How thrifting became part of the system that encourages hyper consumption

by | Jan 18, 2021

According to Thred Up, by 2030, the second-hand industry is predicted to replace fast-fashion.

Thrifting is a term that has become part of our everyday language. A few decades, or even a few years ago, this word would be mistaken for a grammatical error. If you aren’t familiar with the term, thrifting, or to thrift, is the practice of going to thrift stores and buying cheap second-hand goods. Thrifting has always been associated with the working class, but recently it has been appropriated by the middle class, which has deemed it the new way of shopping. But how did this change come about, and what consequences does this have on the industry and the people who depend on it?

The practice of buying and selling second-hand goods is an old tradition. However, at the turn of the 20th century, thrift stores, as they exist today, became a vital part of society. Prior to the industrial revolution, clothing was produced on a small scale and largely considered a luxury. Especially with economic strains caused by war and the great depression, many people could not spend money on expensive clothes. Thrift stores popped up around the world throughout the century, operated either by immigrant families or charities, targeting lower-income earners.

In recent years, however, thrift stores have been widely popularised as a result of mass production of new clothes and the environmental impact this has caused. With the advent of mechanisation, fashion became a fast growing industry that was accessible to everyone. But, as a result, this caused overconsumption and waste, which has become an environmental concern. According to the Environment Protection Agency, textile waste has increased by 811% since 1960. Additionally, the aftermath of the Bangladesh factory collapse in 2013 stimulated media attention and outrage about the mistreatment of factory workers, causing more and more people to shift their support away from fast fashion brands and opt for thrifted or slow fashion options instead.

Thrifting has been popularised as a way to find one-of-a-kind items at a low price. Certain stores focus on a ‘curated’ second-hand shopping experience, where high quality second-hand finds are sold. These places often market themselves as ‘vintage stores’ as opposed to thrift stores to deviate from the lower-income association with second-hand shopping.  While most of these places operate as stores or markets, this industry has started to shift online. With online sites such as Yaga and Gumtree, locally, and eBay and Depop, internationally, buying and selling second-hand has become more accessible.

Instagram, too, has become a platform from which to run a second-hand business, thereby democratising this industry. Many people have started their own second-hand clothing stores on Instagram as a way to sell their old clothes and provide an additional stream of revenue. Liza Lombard, founder of Grow Your Own Funk, an Instagram-based second-hand store, states that any small, ethical business would still have “one foot in ‘consumerism and capitalism’ as you have to support your business”.  Capitalism is inherent in our society, and therefore second-hand store owners find themselves having to balance between being sustainable as well as running a business to support themselves and their loved ones. To counter the contradiction, Lombard states that “as a small business, you can’t always be sustainable but you can be transparent”. Letting her consumers know where she can improve is important to her. While the situation is not ideal, there are ways to ensure you are working towards complete sustainability.

This creates a predicament where, instead of promoting sustainability, the second-hand industry has become part of the capitalist system. The rise in interest in second-hand clothes has created a demand, which subsequently, creates a surge in prices. While most second-hand clothes stores run by charities have kept their prices the same, independent vintage and thrift stores have increased their prices. This leaves the question: if and when, will charity stores follow suit, and where would that leave those who depend on them?

And whilst at the face of it, second-hand stores have directed people away from fast-fashion, it has also created an ‘elitist culture’. People who shop solely second-hand have created a culture of shaming those who are forced to shop fast-fashion. That’s What She Said Magazine describes this gentrification as divisive, and that it would lead to a “classist rhetoric whereby something once ‘owned’ by working-class individuals is taken over by the wealthy and more privileged once it becomes desirable or more trendy”. This is evident in the escalating revenue the second-hand industry produces, which is currently at 28 billion dollars, following shortly behind the fast fashion industry with 35 billion dollars (Thred Up).

For many people, buying second-hand is not a choice. But as the industry becomes more gentrified, and clothes more expensive, the second-hand industry is becoming less accessible to the people who depend on it most: lower-income earners. Additionally, sustainability is more than simply avoiding fast fashion. As people buy second-hand clothes in equivalent, or larger, quantities because of the lower prices, second-hand stores have come to replace fast fashion. This, therefore, does not solve the issue of overconsumption, but instead encourages it.

As with many problems that plague our society, there is no perfect solution

As with many problems that plague our society, there is no perfect solution. The second-hand industry is largely beneficial in promoting circular economy and limiting waste and has also stimulated public action towards conscious living and the rejection of the extravagant lifestyle capitalism promotes. But as the industry has grown, the second-hand industry has become a profitable opportunity that has been exploited by many businesses and which may turn away the consumers for which the industry was built.

So, next time you’re about to make a purchase, be it new or second-hand, be sure that it’s an absolute necessity.

  • If you’re hoping to transition to second-hand, and unsure of where to begin, here’s a list of a few charity stores to support.
  • Hospice Charity Store – located across the country selling donated clothes to raise funds to support hospital patients.
  • Help the Rural Child – selling both books and clothes, Help the Rural Child help children living in impoverished conditions. Located in Cape Town only.
  • TEARS – an animal focused charity, based in Cape Town, that cares for animals and helps them find a new home.

Image credit: Hannah Morgan / Unsplash 

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