I can still feel the embarrassment I experienced as a child wearing my Payless sneakers and thrift-shopped sweatshirts to school. Lining up in front of the flagpole every morning, I remember scanning other middle schoolers around me, admiring the name brands covering their coats and shoes, contorting so my classmates wouldn’t be able to see my own. Every afternoon after school, I walked to my best friend’s house on the other side of town. She constantly assured me that the clothes her mother bought for her were better than my own unbranded clothes, urging me to ask my mother to buy me J. Crew and Gap like her mother did. She would ask me, “My mother wears Bare Minerals. Does yours?” I would have to respond no, my mother didn’t wear minerals, not knowing that this was a brand of makeup. Slowly, this girl convinced me that what I wore was inferior. I’m sure that she did not know the consequences or meanings of her actions, but her constant remarks about “still being able to smell the Goodwill” on my clothes stuck with me. I began to resent myself and my family for not buying the same types of clothes my friends had.
Growing older, I witnessed a shift in perception towards thrift shopping. Instead of being looked down upon, used-goods stores are now almost fetishized. I noticed this most prominently with the release of Macklemore’s 2012 song “Thrift Shop,” which romanticizes the act of wearing hand-me-downs and paying less money for alternative and hip looks. Recently, more and more upper-middle class and wealthy shoppers are turning to thrift shops in order to brag about the deals they got, or to vie for the moral superiority that comes with paying less for used instead of new clothes. Many websites and fashion blogs describe how thrifting is beneficial for young buyers. According to the blog Green Living, thrifting is prefer- able to regular clothes shopping, because thrifted clothing is not only more affordable and eco-friendly but also stylish. The author remarks, “It’s highly unlikely that anyone is walking around in the same clothes as you…You might be inspired to try new combinations, or even some DIY reconstruction” (Green Living, “How Does Thrift Shopping Help You Save the Environment?” 10.11.2017).
Although thrift stores have many benefits, as these websites claim, there seems to be a lack of online literature about the potential harms caused by thrift shopping. These blogs encourage and elicit moral superiority
through purchasing power without regarding the negative impact that thrifting has on the nearby communities. For example, Goodwill Industries and The Salvation Army both employ community members and help surrounding communities by using funds to support individuals and communities economically, allowing the two thrift chains to both employ and serve surrounding communities. However, their rise in popularity as well as the radical shift in their image has prompted them to cater to a more elite range of clients. In order to appeal to younger buyers, thrift stores around the country have started to upgrade their outposts into fancy boutique stores with high-end merchandise and more expensive brand clothing (Crain’s New York, “Boom times are bad times for thrift stores,” 09.22.2015). One article noted, “Frugality no longer connotes paying $10 for a winter coat, but finding a gently-used designer one for $150” (Observer, “Gentrification at the Good-will: Not Even New York’s Thrift Stores Are For the Poor,” 09.22.2015).
At the same time, thrift stores that can’t keep pace with these upgrades were forced to close for good when they ran out of funds. While good deals are seen as victories for the middle class, they are necessary for economically unstable communities. These thrift stores traditionally serve working-class and low-income communities, so the recent store closures leave many members of these communities without affordable ways to buy clothing and other household items. Concurrently, more and more boutique thrift stores are opening in gentrifying communities such as Brooklyn and San Francisco. The rapid proliferation of these boutique thrift stores is not only a consequence of the gentrification of working class communities, but actively contributes to gentrification.
“Hipsters shun mass-produced goods in search of the one-off, and wearing vintage clothes—even if they are actually mass produced,” explained Urban Studies Professor Philip Hubbard at King’s College regarding the intersections of hipster culture and gentrification. “Relatively affluent, creative young people want to search out the distinctive and the one-off but tend to gravitate towards the same kind of spaces … So there is a common ‘global’ idea of what is stylish and local, which tends to be the same every- where, but does shift over time” (Racked, “Are Vintage Stores Harbingers of Gentrification?” 03.12.2018).
Hubbard stated that more affluent young people tend to shop at both thrift stores and boutique vintage stores, but shopping at the latter tends to signal the gentrification of communities. I would also like to add that affluent groups who shop at more traditional thrift stores take away valuable resources from communities who rely on those resources to survive.
Clearly, there is a difference between boutique consignment stores and thrift stores.
However, as communities continue to gentrify, this difference becomes more and more minute. Although thrift stores truly do reduce waste through reuse and reduce investment in multinational and exploitative corporations, they may contribute to the continued gentrification of their community depending on who shops there. For instance, continued purchases by affluent individuals—such as most Vassar students—at thrift stores in a town like Poughkeepsie could ultimately harm low-income and working class communities in the long run.
This issue is complex and nuanced, and there is not one solution to simultaneously provide cheap and high-quality clothing for working class communities while ensuring that affluent communities use their purchasing power to divest from corporations and support local businesses. I don’t have any answers. However, what I mean to do is call attention to this issue so that people see thrifting in a more multifaceted way. Thrifting is important in order to reuse the clothing people have already produced to reduce waste. However, we cannot ignore the consequences that our reckless shopping have on working class and low-income families.