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The Debate on Thrifting

Natalie Peña

August 28th, 2020


Open up Depop, and you’ll find thousands of sellers with shops filled with second-hand clothes. While a lot of the clothes are from the sellers’ own closets, items they don’t use or want anymore, an increasingly large amount of the shops have been branding themselves as selling thrifting clothes. In fact, if you search up the word thrifted in the app, a staggering 182,983 results appear within seconds, a trend that has fallen under scrutiny as it booms in popularity.

Just like Depop itself, which was founded in 2011, the popularity of thrifting is fairly new. Decades back, thrifting was utilized by lower-income people to acquire necessary clothes: shorts for the summer, warm socks for the winter, and formal pieces for events such as job interviews or other occasions. All these items and more can be found for significantly reduced prices in thrift stores, which originally sprung up in the late 19thcentury as a response to the uptake in discarded clothing, the result of urban populations growing and living spaces shrinking.

But as a Time article points out, doing so was riddled with stigma. Thrift shops were seen as dirty, and being caught in second-hand clothes was seen as something to be embarrassed of. As centuries passed, the stigma remained until recently, when thrifting began to be seen as a trend, particularly among members of Generation Z. Part of the appeal to GenZers is how sustainable it is; in a time where the average consumer throws out 70 pounds of clothing per year, thrift shops provide an opportunity to recycle and reuse clothing. GenZers also praise that thrifting combats fast fashion – choosing to spend money at a thrift store divests money from bigger stores that engage in production tactics harmful to the environment.

However, as conversations on fast fashion and ethical consumption continue, mainly focusing on big brands that mass produce like SheIn, Zaful, and Nike, thrift shops have not managed to avoid any scrutiny. Many people have pointed out that thrift stores have begun to raise their prices in response to their rising popularity, thus making it more economically challenging for the lower-income families that still so heavily rely on thrift stores to get necessary items. Some have referred to this as gentrification, as they are changing the prices of thrift stores through the influx of their affluent business.

Others have begun criticizing people’s reselling habits.

Take the thrifting shops on Depop, for instance. Sellers go thrifting and buy pieces they think will be popular on the app, only to sell them with extreme markups. Some Depop sellers even have TikTok accounts and make videos on their thrifting finds, showing low-waisted jeans and cropped tees bought for a couple of dollars, only to go to their Depop shop to find them being sold for up to ten times the original price. Criticism can be found in TikTok comment sections, Reddit threads, and Instagram info slides, with a lot of people referring to the practice as stealing from the poor, arguing that these sellers are being money-hungry by making a dime off of thrifted clothes at the expense of the people who rely on thrifting in the first place. A lot of the outrage is especially over the reselling of children’s pajama tops and t-shirts, labeled as “baby tees” on Depop and being sold for forty, even sixty dollars, when the children’s sections at thrift stores are rare enough as it is.

However, supporters of thrifting argue that thrifting does more harm than good. Some argue that the mission statement of big organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army isn’t limited to selling clothes. In fact, they use the sales from their clothes to fund the services they provide, such as HIV testing, employment placement services, job training, and other community-based programs. They also point out that, at the end of the day, thrift stores are still businesses that rely on the money generated by their customers -- the stores are still benefiting from whoever buys clothes. And besides, is there even such a thing as true ethical consumption under capitalism?

At the end of the day, critics of re-selling thrifted clothes only ask one thing: when you go thrifting, be mindful of the space you’re taking and your intention behind purchasing these items. While it may be near impossible to reach true ethical consumption, some practices are better than others.

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