Is this modern practice an eye-opening revelation or social justice foible?
PRO — Carolyn Kuimelis
While it’s hard to imagine in the age of fast fashion and same-day Amazon delivery, there was a time when clothing—among most other items that today we cycle through with reckless abandon—was not viewed as a disposable commodity. Torn dresses were transformed into aprons, and worn aprons were given new life as rags or cushion stuffing.
The Industrial Revolution brought about the mass-production of clothing, which made it far more affordable to buy new clothes, explains Jennifer Le Zotte, author of “From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies.” Soon thereafter, pawn shops and thrift stores alike began to spring up as a way to give old but still usable clothes new homes.
Shopping second hand has always been a necessity for those who can’t afford to buy new clothes. It wasn’t seen as glamorous or mainstream, however, until the early 2010s.
According to an IBISWorld – Industry report, there was an increase in secondhand store openings following the 2008 financial crisis; thrifting became popularized out of necessity. In 2011, online social marketplaces, like Poshmark and Depop, were created for people to buy and sell secondhand clothing like you would on eBay. They were marketed toward fashion-forward youth looking to score the perfect vintage jacket, or make some extra cash by clearing out their closets.
And of course, who could forget Macklemore’s iconic release of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” in 2012, which reflected this newfound normalization of thrifting, not only by middle- and upper-class folks, but celebrities.
As thrifted and vintage looks have become more fashionable and sought-after, a new trend has emerged: buying secondhand clothes from thrift stores like Goodwill and reselling them for higher prices. And like any new phenomenon, the practice has garnered a great deal of criticism—specifically from people who are concerned that thrift shopping is becoming gentrified.
Some of these concerns are valid. For people who grew up being ruthlessly bullied for wearing thrifted clothes, it can’t feel great to see people receiving praise for doing the same thing—and profiting from selling those clothes to others.
However, concerns over scarcity and rising prices due to an increase in demand from resellers are largely unfounded. Thrift store prices are indeed rising, but increased rent prices and inflation are more likely culprits than an increase in demand.
For an increase in demand to affect price, there has to be a limited supply. Housing crises in places like New York and San Francisco are prime examples of this phenomenon. The demand for housing in big cities like these is high, and the supply is low. Thus, you end up with outrageous prices and a lack of affordable housing.
For better or for worse, there is an abundance of secondhand clothing: only around 20% of clothes donated to thrift stores are actually sold. Meaning, resellers would have to buy a ridiculous quantity of thrifted clothing for the prices to be affected.
Some critics express concerns about all of the “good stuff” being cleared out and resold at higher prices, leaving those in need of cheap clothing left with the rejects. This is a valid concern as well—anyone who has gone thrifting knows that trendier pieces are few and far between.
However, a lot of thrift resellers find seemingly unattractive pieces and either stage or alter them in a way that makes them appear trendier. And this additional labor is also the reason why they are justified in raising their prices. It takes time and energy to sort through dozens of racks, clean and stage clothes and promote their businesses.
With that being said, there are a few concerns that are particularly pertinent, and that anyone who resells thrifted items ought to keep in mind.
First, be mindful of where you shop. Lower-income and rural areas do have less to go around. Additionally, certain categories like plus-size clothes, professional clothes, winter jackets and kids clothes are limited and in high demand by people who need them at a low cost.
Overall, thrift flipping need not be criticized so intensely. Pricier online shops that resell thrifted clothes may not be accessible to lower-income shoppers who can’t afford the markups. But they do appeal to middle- and upper-class folks who would otherwise buy new clothes, thus encouraging sustainable consumption habits among previously untapped markets. Further, the high volume of thrifted clothing ensures that people in need of cheap clothes still have access to them.
The concept of thrift-flipping raises valid ethical questions, many of which are indicative of broader social issues. In practice, however, the act of reselling thrifted clothing is a harmless endeavor that offers sustainable shopping alternatives to a larger audience.
CON — Samantha Stahl
The ethics of thrifting clothes and reselling them at higher prices is a nuanced issue that has recently gained notoriety on social media. The attraction of a low-guilt, low-price model of shopping is hard to resist, but so are the profit margins offered by flipping clothes..
However, in a time when the ethics of everything are under scrutiny, thrifting clothes is no exception. How does one reconcile the thrill of the steal with deep-seated classism?
It would seem that the rise of thrifting as a cultural shift would be a good thing for those who thrift out of necessity. Many people are or have been ashamed of buying clothes second-hand instead of purchasing brand new, name-brand items.
However, the stigma of buying secondhand clothing out of necessity cannot be easily washed away by the recent rebranding of thrifting as trendy. There is still a stigma associated with buying secondhand clothing out of necessity that is rooted in classism.
This kind of false destigmatizing calls to mind trends like #vanlife or #goblincore or even the latest Yeezy seasons. The trashy versus classy divide is along income brackets. Almost everything is acceptable if you’re wealthy.
For example, Hunter Biden and John Mulaney’s drug addictions garner public sympathy, while those living on the street for the same problem are given less than none. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college to become billionaires. But if they didn’t have those fortunes, they would be cast aside by society for not having the right education.
The recently pardoned Lil Wayne has had four children with four different women, but even that isn’t as pearl-clutchingly awful as someone without fame having a large family with multiple mothers or fathers. Criminality, tax evasion, college admission fraud—rich people get away with all of these behaviors with a slap on the wrist or no punishment at all, but poorer people would never be able to do the same.
It’s no secret that people with money decide what the trends are. It is problematic, however, when trendiness infringes on actual lifestyles without doing the work to combat negative stereotypes and stigmas.
Another issue, in addition to the class divide, is the marked up prices that resellers post clothes for on online platforms such as Depop or Poshmark. They trawl lesser-trafficked areas for trendy clothes: think argyle sweater vest or “Y2K baby tee.” They then sell the articles for many times what they paid for them, making them inaccessible for many people.
A common argument is that people who thrift in low-income or rural areas might not see articles of clothing that they want in their stores as a result of resellers hitting those places for finds. While a rebuttal to this is that there are still plenty of “good” clothes at the thrift store, what really are “good” clothes?
Of course there will still be wearable clothes, articles without holes and pieces that don’t smell funny. But if wealthier resellers grab the better-looking items, the oversized items and the children’s items, then those who thrift out of necessity may only find clothing that they don’t feel comfortable wearing.
Lastly, the gentrification of thrifted clothing and the areas in which thrift stores can be found is a main point of contention for anti-thrift activists. Neighborhoods like Silverlake in Los Angeles have been heavily gentrified, bringing with them higher-end thrift, boutique and vintage stores.
The cost of leasing spaces in gentrified neighborhoods has forced stores to raise prices when affluent people flock to the area. This price increase leads clothing to be less accessible for those native to the neighborhood.
Fashion should be accessible, ethical and make people feel good. While not all reselling is problematic, it is important to address deeper issues that are represented by the ethics of thrift flipping.