Let's Talk About Thrift Stores
Quick! What do you think of when you hear the word “depop”? For those of us who have been long time followers of Emma Chamberlain and tik tok drama, thrifting, upcycling and images of Lil Huddy are our first thoughts. My journey with activism, in particular sustainable fashion, has forced me to reconsider how I spend my dollars. Sometimes, the most powerful statement one can make is simply using their purse for good. Initially, I assumed that by becoming more knowledgeable about thrifting and the second-hand options available to me, I was doing the entirety of my due diligence and fighting against the perils of fast fashion. I fell deeper into a hole of surface-level activism surrounded by thrifting hauls and styling tips. As the story begins to unfold, both the dad jeans and Y2K fashion are snatched away making two things very apparent. I could no longer hide my performative environmental activism behind tiny sunglasses and more importantly, all that glitters is not gold.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THRIFT STORES AND UPCYCLING/RESELLING?
All three of these terms are often used interchangeably but they are different practices and all involve varying levels of sustainability. Thrift stores are typically donations, accepting gently used clothing and selling them at reduced prices. These stores typically give people who would otherwise not have access to clothing, more purchasing options. The donation of clothing lengthens the time before clothes are forced to go to a landfill. Upcycling involves a seller taking a piece of clothing and then updating it to meet current fashion trends. If this upcycled piece is then sold to a third-party customer, (often for a price lower than retail but higher than a thrift store), the process then becomes known as reselling. Both upcycling and reselling typically come with an element of customization, choice or trend appeal that would not be available in the majority of thrift stores.
Where thrift stores are typically designed to give those who cannot afford brand new clothing more options, upcycling and reselling tend to be more focused on customization and sustainability. All three options are cheaper than purchasing brand new.
HOW HAVE THESE OPTIONS BECOME POPULARIZED?
Short answer: thrift stores have always been popular but to understand why we’ll need to take a blast to the past! Before the industrial revolution, the average person did not have the funds or resources to use and discard clothing frequently. In an interview with Times Magazine, Author of Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies, Jennifer Le Zotte explains that dresses and clothing items could see themselves used for several different purposes before they were eventually thrown away. The industrial revolution and corresponding spike in immigration meant that clothes were viewed as “disposable” for the first time in history. This new cultural standard was not financially accessible for all people but there was a stigma attached to wearing previously owned clothes. In order to end the stigma, second hand stores were re-branded. Instead of being called “junk shops” they became known as “thrift stores”. Thrift stores tend to fall in and out of favor with the public. During times of economic distress like the Great Depression and the economic collapse of 2008, they have seen huge traction. The rebranding of thrift stores has seen itself in the 21st century with online thrift stores like thredUP.
For Generation Z, not only are thrift stores no longer taboo but rather seen as more trendy and fashionable than going to a standard store in the mall. YouTube channels who regularly thrift like Emma Chamberlain, bestdressed, annamariechase and ThreadsObsessed have encouraged viewers to adopt a similar style. Their clothes are purposefully “grungy”, mismatched and oversized in a way that can only be found in thrift stores. Since the clothes are cheaper than the average outfit, these pages will often make changes or customizations to the clothing pieces further emphasizing their uniqueness. This desire to be unique has been driven in part by the reemergence of Y2K and “babydoll” fashion styles where authentic pieces are no longer sold and therefore shoppers who want to recreate these looks are forced to look to thrift stores.
HAVE THRIFT STORES BEEN GENTRIFIED?
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll see one very clear overarching theme - tik tok. In recent weeks, the app has been consumed with asking the question: have thrift stores fallen victim to gentrification? Gentrification occurs when the renovation or rebuilding of homes in traditionally lower class neighbourhoods results in a significant number of middle or higher class people moving into the neighbourhood forcing those who previously lived there to move out because these homes are no longer affordable.
Traditionally, gentrification has been applied to city planning and urbanization but some activists are claiming that thrift stores are experiencing their own version of gentrification. Goodwill and depop shoppers have started to notice a price increase in trendy pieces. Thrift stores also tend to lack a wide range of sizes which means the increased demand has left plus-sized shoppers with less options than ever. Other shoppers have raised concern over the depletion of plus-sized clothing options due to increased demand at thrift stores. Goodwill employees have said that this is in fact not the case. Each year, Goodwill receives thousands of clothing items and if these pieces are not sold within two weeks of hitting the store floor they are typically thrown away. At the end of the day, Goodwill remains a for-profit store. With the amount of waste this practice produces, Goodwill employees believe that the influx of shoppers is beneficial because it helps reduce the amount of clothing that has to be thrown away each day.
With all of these perspectives considered, it is important to highlight that the popularity of thrift stores has put sustainability and sustainable fashion at the forefront of the average person’s mind. Unfortunately, this has also meant limiting the resources available to those who cannot afford to purchase clothes anywhere else. Plus-size fashion is also already severely overpriced and inaccessible for lower and middle income individuals. Thrift shoppers who purchase these pieces put plus-size people in an awkward situation where they already have limited options because of socio-economic conditions. It is also important to acknowledge that it took middle income white women regularly shopping at thrift stores in order for the mainstream media to rebrand it as a trendy pastime, not something only poor people did. This rebranding is enshrined in class, race, and economic inequalities that require a much larger conversation outside the confines of just fashion.
All social activism, irrespective of what form it takes, requires conscious efforts. It is not enough to purchase thrifted clothing items in the name of sustainability - the intent and ethics behind the actions must be present as well. The next time you see those cute pair of sunnies or that oversized sweater take a second glance and consider all the possible stakeholders not those just visible at the surface.