SHOULD WE BE MORE WARY OF OUR THRIFTING HABITS?
By Genevieve Finn
One of my favorite aspects of shopping is how deeply personal an experience it is. The thrill of finding a vintage flea market treasure, discovering something that’s a little offbeat in the best way, creating an outfit that is uniquely one’s own — there’s nothing like it.
And without breaking the bank, thrift stores serve as the perfect way to find staple pieces you didn’t even know you needed. Goodwill and the Salvation Army have recently become magnets for teens striving to craft a specific, alternative look. I gladly partook in that trend myself.
That is until I had an experience that made me falter in my thrifting habits and re-evaluate my actions. Over the summer, I went shopping with a few friends at the Goodwill store in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The Tenderloin is known to be one of the more seedy areas of the city, with historically high homelessness and crime rates. The trip was fun at first, but as I continued browsing the racks, I felt a certain level of dissonance with the other shoppers, as if we were being loud and obnoxious and upsetting the vibe. I felt out of place. Why?
I thought a lot about the experience on the drive home. Was it inappropriate that we teenagers were goofing around in a space that really wasn’t meant for us? I didn’t need to be shopping there.
Was I a harbinger of gentrification? If I bought that cute track jacket, was I taking it from someone who might need it for warmth this winter? If my friend bought that quirky pencil skirt, was someone who could utilize it for a job interview going to be without? Was Goodwill a place for those genuinely in need and unable to shop anywhere else? Was I abusing someone’s charity? Was my consumption of second-hand clothing a positive action that advocated for businesses that do social good? Or was I consuming resources intended for people who needed them more than I did and was thus trivializing their poverty in service of a fashionable “look”?
Is there such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism at all?? HELP!!
I did some research and quickly realized a few things. First, I needed to lighten up. Second, I was 100% wrong about thrift shopping being a regrettable trend pursued by the privileged. It’s not. Here’s why:
Thrift shopping is environmentally ethical because it combats “fast” fashion soon discarded, so that’s already a reason to patronize thrift stores. Recycling and re-wearing things limits waste by ensuring that second-hand clothes don’t end up in landfills. Plus, it reduces pollution associated with the creation and shipping of apparel around the globe.
Thrift shopping is also ethical because the charitable missions of Goodwill and the Salvation Army aren’t about providing cheap clothes to poor people. Both charities operate used clothing stores in order to fund their primary services, such as providing job training and free HIV tests to clients who would otherwise be unable to obtain them.
Thrift stores are businesses. By shopping at them, you are actually assuring that other valuable charitable resources remain available through the cash flow you help to generate. It’s not gentrification because you’re not displacing anyone or launching a competing business. Instead, you’re simply furnishing fresh capital to support and expand what’s already there.
Flaunting the fact that you shop at Goodwill might help to destigmatize wearing used clothing. Glamorizing the idea of thrifting combats excessive materialism. And at the same time, it conveys a non-verbal statement against garment manufacturers whose production methods may rely upon unfair and abusive labor practices (e.g., sweatshops, the use of harmful chemicals).
That said, there still is something troubling about affluent young people fetishizing a low-income lifestyle for the sake of fashion. When we make trends out of styles we once mocked, does it do more harm than good for the people who originally utilized thrift shops out of need rather than for mere style? And why do we do it?
In an article i-D last year, Melissa Gray Ward wrote, “What we wear says less about who we are, and more about who we want people to think we are.” Using clothing to align oneself with a group distinct from one’s own is an age-old phenomenon. Perhaps wealthy thrift-store goers are “dressing down” a class to mask a guilt they feel about being born into privilege. This Kim and Kanye photoshoot raised similar doubts last year.
This is a necessary conversation and my voice definitely shouldn’t be the only one in it. There are so many other points to be made (Salvation Army’s alleged homophobia as an organization, the timelessness of certain trends that always come back around, etc.). For now, we can conclude that while the class dynamics behind thrift shopping may be iffy, the economic mechanism itself is pretty dope. So go forth and thrift! As long as you’re not obnoxious and rude or romanticizing someone else’s poverty. Do it to find cool, authentic pieces, rather than to look cool by looking cheap.