By: Lacie Kunselman
This article is part of the Fall 2021 Magazine Issue Series. Read the full issue here.
Fashion trends are cyclical. They’re designed by the industry to rotate every season, every year. This means trends are introduced constantly and can go out of style just as quickly. But one of the biggest trends in fashion isn’t a particular item, pattern or defined aesthetic; it’s a way to shop: thrifting. And it won’t be going out of style any time soon.
The act of thrifting and buying secondhand clothing is not new or revolutionary. Though digital consignment and resale platforms like Poshmark, Depop and thredUP have made it more accessible, there’s no obvious reason for the sudden rise in the popularity of thrifting. And it is popular. Ask a handful of college students what they like to do for fun, and at least one is bound to say thrifting. Just look at a few of The Current’s staff bios.
Thrift shopping comes with a lot of positives, one of which is sustainability. Goodwill Industries explains that one American throws away 60-80 pounds of clothing each year, much of which is in like-new condition.
Making new clothes uses a lot of resources and produces just as much waste. It takes 400 gallons of water, the amount used to fill a standard hot tub, to produce the cotton for just one shirt. Anytime someone buys an item from a thrift store instead of buying it brand new, they’re saving material, energy and money.
Jose Medellin, director of communications for Goodwill NY/NJ, explained to HuffPost how Goodwill handles products. Accepted donations are put in stores using a colored tag system. Donations are grouped by colored tags each week, sold at a discount during their fourth week in the store, then pulled if they remain unsold.
From there, the items go to a Goodwill Outlet or a Last Chance Goodwill, where they are sold by the pound or at a flat rate by item that decreases every day. The stores are a treasure trove with completely fresh inventory at least every week, if not every day, and exceptionally low prices.
Next, the unsold clothing goes to an auction where it is sold unseen in bins or sent to a textile recycling factory. These factories sell about 45% of clothing to other used clothing companies or foreign markets, cut 30% into rags for industrial use and use 20% as fiber fill for things like insulation and furniture. The other 5% is sent to landfills or incinerated
Another appeal to thrifting is the thrill of the hunt. Unlike traditional retail stores, thrift stores have no control over what products they receive. While that sometimes means the racks are full of worn-out sweatpants and cheesy t-shirts, it also means that treasures and unique pieces are given a second chance to be appreciated.
“I really like how it can be a different experience every time you go,” said Michigan State University student Danielle Carpenter. “Sometimes you can find great basics, and other times you come across more unique things. One of my favorite things I’ve gotten is a pair of embroidered floral ankle boots, but I also love the staples like my Polo Ralph Lauren white button-up.”
Most major thrift stores put out new stock daily as they receive donations, so there is always something new to discover. Inventory updates are dependent on the amount of donations stores receive, but just because a town is small doesn’t necessarily mean they have a bad selection. And, with a little imagination, even dated pieces can be turned into something worth wearing again.
But if thrifting is so great, why did it take so long to become popular? Refinery29 went so far as to say, “For Gen Z, thrifting isn’t just a way to shop—it’s a lifestyle.” And yes, factors like impending environmental doom and student loan debt keeping everyone on a tight budget are definite agents in the rise of thrift. But there’s more to it than that.
A study from AdWeek reports that Millennials seek validation from others regarding their purchases, but Gen Z shoppers are valuing individuality more than any generation before. There’s a sense of pride that comes with wearing something no one else has, going to a thrift store rather than the mall or finding something trendy at a better price than everyone else. Wearing clothes from fast fashion retailers like Target, H&M or Urban Outfitters means that hundreds of thousands of other people are likely wearing the exact same thing. While that safety is appealing to many, others prefer to dig for gems rather than settling for rhinestones.
Medium estimated that 46% of Gen Z shopped second hand in 2019, making them the dominant consumer for the industry. And, as the generation gets older, they’ll have more and more spending power, gaining influence in the economic market. They have the power to truly change the fashion industry with their spending habits. That’s why even as 25 major fashion brands have declared bankruptcy since the start of the pandemic, and most brands saw an average 24% dip in growth, resale stores like thredUP maintained a 20% growth, even during the shelter-in-place order, according to their annual report. Forbes reported that Goodwill retail stores sales reached about $4.9 billion, with a total company profit of $271 million (which also includes money from government and private donations).
However, there’s an important distinction between the resale model and thrifting. And, with the rise of resale raising the prices of thrift stores, it’s brought a whole new angle to the balance between accessibility, opportunity and ethics. Both models (resale and thrifting) handle only secondhand items. Some are used and some are not. Items in both places may come from individual donors or from corporations. Goodwill, for example, is known for its partnership with Target in which Goodwill receives unsold or damaged merchandise. The difference, though, is that resale shops pay for the majority of their inventory, whether directly, by paying sellers for products to resell, or by giving suppliers a portion of the sale. Thrift stores, on the other hand, rely on charitable donations.
While that distinction has some blurred lines and exceptions, it explains the next major distinction between the two types of secondhand stores. Because resale shops are usually paying more for their products, they are more selective about what they sell, providing a more curated experience, which usually comes with higher prices. Thrift stores, on the other hand, have less control over their inventory, meaning the customer is responsible to a degree for the sorting and selection process. While resale brands like thredUP, Plato’s Closet or local vintage stores identify the ‘good’ products and sort them by size, color, item and brand, thrift stores may only sort by product category and leave the rest to the customer.
Many thrift stores, unlike resale places, are fundamentally charitable organizations or nonprofits. Local options can support anything from pet rescues, to women’s shelters and schools. The charitable aspect encourages people to support the stores, but some for-profit stores have used the assumption to make even more money.
Savers and Value Village, which are owned by the same company, are the largest for-profit thrift store. In 2019, the attorney general of Washington state charged them for “generat[ing] more than $1 billion in annual revenue by hiding its for-profit status behind a veneer of charitable goodwill.”
Author and economist Kevin Johnson wrote about the situation for Nonprofit Quarterly, saying, “In short, nonprofits ask their volunteers and paid staff to gather and deliver tons of goods that Value Village/Savers then sorts and sells retail or in bulk to recyclers. Value Village also uses logos of nonprofits with permission, though at times, it has used names without permission and without any payments to named nonprofits.” Johnson adds that the store has effectively screwed nonprofits twice, using them to collect and deliver their products and leading consumers to believe their purchase supports nonprofit organizations when it does not.
Even those organizations that are nonprofits don’t always use their money in the way consumers probably imagine. Goodwill and Salvation Army are the leading nonprofit thrift stores. Goodwill’s highest employee compensation is $486,214 annually, according to Forbes, and likely goes to their CEO. Still, 89% of their revenue was spent on charitable services, from job-training programs and community-based programs.
The Salvation Army, on the other hand, is a little messier. They have a long, dark history of discrimination against LGTBQ+ folk that was most notably highlighted by trans activist and writer Zinnia Jones’ 2013 piece in the HuffPost. The organization members are called “Salvationists” and often operate on conservative religious grounds, resulting in anti-LGBTQ+ behavior from promoting conversion therapy and campaigning against legislation intented to improve LGBTQ+ rights, according to Vox and the HuffPost.
The Salvation Army has since worked to promote their agency’s inclusivity, with the organization’s saying being, “We love and serve everyone.” However, not all its members and leaders reflect that value as individuals. Just like with big businesses, consumers can’t always be blamed for supporting organizations with poor values, but supporting local charity-connected thrift stores is usually a safer, less homophobic bet. Most importantly, consumers should be aware that their money is more likely to fund the operational costs of the business rather than actual charitable services, meaning they can’t rationalize every purchase as contributing to a good cause.
Regardless of where shoppers’ money goes, the most enticing aspect of thrifting is the price. Thrift store prices are miniscule compared to what similar, new items cost in retail stores. Even consignment models like thredUP and Plato’s Closet, where the individual seller gets a (small) portion of the sale, advertise that their products are up to 90% off retail price.
It didn’t take long before savvy consumers who loved to shop realized they could turn their hobby of thrift shopping into a profitable business. The affordability of thrift store items, the factor responsible for their previous stigmatization, was now seen as a positive. An opportunity even. Resellers are some of thrift stores’ most loyal customers, scouring for unique pieces, potential flips or easy money.
It’s not a new concept; resellers have been searching for collectibles and brand name items and selling them on eBay since its inception in 1995. Now there’s just a lot more options, from Facebook Marketplace and Offerup to more fashion-specific platforms like Poshmark and Depop, which take a 10-20% commission of the sale.
And with each platform comes the same question: Is it ethical to buy something at a low price and resell it for a profit?
The answer is shades of grey. The largest criticism of resellers, especially those on Depop, is that items are being extremely overpriced. As second-hand shopping rises in popularity, the prices are following. In a TikTok video, user Andrea (@andrizzlesauce) shows screenshots of items listed on Depop that are sold at exorbitant prices (think $250 for a Nike tennis skirt) or are described as vintage items but actually fast fashion items sold at 400% markups. Her video goes on to describe accounts that have bought or traded from her own page and then sold the items at a higher price, serving to highlight the dysfunction in the trend.
This seems clearly wrong, right? Some argue that it’s only following the traditional retail model. HowStuffWorks reports that most boutiques and department stores price items at 50-80% higher than wholesale value, but some of that markup covers outside costs like insurance, employee wages, rent/property tax, electricity etc. So, even when someone is a full-time Depop seller, it never really justifies such extreme markups, and something being #rare, #vintage or #Y2K isn’t enough to boost a product’s value to the level at which it is often listed. And who said big business markup is okay either? But that’s a conversation for a different article.
Another common argument against this type of reselling by so-called consumers is that it’s clearing out all of the good products at thrift stores. Because the low price makes the clothing accessible to people at any income level, critics argue that people reselling thrifted clothing at a markup are taking away all the nice items from people who actually need them at those prices. But that’s the thing: everyone has a right to buy things that are cheap, regardless of their income. And if thrift stores are only selling 20% of all their donations and exporting 1 billion pounds of used clothing overseas, according to Fashionista.com, then no amount of Depop girls are going to be able to significantly deplete the supply of used clothing. They aren’t clearing out any thrift store; they’re keeping items from going into landfills (even if their pricing is astronomical).
Even though some thrift stores are raising prices in response to the increased demand, that blood is on capitalism’s hands. Capitalism has created a system wherein the consumer will always be at least partially in the wrong. It’s unfair to put the weight of an imbalanced, unjust economic system on people who are simply looking for an affordable way to shop sustainably, or even resellers looking to make a profit off their keen eye for great products and sense for sales.
The only real argument to this claim about depleting the thrift supply comes when considering plus sizes, which are much harder to find in thrift stores. Large sizes became even harder to find when thrifting became especially popular, and a quick YouTube search will reveal thousands of tutorials for flipping larger-sized clothing into something else. And, while the lack of plus-size fashion options is a problem all its own, reselling isn’t at fault. To simplify a very complex problem: many designers don’t make plus-size fashion because they claim they don’t know how, which fashion expert Tim Gunn explained to the Washington Post. When there’s less supply in big retailers and pieces are less trend-based, fewer pieces show up in thrift stores, as described on the thrifting blog Dina’s Days.
Not all reselling is bad, and platforms like Depop allow people to discover a love for upcycling and transforming clothing. MSU student Marta Vait, creator of Instagram and TikTok page @bunniemustard, began upcycling after seeing clothes online she thought she could replicate with old clothes she no longer wore. She sells her items on her Depop @martavait.
“I found that there are so many ways to make really cool pieces out of old clothes and even small scraps instead of throwing them away,” Vait said. “I started bunniemustard because I wanted to share what I make in an organized collection, kind of like a portfolio. While I haven’t done a lot of work that I’ve sold, I always keep my commissions open for any sort of custom clothing work.”
Handcrafted clothing can be very expensive, but using thrifted items for material drastically cuts the cost of creation, and it’s better for the environment. For Vait, both of these factors play a role in why she thrifts. She also enjoys how unique thrifted items are, saying, “I also thrift because sometimes you can find some amazing statement pieces that don’t even need to be altered.”
“I think everyone should thrift no matter your income or status,” Vait said. “The only unethical thing is when people thrift and resell clothes for much more money without any work being done. When custom work is done, of course the value will go up, but when a thrifted skirt for five bucks is bought and resold on Depop for $50, it wrongly takes advantage of the accessibility of thrifting.”
A lot of people were drawn to thrifting for ethical reasons like reducing waste or boycotting unethical retailers, but with the rise of thrifting came a rise of criticism. But rest easy, thrifters; there’s nothing wrong with buying second hand items, or even reselling items at a reasonable price. Thrifting isn’t perfect, and the best way to truly benefit the environment is to buy less altogether, rewear clothing and resist the need for new.
The fashion industry may move fast, but thrifting moves at its own pace, and it’s here to stay.
Lacie Kunselman is a second-year student pursuing a double major in professional writing and public relations. She aspires to one day be managing editor for a magazine or a PR executive at a sustainable fashion or lifestyle brand. Her less-academic pursuits include beach volleyball, macrame and thrift shopping.