The Thrift Store Is Not Your Playground

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Issue 5, Volume 111

By Elio Torres 

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I took the first weekend of October to do some much-needed restructuring of my closet. I figured it was time to do away with the uniforms from the school I no longer attended and the clothes that have gone unworn since I grew out of them. After striking down three-quarters of my wardrobe, I was left with a recycling bag full of nothing but draff and scrapings from my childhood. Rather than throwing out my clothing, I contemplated traversing the neighborhood, dropping off my old clothes at friends’ houses to make sure they reached an owner who I knew could make use out of them. A brief Internet search led me to my local Salvation Army instead, where they were accepting all-day drop-offs and were committed to principles like grassroots services and disaster relief. I dropped off my clothing, expecting it to reach the open arms of the homeless and the needy. But thrifting has now been revived as a fashion fad, and I fear that my clothes might end up in a YouTube or TikTok thrifting haul—not the shopping carts of those who rely on secondhand clothing to scrape by.

Sporting upcycled and affordable thrifted clothing, once a stigmatized mark of poverty, is now a mark of style and urban sophistication. Step foot into a curated thrift store or an outlet drop-off thrift site and you will see the same scene: millennials and members of Generation Z clamoring over inimitable acid-wash jeans and embroidered graphic tees. A 2019 ThredUp resale report concluded that one in three Gen Zers will participate in the secondhand industry in the next five years. Thrifting appeals to younger crowds because it operates much like a scavenger hunt. In any given thrift store, there are a few items of clothing that will impress peers and draw attention, but you need to put in the time and effort to find them; it is as much of an experience as it is a means of shopping. I must admit, I have participated in this fad. Much of my closet was once lined up on the suspended hangers of Beacon’s Closet, and it’s not because I couldn’t afford the newer, department store counterparts. While my and many other thrifters’ intentions are pure, the result of our participation in the thrift industry has had destructive impacts on shoppers—typically low-income individuals—who can only afford donated and upcycled clothing.

When a thrift store lands on the radar of younger shoppers, not only is popular and seasonal clothing bought up, leaving few options for the impoverished, but the cost of the clothing gets driven up in the process. In a report by State Press’s Kiera Riley, the prices of items at larger thrift stores like Goodwill have consistently increased and are now based on an item's original retail value, not a fixed price. The rise in price in response to an increase in demand has contributed to the gentrification of the entire thrifting industry, which has stimulated even more demand; the cycle is self-perpetuating. Lake Sheffield, a Columbia college student of the class of 2024, noted that a lusty thrifting economy and increased demand have led to price hikes at local Goodwills and have caused these stores to “run out of clothing much sooner [in the year], especially the nicer pieces of clothing.” I visited a Salvation Army this summer in Astoria and the racks were almost completely empty; the only T-shirts left were recycled from school field trips and local events. A lofty winter jacket might be just another one of the pieces on your coat rack, but to the unfortunate, it might be the only item of clothing they can afford to get through the winter.

Moreover, the thrifting industry is not the golden solution to fast fashion that Instagram graphics preach it to be. While the concept of recycling clothing is, in theory, far more sustainable than its fast fashion counterpart, in practice, large thrift stores like Goodwill send thousands of pounds of clothing to landfills anyway. The clothing that does not sell within their weekly rotation or that is deemed unfit to sell run the risk of being relegated to the outlet store, or even landfills and incinerators. According to Stacie Morell, a former employee of Goodwill, the well-known thrift store has a garbage bill into the millions of dollars every single month.

Another risk of the popularity of thrifting among Gen Zers and young adults is the practice of reselling. One of the largest online vintage and thrift stores is Depop. Young entrepreneurs can purchase goods and clothing for exceptionally affordable prices from outlets like the Goodwill bins—blue thrifting bins that are not sorted and just contain raw donations—and then they can resell them on Depop for well beyond the asking price. Now that wearing thrifted clothing is a widespread trend, Depop users are willing to pay laughable prices for products that could have been bought for a handful of change at outlet bins, so long as they’re dubbed unique and fashionable. While normal thrifters might buy a few pieces a month, Depoppers are buying hundreds of pieces and wiping the shelves clean, leaving the people who really need the clothing high and dry.

It is easy to buy into the buzz about thrifting, especially in a media world riddled with infographics degrading the fast fashion industry, but recognize that your participation in the industry—even on a small scale—feeds into the narrative that your fashion needs come before human need. Take better care of the clothes that you do own, and if you can afford retail prices, please just stick to them.