Growing up, I used to love going to the thrift store with my mom. While she walked around looking at the clothing, vinyl records, and novelty salt and pepper shakers, I played in the toy section. The toy section in my local thrift store was unlike any I had seen before or have seen since. Toys were piled up in towering mounds on the renovated skeleton of a rundown carousel. At its center, the then unmoving pillar was adorned with fading pink and elegant gold accents. The dilapidated ride could have spent its afterlife rusting away in a dump somewhere, but instead it was given another opportunity to bring joy to children. That is the beauty of second-hand shops: giving new life to cast-aside things. Thrift stores themselves have been given new life now too, with the rising popularity of thrifting and all things vintage.
The rise of thrifting is well documented, especially among younger demographics. A recent report from ThredUp shows that 40% of Gen Z shoppers bought second-hand in 2019. The same report also showed that 80% of Gen Z says there’s no stigma in shopping at thrift stores (in fact they reported feeling more shameful about buying fast fashion). From Macklemore to YouTube thrifting hauls, thrifting has been destigmatized by popular culture. What was once considered dirty and cheap is now seen as trendy and eco-friendly. The latter seems an important motivator for Gen Z, a generation characterized by their concern for the environment.
The effects of the rise of thrifting on the environment are overwhelmingly positive. The benefits are two-fold: consumers are preventing unwanted clothes from going to landfill and they are also decreasing the demand for new clothes to be produced. The production of clothing has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Against a backdrop of clothing land-fills, the documentary TrueCost revealed that globally, we now consume 80 billion new pieces a year, which is 400% more than just 20 years ago.
The dramatic increase in consumption is largely attributed to the rise of “fast fashion”. Retailers like H&M and Forever21 have perfected a combination of low costs, low quality, and fast supply chains which allows for them to replicate trends as they appear in real time. These low costs are achieved at the expense of the workers and through creating clothing meant to be quickly discarded. With low quality clothing, low prices, and rapid new releases, is it any wonder that people are buying more and more clothing each year?
While the effects of the rise of thrifting are good for the environment, there are consequences for underprivileged communities. When wealthy teens travel to impoverished neighborhoods to shop from their thrift stores, they put a strain on that community’s resources. For those who cannot afford retail, thrift stores have been an essential source for buying clothes. While getting a pair of dress pants at a thrift store could be a nice addition to an upper class consumer’s wardrobe, for someone else it could spell the difference between looking professional at a crucial job interview or showing up underdressed.
Shoppers also worry that another one of the effects of the rise of thrifting is higher prices. Goodwill uses a Valuation Guide to estimate prices across locations. In 2020, they updated their pricing standards. The 2020 Valuation Guide not only has much higher prices, but the prices are now ranged instead of flat. For example, in the 2010 guide a coat was valued at $8, in the new one it is $7-$40. The range now allows for much higher and less consistent prices. One reason for this inconsistency is the popularity of luxury brands in thrift stores. People often seek out these “hidden gems” and post about them online or resell them. Thrift stores see this and raise the prices, despite getting the inventory for free regardless. This especially hurts lower class consumers who can no longer afford the only high quality clothing that was accessible to them.
For a morally conscious consumer it can feel like there is no right option. While thrifting is unequivocally the best option environmentally, the concerns about accessibility are still important. Overconsumption is a huge problem whether you’re shopping retail or second-hand. Even though people now own more clothes than ever, they still only wear the same few favorites. The Wall Street Journal reports that the average person only wears 20% of their wardrobe regularly.
If overconsumption is a symptom, the real disease is the culture of short-term clothing. People get rid of their clothes as soon as they wear down or go out of style. McKinsely and Company found that people keep their clothes for half as long as they did 15 years ago. When my mom was young, nearly everyone knew how to sew. If a shirt had a hole in it, they fixed it themselves. That mindset is what has changed. If everyone learned to properly care for their clothes, the lifetime of our clothes would increase dramatically. Perhaps even exceeding our own.
Growing up, one of my favorite articles of clothing was a jean jacket my dad got when he was a kid. It’s covered in patches he picked out in elementary school that my grandmother sewed on for him. The patches are adorably mismatched but expertly sewn, each with their own story behind it. The jacket is utterly unique and I got compliments every time I wore it. I like to think that one day one of my kids will wear it too. Hand-me-down clothes have a bad reputation, but I see a lot of beauty in them. The fast-fashion market survives off of this urge for the newest thing, but with the trend of thrifting continuing to rise, I think we’re finally starting to appreciate the old again.
Get new ideamix content delivered straight to your inbox.