ethical to thrift when you can afford to buy retail?
There are many positive reasons people cite for thrifting — it’s better for the environment, and better for your wallet, most commonly. But many people don’t realize the negative effects it may have as well.
Before it became trendy, thrifting was reserved mostly for people who needed clothing but couldn’t afford to shop anywhere else. Prices were low to serve the community that shopped in these stores. Now, with the influx of young people looking through thrift store aisles for hidden gems, comes price increases. Goodwill stores will sometimes impose a “special price” on designer items, a practice that didn’t exist until recently. Usually, all women’s shirts, for example, are the same price. But now, because there is an increase of wealthy shoppers looking for designer and high-end items, something like a Ralph Lauren shirt will be set aside from the other women’s shirts and marked up.
Additionally, some people are concerned that upper-middle class consumers are taking items away from the shoppers who need them. This is especially true for men’s clothing (women’s clothing can outnumber men’s 3:1 in some cases!), which many famous female internet personalities recommend buying because of their quality, and plus size clothing.
But, thrift stores have much more stock than they need. In fact, about half of donations never make it to the sales floor. This can be due to imperfections that make the items unsellable, and with the sheer volume of donations that these stores receive, they simply cannot place every single thing on the showroom floor. Also, traditional thrift stores will usually replace their selections every four weeks, which leaves about half of the items they originally didn’t discard unsold. So, buying more items might help prevent more things from being recycled or thrown into landfills.
There is clearly no definite answer to whether upper-middle class customers should shop in thrift stores. Do the environmental benefits outweigh the potential harm to the communities these stores serve?
So…would you still thrift?
Hmm…on second thought…
Get in loser, we’re going to Goodwill!