Gentrification in Thrifting

Design by Coral Utnehmer

In the era of fast fashion, shopping second-hand should be the more ethical and sustainable choice, but what happens when it isn’t?

For quite some time, avid thrifters have taken to social media to discuss gentrification in thrifting.  

Thrift store gentrification refers to the phenomenon of affluent shoppers buying second-hand merchandise. Shopping second-hand is not a problem in itself. However, affluent shoppers often purchase excess inventory they found at low prices in thrift stores and resell it on websites such as Depop or Poshmark at substantially higher rates.

According to the Thredup World Resale Report, the second-hand apparel market was worth $28 billion in 2019 and is predicted to reach $64 billion by 2024. Assistant professor Jennifer Le Zotte at UNC Wilmington, argues that the history of thrifting is rooted in classism and bigotry. She also affirms that second-hand buying and selling has never been entirely altruistic.  Le Zotte, in her book “From Goodwill to Grunge, notes that there is an “increasingly intricate relationship between industrial capitalism, social welfare, and mass culture.”  Thrifting made it accessible for low-income groups to support consumerism but at a fraction of the price. Essentially serving as a new way for low-income and impoverished communities to participate in capitalism. 

In the early 1890s, Jewish immigrants, also known as rag dealers, were prominent sellers of used goods. However, due to anti-immigrant and anti-Semitiic prejudice, the public stigmatized the profession, labeling it as unclean and unrespectable. Later in 1897, the Salvation Army created a proposition known as the “salvage brigade.” It provided impoverished men with food and water in exchange for collecting scrap paper. A few years later, the Salvation Army became the prototype for the modern thrift store. Modern thrift stores currently resemble the layout of a traditional department store because of the Salvation Army’s rebrand from “junk dealers” to a “clean business”.

A few years after creating thrift stores, rummage sales soon became popular, a new shopping phenomenon orchestrated by middle-class white women living in the suburbs. No longer was shopping second-hand looked at as something dirty and unrespectable but rather a fun family gathering and a way to bargain shop.

Hence the second definition of gentrification “the process of making someone or something more refined, polite or respectable.” 

Indeed, While thrifting was once heavily stigmatized and ridiculed, we have made considerable strides since those days. Here in 2021, thrifting is more popular than ever, all thanks to influencers and middle-class teens on social media. As Youtuber @Shanspeare states on her YouTube channel, Depop was an app designed to improve the accessibility of thrifted goods globally for low-income folks, and it has turned into “a capitalist dream.” 

This is not the first time we’ve had a conversation regarding the gentrification of thrifting. And it probably will not be the last. 

Who is to blame? 

With modern society promoting GirlBoss culture and “rise and grind” culture, perhaps gentrification was an inevitable stop. The gentrification of thrifting is a prime example of how capitalism sucks and ruins everything. Capitalism facilitates the destruction of basic human necessities. Clothing should be used to express yourself. It’s a necessity that everyone should have access to. Yet, we are witnessing how easy it is for the things we used to become commodified and labeled as luxuries. 

It also illustrates how unstable the fashion industry is, but that is a story for another day.

The sudden shift in popularity has been overwhelming, to say the least. For many, thrifting was looked down upon and almost always included social ridicule. And now that it is deemed “acceptable” and “trendy,” some people have a hard time adjusting to the sudden tone shift. Not to mention, thrifting went from something incredibly taboo to hundreds of videos on various social platforms promoting “thrift hauls.” 

Thrifting is fine and dandy, but overconsumption is not. Unfortunately, thrift hauls, in my eyes at least- are just as bad as fast fashion hauls. Promoting the idea of overconsumption undermines the very purpose of the thrifting moment and calls into question whether or not it is actually ethical. I think we can all agree there is no need to buy more than you will consume or use. Yet, over and over, we see that thrift hauls easily garner tens of thousands of views every day.

And according to Le Zotte, individual consumption habits are on the rise. Social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest, are encouraging people to buy more.

However, while we can blame the age of influencers and affluent shoppers on overconsumption of clothing, Le Zotte argues that we can’t blame them for the increase in thrift store prices. Unfortunately as thrifting grows in popularity,  prices are also increasing, and some fear that the very demographic thrift shops that are meant to serve, aka low-income and marginalized folk, will be priced out. Even still, we can’t blame the rise of thrift store prices on affluent shoppers. The real culprits behind the increasing costs are corporations, i.e., Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village, etc. 

Nevertheless, I am a firm believer in duality. The blame belongs to both corporations that raise prices without justification and overly zealous affluent teens eager to become business owners. The most important thing  to remember is this is a complex issue. Shopping second hand is a great option and when practiced properly, it is an affordable, ethical, and sustainable alternative to buying new clothing. However, if you’re shopping second hand with the intention of reselling or upselling (link) to make a profit, more often than not it’s  wrong and it’s not a sustainable business.

Also  gaslighting people that are sharing their valid concerns about gentrification is not a good look; you probably need to reevaluate your approach. So before you think about playing the victim when low-income folks and other marginalized groups vocalize their concerns with gentrification, I recommend checking your privilege. It’s important to remember that even if you have good intentions, it’s impact that matters most. Marginalized folk are always on the short end of the stick, and it’s our responsibility to recognize how our individual actions can affect others, especially those most vulnerable in our society.

Evoking the argument that you are “a young person trying to start a business” is a copout and lacks accountability. We can hold big corporations like Amazon, Zara, Shein, etc., accountable while also holding resellers accountable. Two wrongs do not make a right, and pushing the blame off on someone else just makes you look more guilty.

All in all, regardless of how you choose to purchase clothing, make sure you limit your consumption. It doesn’t matter if it’s second-hand or it’s brand new overconsumption is a considerable problem, and shopping halls posted by influencers on social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc., are only making it worse. Moreover, be a conscientious shopper. I can respect the “grind,” but remember that thrifting exists to provide low-income communities with opportunities to purchase affordable and fashionable clothing. 

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