In recent years, the culture around thrifted clothing has changed dramatically. When I was growing up, socially acceptable clothing was dependent on the brand and how much you spent. Imagine you’re back in 2011, living your middle school life, just trying to fit in. If you showed up wearing your freshest thrifted fit, everyone would think, “you’re poor, and now everyone knows”. For a long time, secondhand shopping was looked down on because your clothes were symbolic of your status. Obviously, this is still true today, but the market for secondhand clothing has been turned on its head.
Social media and the internet have revolutionized the second-hand clothing market, creating a new community focused on fashionable thrifting. The popularity of content creators such as iGirl, Emma Chamberlain, and Enya Umanzor has led to a shift in the world of fashion, allowing for inclusivity and appreciation of style rather than status. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Bargain hunting, environmental concerns, and the sharing economy have erased the stigma of used goods at the same time technology has made thrift shopping more accessible, reliable and cool.” With the wealth gap, the disappearing middle class, and the global pandemic, the average person has less money to spend. The fashion industry has always dictated the trends and how much you’ll have to fork over to follow them. Buying secondhand clothing allows individuals to shop freely.
The rise in resale of second-hand clothing has led to a greater conversation regarding how these actions truly impact lower-income communities, raising questions surrounding sustainability, consumerism, and wealth.
With the increasing demand for thrifted clothing, prices increase as well. A thrift store’s consumer base has expanded to people of all incomes, meaning thrift stores do not have to cater to the needs of low-income people to keep business going. This can lead to the displacement of low-income people from the establishments that were made to serve them. Especially in places like New York City, where wealthy people have been going out of their way to shop in impoverished communities simply for the fun of thrifting, leaving the people in said communities with less affordable options.
This may lead you to believe that those who thrift by choice rather than necessity are in the wrong. This is not always true. Though the influx of people in thrift stores has contributed to gentrification, these consumers are not inherently immoral; people have the freedom to choose where they want to shop and how much they want to spend, regardless of income. With the rising popularity of thrifting, not only are more people buying, but more people are donating, too. This allows for faster turnover in thrift stores, and more opportunities to find cool garments. As more people buy secondhand, the market for evil fast fashion conglomerates dwindles allowing for more sustainable consumption. If you buy your clothing at secondhand stores, then donate it back once you’re “not feeling it”, you are not creating or destroying, but recycling. Gentrification as a phenomenon is a byproduct of our economic system. Once it has begun, stopping or reversing the process is seemingly impossible. The rising prices in thrift stores are a result of gentrification, but I would argue that the worst offender lies within the resale market.
Let’s talk about those resellers. You know the ones. They’ll buy tops from the little boy’s section for three bucks a pop, and sell them on Depop as “super cute rare Y2K baby tees” for $40 to some poor schmuck who doesn’t know they’re getting ripped off. I think it is pretty apparent this is exploitation. No one in this situation benefits except the seller, who takes advantage of the low prices and newfound popularity of secondhand clothing to satisfy a larger aspect of capitalism: the endless pursuit of profit. Thrifting becomes gentrification when people use it as an opportunity to flip an inexpensive piece of clothing for profit, taking it out of the hands of people who rely on that low price and supplying it to a richer audience. This is a process similar to traditional gentrification when investors go into low-income neighborhoods, buying inexpensive properties and flipping them to unwitting rich folk from the suburbs who want to experience an “urban” lifestyle.
The resale market surrounding thrifting is often overlooked, even though it is growing like crazy! ThredUp’s 2020 report predicts that the resale market will overtake traditional thrift stores as soon as 2024, and is projected to be larger than fast fashion by 2029. If this trend of gentrification and exploitation continues in thrifting, it could do great damage to the accessibility and affordability of clothing in the future. The low prices we have today should not be taken for granted. We need to increase the awareness around the gentrification of thrifting and demand transparency in the resale market. There is much to consider when it comes to being a mindful consumer. Knowing the true cost of what you are buying is imperative to avoid a future where the value of secondhand clothing is heavily inflated as a result of gentrification.
Resellers do not respect what is so amazing about buying secondhand, but instead, use the popularity of thrifting as an opportunity for individual gain. Thrifting has grown so immensely because people fall in love with the community, the space for creativity, and the equal opportunity for expression regardless of the cost. Buying secondhand comes with a respect for those who rely on it and a drive for a more sustainable future. Right now there is somewhat of a perfect storm for new developments in fashion, as nonconformist attitudes combine with accessible individual expression, especially in this unstable, unpredictable era. The great Vivienne Westwood once said, “buy less, choose well, make it last.” It may be impossible to avoid the rise in prices due to the increase in demand, but gentrification caused by the resale market may be avoidable to a greater extent if more people take these words to heart.