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Thanks to social media, thrift stores may be more fashionable than sustainable

·3 min read

“It’s crazy— there’s actually secret thrift stores that I don’t tell anyone about.” I overheard this a few weeks ago when the issue of sustainable fashion was brought up during a class discussion. While odd, the sentiment is not surprising.

I’ve long suspected that the rapid growth of internet “thrift culture” would generate massive ripple effects on an industry which, for the latter half of the 20th century, remained a financial haven for the working class and those beneath the poverty line.

However, the poor and working classes are largely not responsible for this chapter of American consignment store history. That honor belongs to predominantly white, upper-middle class teenagers and young adults. Consequently, the practice of thrifting has now been hijacked by hipsters, internet scalpers and corporate profiteers at the mercy of this shift in the culture.

Thanks to apps like TikTok and Instagram, ‘vintage’ couture has become just as relevant as the brands typically associated with high fashion. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see someone pairing a Gucci belt with a secondhand pair of jeans, suggesting that both high fashion and thrift couture can coexist peacefully.

It’s a suggestion that stands in stark contrast to attitudes on thrifting over a decade ago. Until the 2010s, public opinion on used clothing was not popular, and almost certainly not included in the mainstream fashion scene.

Times have changed, however. In the shadow of a looming climate crisis and a growing public distrust of the garment industry, the call for sustainability has hit fever pitch in recent years. The result is, predictably, a demand for secondhand clothing. Inflation, rising costs of living, and an ever-widening wealth gap each have their own roles to play in the equation.

Thrifting is now a billion dollar enterprise, clocking in at $14.4 billion a year. That figure is not lost on the bigwigs of the business. Like any industry, rising demand is often met with rising costs— and average thrift store prices have increased almost 15% in the past three years alone.

Considering the influx of consumers flooding the market, it’s easy to cite scarcity, but as only 20% of all clothing donated to consignment shops ends up on the shelves, supply can hardly be used as justification for price gouging.

It would also be hasty to pin it on internet influencers reselling thrifted clothing for higher prices on apps like Depop. While thrift shop scalping is inexcusable, and there is substance to the argument that these influencers are impinging on low income shoppers’ ability to find cheap clothing and co-opting their shopping spaces, it is principally symptomatic of a larger problem.

Since the perception of a limited supply is a myth, companies like Goodwill ought to be held accountable for prioritizing the demands of fashion-forward wealthy shoppers over the low-income communities they’ve long served. While thrift culture’s intrinsic profitability may be a great business opportunity, the price of corporate greed is ultimately paid by shoppers who have little to no alternatives.

A reckoning is also in order for those of us with the propensity to shape the current fashionscape. Thrifting shouldn’t need to be discouraged, but low-income communities cannot afford to have their shopping spaces usurped by opportunistic resellers— those who view thrifting as more of a hobby than a necessity.

Even if resale isn’t the goal, it’s wise to approach thrifting thoughtfully. If thrifting is to be truly sustainable, then it must also be equitable. Should thrift shops become the domain of the wealthy, what space is left for the disadvantaged?

It certainly begs the question: Do you really need those seven pairs of jeans?

Emma Wold is a sociology student at Asbury University in Wilmore.

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