Thrifting comes from the word “thrifty” meaning frugal and is the act of “hunting” used clothes often through swapping or shopping at second-hand stores (Lestari et al., 2021). Thrifting has more recently been seen as a solution to environmental issues surrounding the western world’s consumption patterns but is actually promoting overconsumption. Second-hand stores and pawn shops were introduced in the 19th century in hopes to reduce textile waste in urban centers and create more accessible clothing options for those of lower income (Ronobir et al., 2020). At this time there was a rise in the consumption of luxuries including textiles and clothing which continues to this day. This influenced the production of these products and introduced the concept of fast fashion.
The fast fashion industry is made up of fashion brands that mass-produce their products, often in developing countries to exploit cheaper labor and lower production costs. These clothes often lack quality and are created with the intention of following trends and so are not expected to last longer than a season of wear. Through marketing, consumers are encouraged to shop for new clothes for every occasion instead of out of necessity such as changing sizes, climates, or work purposes. Now, people are stimulated through advertisements to follow new trends, and told that they need 3 inexpensive sweaters to go with every outfit over one good quality sweater that would last years. As a result of fast fashion, over 17 million tons of textiles were produced in 2018 compared to 2 million tons 50 years earlier. Unfortunately, many of these pieces are not used for as long as they should, and they find their way into landfills within just a few years, with 11.3 million tons being thrown away in 2018 (Watson, 2021).
The Stigma of Thrifting
Second-hand and thrift stores prevail to this day and promise a more sustainable alternative to fast fashion. However, these establishments began with a racial and hygenic stigma that persisted, despite the industry’s growth well into the 2000s. After surveying children in 2008, the Journal of Educational Studies found that 39% of bullying was related to “not looking like everyone else” which included wearing clothing that was not on trend or looked “old” despite the increase in the resale industry caused by the Great Recession that same year (Ronobir et al., 2020). This stigma only began to turn around in 2012 thanks to the song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore which romanticized the idea of second-hand, and culturally the idea of thrift shopping began to become fetishized (Ronobir et al., 2020).
Amongst older generations, the idea of thrifting still holds that stigma, especially for those who often relied on these stores out of necessity at some point in their lives. The fetishization of the thrifting trend really took off during the COVID-19 pandemic for various reasons. With the pandemic causing an increase in job insecurity many lack the disposable income they once had and so thrifting (especially online) became a cheaper alternative to these shopping addictions/ encouraged consumption (Lestari et al., 2021).
This generation accepted thrifting with open arms as many have become aware of the concept of fast fashion and have opted for more of a slow fashion approach to their consumption. Thrifting has become a way the younger generation sees a solution to reducing their environmental footprint and contributing to anti-capitalist solutions while still being able to develop a sense of self through expression. Unfortunately, this switch “doesn’t challenge our addiction to shopping or the idea that we can have new clothes whenever we want them, […] It enables it.”. Though many see this as a solution to their problem, overconsumption in any sense is inherently problematic, and thrifting might unfortunately also contribute towards enhancing overconsumption.
Environmental Impact of Thrifting Overconsumption
Thrifting has not just had a social impact on the western world but has also had its fair share of adding to existing cycles of environmental problems. Though advertised as an environmental solution with numerous studies outlining the benefits of thrifting such as how it suppresses the demand for textile production. By promoting thrifting, many consumers have simply switched either a portion or the entirety of their consumption habits to second-and which comes with its own issues. This now provides the concept that someone can swap their entire wardrobe every season by donating and buying more clothes creating this detrimental consumption loop.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, thrift stores received a surplus of donations that could not be sold due to the lack of commercial space. Only 10-20% of donated clothes actually find their way to the commercial floor with the rest either being discarded to landfill or shipped to other countries and sold at very cheap prices contributing to emissions produced during shipment (Nguyen, 2021). Very few of these clothes are even considered to be recycled due to the high cost and energy-intensive processes and so these clothes that aren’t wanted in the western world overwhelm markets in countries with more fragile economies.
Socio-economic Impact of Thrifting Overconsumption
Along with the environmental impacts of shipping these discarded clothes across seas, our overconsumption here in the west has now managed to negatively impact the socio-economic status of the countries that we export to. Our discarded clothes are now flooding local markets in these countries and being sold at dramatically reduced rates. As these clothes are being sold again for mere pennies, this resale industry has collapsed the industry of local artisans and clothing makers.
This industry is also having its hand in deteriorating our socio-economic systems. With a historical background of being stigmatized for low-income individuals and families, thrifting is finding a new life for middle and upper class consumers. This new consumer base has incidentally contributed to the gentrification of the industry as these individuals have been recognized for paying more for these products whether or not the value of the product is worth it. This generation largely shares their consumption habits with the world through Instagram posts, TikTok thrift hauls, or Depop resale and thrift-flips. This industry, already worth $28 billion in 2019 is largely changing and catering to this new demographic and is expected to reach $64 billion by 2024. With a lack of income during the pandemic and an increase in downtime, people had more time to search for deals or get creative with their alterations and turned to scavenge for a good deal or pieces of clothing they could alter. This phenomenon of thrifting can be explained by Keesing’s Theory that this is a “cultural change as a process of adaptation to existing situations and conditions” (Lestari et al., 2021).
This change in consumption practices however has resulted in many thrift stores raising their prices essentially further marginalizing the consumer base that relied on these stores the most. Criticism of this gentrified industry is largely attributed to the younger generation and more specifically to those who buy in excess to contribute to their social media and improve their brand as an influencer, those who resell their thrift finds for a major profit on sites like Depop, and thrift-flippers who obtain oversized items to alter which now limits the already limited plus-sized options for those who rely on these shops the most.
The upper class now sees these stores almost as a kind of “playground” and has changed the image of stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Value Village as they strive to cater to a population that is more financially capable of consuming their product. (Ronobir et al., 2020). Because of this change in business model, these stores have opted to introduce new “boutique” stores that offer the same products but at a higher price with a false sense that it is more curated or offers more valuable vintage options. In Toronto, there was a recent addition of two Value Village Boutique stores in the city that have been heavily criticized for their increased prices. This criticism really highlights the socio-economic issues of thrifting and how thrifting as a sustainable fashion alternative is now a privilege for the affluent.
Consumption of anything can easily slip into overconsumption , even something portrayed as sustainable like thrifting. From here it needs to be recognized that engaging and having the choice to use thrifting as a form of personal environmentalism is a privilege and should be done so consciously. All consumption should be a conscious act and so, the next time you are in the thrift store evaluate if that trendy pair of jeans is truly beneficial to your wardrobe.
Some steps towards wardrobe sustainability are going through your current closet and reevaluating what you already have. See if you can think of a new way to style that sweater from 2016 into your current style and learn to mend any clothes that may need some extra TLC.
Lestari, F. A., & Asmarani, R. (2021). Thrifting culture during the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the environment. E3S Web of Conferences, 317, 01006. https://doi.org/10.1051/e3sconf/202131701006
Meilak, N. (2022). Thrifting your way out of fashion’s planetary impact. MaltaToday. https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/national/116555/thrifting_your_way_out_of_fashions_planetary_impact#.Y0WjBi8r1QI
Nguyen, T. (2021, April 26). How thrifting became problematic. Vox. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22396051/thrift-store-hauls-ethics-depop
Ronobir, J. R., Curran, R., Kaushal, A., & Yazdani, R. (2020). The socioeconomic causes and effects of the gentrified thrifting experience. ACROSS THE ACROSS THE SPECTRUM OF SPECTRUM OF SOCIOECONOMICS SOCIOECONOMICS, 48.
Watson, S. K. (2021, April 26). Thrift shopping is an environmental and ethical trap. Popular Science. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://www.popsci.com/story/environment/thrift-second-hand-shopping-sustainable-ethical/
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