Being Thrifty: Is It Too Much?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Issue 5, Volume 111

By Isabel Ching 

Cover Image

I never used to thrift. The thought of already worn clothes touching my skin made me anxious, itchy. I laughed when people told me used clothes were often better than new ones. Why would anybody want a roughed up, old jacket when they could have a new one delivered right to their doorstep? It sounded absurd, but my friends laughed and told me I just had to “get into it.”

I had a consumerist mindset—an outlook that has plagued Americans for generations. This perspective on the market has its roots in the 19th century. From the introduction of the loom during the Industrial Revolution to outsourcing production to cheap labor in third world countries, mass-produced clothing became increasingly affordable for everyone. Gone were the days of resewing dresses or wearing hand-me-down clothing—the large majority of people could now buy mass-produced goods at reasonable prices. Having new clothing became a sign of wealth, a measure of social status. Wearing the latest dress to a party signified power, and fashion became an outlet for the new manufacturing elite. This prevalence of new clothing soon changed. Not everybody could always afford to keep up with the latest fashion trends, especially when recessions and depressions hit. Christian ministries looking to fund their outreach programs seized the untapped economic potential of the secondhand market, and thus, the Salvation Army was born. Thrift stores, including the famed Goodwill established in 1902, began to see huge success during wartime and economic recessions, with peak business occurring during the Great Depression, World War II, and more recently, the Great Recession of 2008.

So what has changed then? Why has modern thrifting garnered so much criticism? Has the basic concept behind thrifting, that used clothes can find a home other than a landfill, become antiquated? Why do people harbor such resentment toward thrifters?

For most critics, it’s because thrifting isn’t “ethical.” They argue that thrifting deprives low-income communities of the ability to buy clothing cheaply because thrifters, who can presumably afford new clothes, are purchasing used clothes instead. They are, in short, “unethical” consumers and gentrifiers. Thrifting is nothing more than a “fad” in the critics’ eyes, a trend that high fashion retailers have ushered in to appear sustainable and earth-friendly to modern audiences, while still selling trendy, one-of-a-kind clothing.

These critics might have a point if well-heeled consumers were emptying thrift shops of their stock. However, this idea is not the reality for the majority of thrift stores in dense urban centers like New York City. In fact, right now, as a result of widespread pandemic spring cleaning, most American thrift stores are literally drowning in tons of secondhand items. By one estimate, as much as 75 percent of merchandise doesn’t sell, though overstock is dependent on location. Thrifting critics thus have little to worry about—there is more than enough to go around.

It is also important to differentiate between nonprofit and for-profit thrift stores. Many thrift stores, especially large chains like Goodwill and Salvation Army, are nonprofits. For every dollar that the Salvation Army and Goodwill receive, 82 cents and 85 cents, respectively, are put back into social service programs like crisis assistance, family shelters, and housing support. Goodwill funded $5.3 billion worth of charitable assistance and the Salvation Army helped over 30 million Americans in 2018 alone. In this sense, thrifting has bound capitalism and charity together, since the charity depends on consumption.

For-profit thrift stores have emerged as a result of newfound interest in unique “vintage” clothing items and increased celebrity support for thrifting. For-profit stores operate similarly to other clothing retailers, with the major difference being, of course, that the clothes are used. Usually far more expensive than their non-profit counterparts, with more curated and sometimes even couture collections, these stores are for-profit businesses that still retain some aspects of their nonprofit cousins.

But buying new clothing also has a price, and not just the one on the tag. Some say that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism; no matter where clothes are bought, somebody or something is harmed in the process. In America, most clothing sold is produced in third-world countries, where labor is much cheaper because of weak worker protection laws. By that logic, is spending $100 at Reformation, a company which prides itself on upcycling textiles and producing sustainably, significantly better than paying $10 at Shein, a company which has been rumored to use child labor to maintain its very low prices? Maybe. But there is no perfect option when it comes to buying clothing.

When shopping concerns the environment, thrifting is indisputably the best option. When consumers buy used clothes instead of new ones, all of the labor, time, and energy that go into manufacturing new clothes are saved. These are no small savings. In America alone, 10.5 million tons of clothing a year go into landfills. New clothing is often made from nylon and polyester, which keeps prices affordable for consumers while still making profit for the producer. These synthetic materials, which comprise 60 percent of clothes worldwide, take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to break down in landfills—far longer than the clothes are actually worn. Globally, four percent of worldwide waste, around 92 tons annually, comes directly from textile and apparel sectors. Buying thrifted clothing ensures that no new resources are consumed. If more consumers moved from fast fashion to thrifted clothing, the circular economy that would result would be an improvement over the “disposable clothing” many currently favor.

To be fair to the critics, thrifting should be done in moderation. People should only buy exactly what they need and be mindful of how much stock the stores have to keep resources circulating. The thrifting market only functions when people buy for themselves, rather than buying out thrift stores to sell clothing at higher prices through online resellers. Thrifting does not support gentrification or discrimination—in fact, it reduces waste and the use of resources. Thrifting is simply reselling used items and should be like buying new clothes, just a step further along in the process. Thrifting is a cycle that relies on consumers themselves, a mechanism that will function only if each part works together in unison.

The criticisms voiced by those who oppose thrifting only highlight the need to change the way the clothing industry works: fast fashion is sustained by unfair and sometimes inhumane labor practices and has detrimental environmental impacts. Thrifters are not systematically dismantling and undermining institutions designed to serve the underserved and provide affordable goods—rather, they are helping those very institutions thrive in an industry dominated by unsustainable fast fashion companies.

In the words of my father, “thrifting is simply elevated bargaining that doesn’t hurt anyone.” Listen to him.